TO be perfectly honest, there are letters I’d much rather receive.

A tax rebate, for example, or news that my 50-year-old Premium Bonds have finally produced a dividend.

Instead, it was a letter kindly inviting me to attend a “bowel scope screening” at Bishop Auckland General Hospital. At 55, I’ve reached the point at which the NHS is able to offer me a proactive check aimed at diagnosing bowel cancer as early as possible.

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The letter came with a long cardbox box. It would have been nice if it had contained a free sample of fudge or Turkish Delight. However, the contents turned out to be a DIY enema kit, to be used an hour or so before leaving the house for my bowel scope screening appointment.

Frankly, none of this represented my idea of fun. But I didn’t want to be one of the many folk – especially men – who choose to ignore the letter and risk their lives.

Indeed, I took a quick straw poll amongst some male friends at the tennis club and, to my amazement, three out of five had turned a blind eye to the same invitation.

“Oh God, I’m not doing that,” said one. “No fear.”

So, in case you are similarly inclined, here are a few facts to take into consideration:

  • Around 41,000 new cases of bowel cancer are diagnosed in the UK every year.
  • It is the 4th most common cancer in the UK and the second biggest cancer killer.
  •  However, if it is caught early, 97 per cent of patients survive.

“Don’t die of embarrassment,” is the plea from the Beating Bowel Cancer charity, which is campaigning passionately to remove the stigma surrounding the disease.

So it didn’t take me long to confirm my appointment and offer to write about my experience in this column and to discuss it on local BBC radio.

None of what follows is intended to offend but to help get the message out there that bowel cancer screening is nothing to fear.

We all have bottoms, even The Queen, and we all go to the toilet, so here goes: It starts with the enema. It’s a long thin tube, attached to a pouch of liquid, and an easy-to-follow leaflet tells you exactly what to do with it. In summary, you lie on your side, draw your knees up to your chest, shove the tube where the sun doesn’t shine, and gently squeeze the pouch so the liquid empties. I found it helped to sing.

You then wait for a few minutes for nature to take its course and, believe me, it doesn’t take long to do so. The effects of the enema soon wear off so it’s then safe to drive to hospital for the screening to take place.

From the moment I arrived at the screening unit at the hospital, everything was patiently explained by friendly staff who are expert at putting anxious patients at ease.

I was then shown into a cubicle, with the instruction to undress and put on two gowns – one tied at the back, one tied at the front. In the interests of modesty, I was also given a pair of paper pants with a flap at the back.

Once suitably attired, I was taken into the screening room and asked to lie on my left side on a bed and bend my legs.

“Oh, you’re not wearing the pants you were given!” said a nurse, who’d lifted my gown in readiness for the insertion of the camera.

The truth was that I’d been concentrating so hard on tying the two gowns properly that I’d forgotten to put them on.

“Oh, I’m really sorry, shall I go and get them?” I asked. We swiftly agreed that there was little point by that stage.

And so the tiny camera began its journey into my bowel and, once again, everything was carefully explained as the procedure unfolded.

“Have you been away on holiday?” asked another nurse, positioned by my head.

“Is that the stock question?” I asked.

“One of them,” he smiled.

While we were having a nice conversation about the attractions of Croatia, I was able to watch the camera’s progress on a TV-type monitor. You don’t have to watch, of course, but I found it quite interesting.

“We’ve come across a polyp that we’re going to remove,” announced the doctor in charge.

On screen, it looked the size of Ben Nevis but I was assured it was “tiny” and that it was fairly common to find a polyp. I didn’t feel a thing as it was removed and, within ten minutes, the camera’s mission there and back had been completed.

“We’ll get the polyp sent off for a biopsy to be on the safe side but, other than that, you have a nice healthy bowel,” said the doc.

Was it painful? No, just a little uncomfortable, mainly because air is blown through the bowel to open it wider ahead of the camera going inside. Your stomach feels bloated and achy but it doesn’t last long.

And that’s about all there is to it, though it’s worth remembering that the air they pump into you has to come back out sooner or later. My advice is to spend a bit of time on your own in the garden when you get home and mow the grass so there’s lots of noise.

Within four days, I’d received a call to tell me that the biopsy on Ben Nevis had shown no cause for concern. That was followed by a letter the next day explaining the next step in protecting me from bowel cancer. A few weeks after my 60th birthday, I’ll begin receiving a home testing kit that detects traces of blood on bowel motions.

The bottom line is that there’s honestly nothing to fear. Above all else, remember that key statistic – early diagnosis equals a 97 per cent survival rate.

Throughout it all, I couldn’t find fault with the way I was treated: clear communication; caring, friendly staff; and every effort made to preserve my dignity.

My only regret is forgetting about those paper pants. I nearly died of embarrassment.

THE FESTIVAL of Ingenuity, which took place in Darlington at the weekend, is a worthwhile initiative, celebrating the town’s rich manufacturing and engineering heritage.

Mind you, I couldn’t help noticing that the biggest crowd was to see Brian Llwellyn’s traditional Punch & Judy show.

You can have all the ingenious technology in the world but serve up a talking block of wood and the kids are happy for hours.

The Northern Echo: