It all started with WebMD. (Doesn’t it always?)
Of course, I don’t always trust the misguided and doubtful opinions of strangers on the internet. I do like to think that I avoid WebMD most of the time, like a rational person. It’s pretty mentally exhausting to conclude that you have polycystic kidney disease when a pimple appears on your chin one morning. Or that the rash on your forearm means you have skin parasites. Google’s “People also searched for” function is especially helpful in times like this: “Does having a rash mean cancer?”
But, like many of you, I suppose, couldn’t help looking up my chronic erratic digestive symptoms on one afternoon. I tap-tapped away at my phone, beginning with “common digestive issues” and somehow landed on a page that suggested, nay, all but told me definitively, that I probably had at least a few malignant polyps in my colon.
By the time I got to this article (about the increasing rate of colon cancer in millennials), it was game over. My symptoms (whether real or imagined) amassed so steadily during my time online that there was no chance of me coming out of this unscathed.
I furiously texted my mother about needing to get a colonoscopy, and stat. At first, she was confused. “You’re only 26,” she said, bemused. “You’re way too young. This is a test for old people.”
I pleaded. I made my case. I gave her my litany of symptoms (I like to think at this point I was able to distinguish between imagination and reality). And then, I wrangled an appointment on Sunday, 7:00 in the morning, just hours after I was due to land from my flight from Boston.
Content Warning: But honestly, if you don’t want to read about what my body does down there, there are plenty of pieces I’ve written about pretty places. And the “Trending” sidebar to the right might be a good place to start. Check those out instead!
The Colonoscopy Diet: An Exercise in Eating White Refined Carbs Followed by Fasting
The prep instructions for colonoscopy were fairly simple, as far as instructions go. A few days before the appointment, switch to low residue foods.
No beans. White rice was OK. White refined bread = OK. Chicken and fish, go for it.
Basically, to make it easier for myself to remember (and also to have a happier gustatory experience), I joyfully accepted that my diet could be made up of white carbs and meat (my favorite food groups), without the bothersome need to fill my plate with green things.
I dreamed of sliced char siu and beds of unadulterated white rice and long yarns of noodles. I imagined myself free from the shackles of vegetables’ health halo (anyone who says honestly that they would eat vegetables if they had the same nutritional value as a perfect baguette or a bowl of noodles is lying to themselves). I saw bathtubs of congee. And I didn’t need to eat a single leaf in the name of health.
So how was it that, the day before my flight to the US, I spent the better part of my morning at work painstakingly picking out needle-thin threads of ginger and scallion out of my fish slice congee with a pair of chopsticks? Get me in front of one of those chopstick-skill contests, because I am sure I will win. It’s funny because pre-prep, I could have sworn that rice congee ran as white and pearly as bone broth. What were all these damn vegetables doing floating around? What’s more, they were so finely shredded that I could have sworn each careful spoonful I scooped into my mouth was full of tiny invisible scallion particles. I was basically slurping Essence of Scallion on what was supposed to be a No-Scallion diet.
The above is a photo from my much more appeasing post on Hong Kong eats, for your easy viewing pleasure.
For my last solid food meal, I had soup noodles with plump little wontons and three pork liver rice rolls. I glanced uncertainly at a colonoscopy instruction manual that instructed “no meat with gristle,” and thought about the remnants of pig innards (hopefully) digesting in my gut.
And then the 24 hour liquid diet began. The first six hours were fine. I drank one glass of water and one glass of apple juice every time the flight attendants came by. I watched a tiny elderly woman with a wool knit cap on her head plant herself by the space next to the lavatory, circling her hips in that Old-Asian-Person way. 5 minutes later, she had sat cross legged on the floor, doing stretches with all of her limbs.
No one said a thing. I wished I was her. She probably got to eat.
Later when I landed, the dull empty-stomach feeling I’d so easily ignored several hours prior had exacerbated into a violent and cavernous need for sustenance. My speech grew short and clipped as I began my slow descent into the famine part of the feast-famine cycle. In a few hours, my whimpers of “I’m so hungry” would have become snarls of “Me hungry. Me. Food. Now.” I’d gotten a maximum of four hours of sleep on a total travel time of over 17 hours.
The Hard Part: The Cleaning of the Pipes
As I hoisted my luggage into the trunk of the car and dragged my sleep-deprived body into the back seat, my mother handed me the “nice-tasting” laxative that I’d requested (an oxymoron that I hope never having to request again).
Of course, with me having done my own internet sleuthing, I’d come across the notoriously putrid taste of the laxatives – between “the worst fucking thing I’ve ever swallowed, and that’s including variations of bodily fluids”, and “I wanted to throw up the entire contents of my body’s organs”, I carefully calculated that my chances of downing the bottle without gagging were slim to none.
But it had to be done. The good kind folks over at the dodgy medical website forums where everyone compared their symptoms (some imaginary, some not) advised to “hold your nose for as long as possible and chug a chaser immediately after without letting go.” I untwisted the bottle and plucked up the courage to give it a good whiff. It smelled like Sprite.
As I was studying the bottle, my mother then landed me a packet of Dulcolax, and told me to “take four, maybe five.”
Dulcolax was something I never take, except in the most dire of circumstances. Dulcolax is whipping out your last resort secret weapon when the enemy is closing in. Dulcolax is the nuclear option. And when I decide the nuclear option is necessary, only two tablets are enough. Four, or God forbid, five, was the equivalent of nuking a country instead of a city. My poor body. It was not made for this.
“Mom. I never take more than two.”
She shrugged. “This is not for your little poops, OK? This is for a procedure.”
The matriarch had spoken. And so I assembled my arsenal of pills and liquids and got to work.
Little did I know that my father was also having a regular colonoscopy scheduled for tomorrow. I was so excited at not being alone in my plight that I squealed “Oh my god, Dad! We match! Twinsies!” after which I realized that having to undergo the same medical procedure as your over-60 father was perhaps not exactly something to celebrate.
And it certainly wasn’t anything to celebrate when the mix of a full liter of water in my stomach. Not a minute passed that I did not feel like hurling.
And the more time passed, the more my mother
gently asked militantly prodded me to drink more.
And then the gurgling began. I enjoy when the stomach gives off gurglies, because most of the time, I can use it as an excuse to eat.
This time, however, there was no such thing. I wished that it would work its magic.
Within an hour, it was happening. I calculated the distance to the bathroom and tested the stretchiness of my favorite sweatpants, to ensure that I got the most out of my sprint-to-elasticity ratio for maximum speed.
I’ll spare you the details of the details, seeing as how I’ve chosen to write a play-by-play of my entire colonoscopy experience. But “lava” and “incessant” would not be amiss in a description of the experience at this point.
By the time 6:30 rolled around the following morning, I had lain awake in a heady and horrid combination of jet lag, nausea, and have-to-go-to-the-toilet moments. But for better or worse, I was ready.
The Nearly Last Part: I Discover Something Horrible
It was 10 minutes into the drive when I chose to admit my fear of being put to sleep. I haven’t been anesthetized since I was 11, when I had a surgery to remove a cyst. I compare it to being euthanized. One second you’re conscious and kicking, and the next, you’re simply….not.
“Oh, you won’t be put to sleep,” my mother said cheerfully.
My heart leapt to my throat. Oh HELL no.
“…I won’t be put to sleep?” I imagined a 5 meter long tube wriggling invasively and curiously around my organs. I imagined the pain. My palms began to sweat. “Just so you know, I’m going to be crying the whole time,” I informed her.
My mother, ignoring my pathetic attempts to convey my anticipatory horror, chirped, “It’ll be fine. You’ll get to see the entire thing happen on the screen!”
Right. Just lovely. Despite that car ride into town normally taking 30 minutes, I could have sworn that it was shortest car ride of my entire life.
And then we arrived. The clinic, at that point, had not yet been opened. The gates in front of the door were as tightly shut. The rain splattered from dreary grey skies. By this point, I had not eaten for just over 30 hours. The temperature was so much colder than I remembered; I felt the windchill whirl through the fabric of my jeans and send shivers up my spine.
The appointment was at 7. It was 7:15. No one was arriving. “I’m going to be really mean to the doctor when he finally arrives,” I told my mother in my best I’m so fucking hungry and cold voice.
And then it was 7:20. And there he was.
I was not mean, like I said I’d be. The sight of strangers usually sends me into mumbles of attempted politeness, no matter how hard I’m seething on the inside. So I shuffled inside, signed some paperwork, and waited to enter purgatory.
I tried to be a good sport about it. I really did.
When the nurses asked me to take off my pants and lay on my side, I determinedly stared at the wall. I felt the needle pierce the inside of my elbow – a type of sedative, they told me. And then I waited. I told them that I wanted my mom in there with me, because I am a fucking baby and hate medical procedures, and I might need to hold her hand.
And then the doctor came in. “So, Lily, you’re coming in from Hong Kong, right? Fucking mess over there, isn’t it?”
I should mention that he was a family friend, so this first issuance from his mouth did not surprise me one bit.
I whimpered in reply. I was so distracted by the sounds of my own whimpering that before I’d exactly registered it, I knew the damn thing was inside my organs. It was exactly how I’d imagined it, and worse. I felt it snaking up and around. Yep.
Was it pain? It was so disconcertingly uncomfortable that I could only describe the sensation as pain. I think the doctor tried to reassure me over my whispery wailing by patting me and telling me that childbirth was way worse.
I did my best grimace in response.
Tapeworm with GoPro is exactly right.
It did not reassure me.
In order to soothe my shattered nerves, I stared at the screen and watched the ridges of what was, I serenely noted to myself, a pretty smooth and pink looking tube. Like a slinky.
I’d done my prep correctly, at least. “It looks nice,” I said out loud.
“Yep,” Doc replied. “Very nice! Nice looking colon. It only hurts when it goes around the corners and turns.”
At this point, my mother had retrieved her phone from the other room. The nurses, sharply noticing what she was doing, quickly covered the bottom half of my body with a sheet. Mom returned and started snapping photos of the screen.
“What kind of pictures are those?” Doc said to her. “Stand over here – you have to get her in the photo!”
“Ordinarily, this would take 5-7 minutes,” he remarked to me. “But you’re a chicken, so it might take a little longer. Chicken noodle.”
At this point, what with the photos and the lucidness and the chicken noodling, I couldn’t help but begin laughing at the absurdity of the whole thing.
“If they can hear you from outside first crying and then laughing…” he shook his head at me, “They’ll all be afraid to come in.”
A few more minutes passed, and then it was all over. “The end!” Doc announced, as I saw a dent on the screen (what I could only feasibly conclude was the end of my colon). And then it really was the end.
It was negative. No polyps. No issues. No bleeding. I did, however, likely have IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), the doctor concluded.
A few hours later, I sat in front of plates of rice noodle rolls, dumplings, and egg yolk custard buns. As I feasted, I thought about the other delicious things I’d be eating this week. I had the passing thought that my system had never been so cleaned out as it was then, and I was effectively destroying it again by not adhering to the easy-to-digest diet that was recommended post-procedure.
But hey. That’s life.