June sees us mark Men’s Health Awareness, a chance to honour the importance of the health and wellness of boys and men. I would like to take this opportunity to share a story that I hope will go some way towards heightening the awareness of preventable health problems and encourage early detection and treatment of disease among our male population.
Why Men’s Health Awareness month is so important
Men are notorious for avoiding the doctor and ignoring unusual symptoms. This may help explain why women tend to live longer. Whether it’s not wanting to appear vulnerable, the fear of a bad outcome, or the belief that they are strong enough to handle things on their own, there’s no getting away from the fact that delaying a visit to the GP can have long-term implications for men’s health.
We are very fortunate in the UK to have so many free screening checks; attending them regularly means that problems can be detected earlier, which usually means there are more treatment options available. My husband Kevin’s recent experience is a perfect illustration of how important it is to attend check-ups and screenings, however busy you think you are, however well you think you feel. Let me share his story.
My husband, Kevin is a very healthy individual. He has an almost perfect medical history, takes no medication and he has always attended his Well Man check-ups. He did his first bowel screening just after he turned 60 in September of 2018, which came back all clear. The second screening, delayed due to Covid, took place in May this year. This time, he was told that blood had been found which meant he had to have a colonoscopy so that further investigations could be carried out.
A colonoscopy is the ‘gold-standard’ procedure for taking a look inside the bowel. During a colonoscopy, a long, flexible tube (colonoscope) is inserted into the rectum. A tiny video camera at the tip of the tube allows the endoscopist to view the inside of the entire colon. It is the aim of every colonoscopy procedure for the endoscopist to get all the way around the large bowel to the cecum, through the ileocecal valve (that divides the small from the large bowel) to take a look into the last section of the small intestine, the terminal ileum, to ensure there is no pathology whatsoever in the large bowel and nothing brewing in the last section of the small bowel.
Kevin’s colonoscopy was scheduled for 2.30 in the afternoon, which meant that he couldn’t have anything to eat from 1pm the day before, only water and/or black tea. At 6pm on the evening before the colonoscopy, Kevin drank his first Moviprep, the solution that helps to clear out the bowels. The solution is made by adding powder into a jug containing one litre of cold water, then stirred until clear. Kevin had to drink all of it within an hour, around 250mls every quarter of an hour. It had a lemony taste, not unpleasant at all. It began to work after a couple of hours, with several trips to the bathroom. He had to repeat this in the morning, no later than 5 hours before the colonoscopy, again resulting in several trips to the bathroom. He said he felt as though his bowels had been jet-washed (a typical Kevin remark!)
Dr Stefano Sansone was the endoscopist for Kevin’s procedure and Kym was the bowel cancer screening lead nurse. Dr Sansone commented on how clean and clear Kevin’s bowel was and how much better this was for the colonoscopy. Some colonoscopies have to be abandoned because the bowel walls are covered in faecal material, making it impossible for the endoscopist to see what’s underneath. Not the case with Kevin’s pristine bowel!
During his colonoscopy, Kevin had gas introduced into his bowel to inflate it as this makes getting the scope through much easier and, of course, makes the bowel wall easier to view. They found five polyps in his bowel, one quite large one (5cm) being the cause of the bleeding. This was removed with a snare and cauterisation, and then the area was tattooed so that when they go in again with the scope, it will be easier for them to see where the polyp was removed. The team were very impressed with Kevin not having any gas/air or sedation.
Kevin was keen to see what was happening inside his bowel, and he did, in full colour 4K! He felt no pain or discomfort, partly due to the fact that the large bowel has a very poor nerve supply. This is also why, in some cases, a cancerous tumour doesn’t cause any pain, so the first sign is bleeding or constipation or both!
Other red flags for bowel cancer
Other red flags are rapid, unexplained weight loss and unexplained fatigue. Kevin had neither of these. These red flags must not be ignored. Kevin was told that if he had put off his screening for another year, the larger of the polyps could have turned cancerous.
Dr Sansone and Kym both thanked Kevin for attending the colonoscopy as it had enabled them to remove the polyps before they became cancerous. They urged Kevin to tell all his friends and anyone else who has rectal bleeding and who receives their bowel screening test kit, not to ignore them. These tests save lives!
Kevin has since been given the all-clear but will need to go for a sigmoidoscopy in three months to have the remaining smaller polyps removed, then for another colonoscopy in a year’s time.
Kevin doesn’t smoke, his alcohol consumption is negligible, he has a good diet, he isn’t overweight, there’s no history of bowel cancer in his family, yet he had polyps. It’s been quite a wake-up call, and he’s not a shirker when it comes to keeping up with appointments and screenings.
I think it’s important that we don’t become one of the ‘worried well’, but screening does save lives, and men certainly need to be screened periodically for prostate and bowel cancer. Bowel cancer kills more men than women. Most GP surgeries also carry out periodic Well Man check ups, where BP, cholesterol, BMI, and full blood count is done so that any issues can be nipped in the bud with diet and lifestyle changes.
Always to the point, Kevin’s message to all the men out there is spot on:
“It’s only your bum, don’t be dumb, go and get tested!”
To learn more about how to take care of your gut, have a look at my blogs here.