My life was changed this month and I hope that by sharing my experience, it may save yours. I turned 50 in June and decided with the producers of The Dr. Oz Show to get a colonoscopy to demonstrate to the audience what is recommended and what they could expect. To be perfectly candid, if I didn't have a show to do, I probably would have put it off months, perhaps years. I had no risk factors - no obesity, a nearly perfect diet, no tobacco or alcohol consumption and no family history. I knew the odds as they related to my circumstances and worried about colon cancer about as much as being struck by lightning on a sunny day. But I had signed up for the role of teacher in hosting my show and, out of deference to demonstration, found myself at home drinking a solution to clear my bowels in front of a field production crew the evening before the colonoscopy.
Thinking back now, those were some of my most arrogant moments. I didn't see myself as a patient. I saw the whole process as a twisted form of cinema verite while delivering the ultimate lecture. In fact, part of me just wanted to get it over with and move on to "more important things" like my daughter Daphne's upcoming wedding at that time, just two weeks away. I had a routine to keep. A 24-hour bowel cleansing and sedation was disruptive. There can be no greater oblivion in a person's life than when self importance clouds your sense of mortality.
I lay on the table the next morning, feeling the effects of the mild anesthesia enter my arm and fog my senses as the nurse gently narrated what was happening. I was determined to try to stay awake -- for the sake of the show -- and could grasp some of what Dr. Jon LaPook, gastroenterologist and CBS Evening News correspondent, was saying as he began the exam. Then, suddenly and surreally, I recall him saying "Mehmet you have a polyp." I lay there in a daze knowing something wasn't right. The drugs beat back the fear, but as they wore off over the course of the day the reality set in that something unexpected had happened.
That afternoon I spoke on the phone with Mindy Borman, the executive producer of our show. The tone in her voice was something I was hearing for the first time. When an executive producer tells you that she is keeping the situation top secret you know it's serious.
I met my television crew at Jon LaPook's office on Monday morning to learn my diagnosis. He had found an adenomatous polyp, the kind that develops into colon cancer. He told me what I already knew as a physician -- that if I had not had the colonoscopy and the polyp was not discovered and removed, there was a chance I would have developed metastatic colon cancer. It's amazing how many thoughts race through your mind in those moments. For the first time I was on the other side of the desk. I was the patient that was feeling the wrench of a harsh reality.
Like most people who learn troubling news about their health, my initial reaction was this was somehow unfair -- I had kept my end of the bargain. I had done everything right. I had exercised my entire life, studied what foods to eat and carefully selected every item of my diet. I got enough sleep. I meditated. I did everything in my power to maintain good health AND I devoted my life to teaching and healing others. But through reflection emerged an epiphany - the act of getting a colonoscopy was in itself an act of prevention. I went at 50. I did what I was told. And as Jon LaPook so beautifully provided the analogy -- the sound I heard was a bullet whizzing by -- a bullet I had dodged.
We cannot control the cards we are dealt but we can control how we play them. While these reminders are never pleasant, they are almost always gifts if we choose to treat them as such. Otherwise, they will become progressively heavier baggage that we need to cart around. In my case I could choose to wish this away, or I could attach to it a deeper meaning and have it serve a higher purpose. I could teach my audience the crucial need for preventive colonoscopies. I could show them that the most common warning signs of a pre-cancerous polyp are no symptoms and excellent health. I could share with the world the emotional roller coaster I was riding in the hopes that those watching or listening would stop procrastinating, get their own colonoscopies and save their own lives. I could share with the world my transition from arrogance to humility and reveal that at the end of the day I was just another person who was playing his best hand in the game of genetic poker with fate as the dealer.
Many of my male patients have asked that I keep them alive for the sole purpose of walking their daughters down the aisle. I never appreciated the profound sense of completion that this act brings to a father until Aug. 28 when I took my daughter's arm in mine and walked her down the aisle at her wedding. The child whose heartbeat I used to hold against my chest while I studied in medical school had grown into this beautiful woman, accomplished, worldly, independent. Her happiness on this day was more important than my circumstances. I handed her to her fiancé, a man who loved her as much as I did and would now be her partner for the adult portion of her life. I looked at her sisters and brother as they smiled with admiration at their big sister. I need to be there for them too when their wedding days arrive. So much of our lives aren't about us but rather the loved ones who need us. The next day I shared with my children the results of my colonoscopy and their genetic predisposition. They had questions. They were supportive in the way only your family can be. I was now ready to share my story.
The next evening I told the staff at the show what we would be shooting the next day. I told them how much they all meant to me. I told them that the next day's show would be one of the most important we had ever done, and the most personal for me. Many had questions, all had words of encouragement. I felt it was an important opportunity for everyone to feel a shared sense of mission in why we come to work every day. I told the staff that if we did our jobs right the next day, viewers would elect to get screened and lives would be saved. I believed it then and I believe it now. You'll see the show we put together today, September 7 (check local listings for time and channel).
If you are reading this and you are 50, please waste no time in getting a colonoscopy. Thirty-two thousand people will die this year because they didn't go for a screening. I could have been one of them. If you are younger than 50 and have risk factors such as family history of polyps or cancer, obesity, or tobacco use, have a conversation with your doctor about getting screened earlier. Do it for your loved ones. Do it for yourself. Play the hand you are dealt wisely.