What's Jewish about Getting a Colonoscopy?
Since celebrating my 50th birthday, I have enjoyed attaining many milestones: half a century of life, 25 years of marriage, the graduation of all three of our children, and the publication of my wife’s and my first book. Each has had bittersweet moments, including the most recent milestone, the completion of my first colonoscopy.
Most people cringe at the mention of this invasive procedure. Most everybody seems uncomfortable discussing something even minimally connected to our nether region orifices. Those who have yet to experience it become anxious at the thought of a camera taking an exit route to enter their body. Those who have had at least one colonoscopy recall uncomfortably the process of drinking a gallon on the colon-cleansing formula (that's an eight-ounce glass every 10 to 15 minutes).
Yet our intestinal passageways are critical to the smooth functioning of our bodies. We can't enjoy a delicious meal, or a tasty evening of wine and cheese, without having a way to digest and remove the processed waste. As we age, we need to be ever more cognizant of "the pipes and the plumbing." Colonoscopies allow doctors to check for a whole host of maladies, including intestinal polyps and the possibility of colorectal cancer.
So when my doctors instructed me to "just do it," I responsibly scheduled my first colonoscopy immediately... after putting it off for a year and a half. I'd like to think what finally led me to embrace that colonoscopy was that more than just being an uncomfortable but necessary undertaking, "doing the dirty work" to prepare was part of my commitment to shmirat ha'guf.
Shmirat ha'guf, the Jewish value of caring for our body, mind and soul, runs deep in our Jewish textual tradition. In researching our book Jewish Spiritual Parenting: Wisdom, Rituals, Activities and Prayers for Raising Children with Spiritual Balance and Emotional Wholeness, my wife and I discovered that ever since the great Rabbi Hillel decreed that even showering (a form of caring for the body) was a mitzvah (commandment), we Jews have been focused on self-care. Our body, on loan from God, is the temple of our soul. Just as a human king would care for monuments to him, cleaning them regularly, we need to be vigilant about preserving bodies, a tribute of the Holy One.
Cancer of the colon and rectum is the second-leading cause of USA cancer deaths. Because 50,000 people die from colorectal cancer annually, all people over the age of 50 are encouraged to have a colonoscopy every 10 years. However, only half of all people who should be screened for colon cancer actually undergo a colonoscopy.
“Almost daily, I have to convince patients to get routine colonoscopies. This never goes smoothly. Some plead to wait another year, while others in their 70s flat out refuse to be subjected to such torture. While there is a newer, recently FDA approved non-evasive procedure, it is still new and has a 10% failure rate. The fascinating PillCam technology Colon 2 from an Israeli firm Given Imagery has yet to cross the scientific threshold to become a viable alternative for most of us (although swallowing a pill camera is both cool and the way of the future).”
For most of us, then, it's a colonoscopy each decade.
That’s why I spent the better part of my day downing the liquid, ensuring I cleaned out the temple of my soul. Not really pleasant. Not easy. But those hours of discomfort paled in comparison to the problems that could arise from undetected polyps or worse.
Arriving early, I walked into the prep room, greeted with a warm smile by an understanding nurse. A few questions, a brief explanation, an authorization to sign, and they quickly rolled my bed into the procedure room. Reassurance from the compassionate anesthesiologist that it would be over before I knew it and an explanation from the wise sounding doctor delivered me to the anesthesia countdown. After a blissful sleep, the next thing I knew, I awoke with the procedure finished. Not 20 minutes later, I was dressed and guided to the car, headed home.
The doctor's response post-procedure – "a perfect colon" – put me at ease from a worry I didn't even know I had. Given the pervasiveness of colorectal cancer, I feel fortunate to have received the all-clear. The view of the future looked that much better.
So it's a mitzvah to go get your colonscopy. It’s short-term discomfort for long-term gain, and the discomfort we face in preparing beats the alternative if a polyp or cancer goes undetected. Plus, if you let me know when you have one, I will lead you in the post-medical procedure blessing, Birkat Gomel, so that you too can thank the Holy One for the blessing of a procedure gone well.
Schedule that colonoscopy today and hedge your bets on your body's future. To quote Rabbi Hillel, Im lo achshav aimatai. If not now, when? (Pirkei Avot).