It’s so funny ... but no laughing matter when it saves your life
Former Let’s Talk editor Neil Haverson manages to raise a smile while dealing with an unsavoury, yet very necessary health test. Why not follow his instructions?
If you’re settling down with a cup of coffee and about to bury your teeth into a chocolate Hobnob, I suggest you turn to the crossword; come back to this page when you’re not eating.
What I am about to write will cause knowing nods if you are 60 plus. For those approaching that milestone, I hope I can allay any trepidation that you might feel when a certain envelope drops through your letterbox.
I am referring to the bowel test. Every two years from the age of 60 to 74, the opportunity to be tested for bowel cancer is offered by the NHS. I would urge everyone to take advantage of this preventative measure. It could be a life-saver.
But performing the test is both undignified and hilarious.
For those yet to step into this world of self-administered testing, let me set the scene. First a letter arrives with a pamphlet telling you all about bowel cancer, how they test for blood in your poo and that if your results are not clear you should have a colonoscopy.
A week later a test kit drops on the doormat. You must take two samples three times so there are half a dozen cardboard sticks – small spatulas - with which to do this from what is referred to politely as “your bowel movement”; a card with three tabs under each of which you smear two samples and detailed instructions on how to obtain them.
The bowel movement must not plunge into the toilet bowl. Suggested ways to catch it are holding folded lengths of toilet paper, covering your hand in a small plastic bag or using a margarine tub.
At this point you may well be starting to waver as the mind fills with unsavoury images of you locked in the loo performing faecal gymnastics.
Well, fear not, here is the Haverson tried and tested method of performing the bowel test.
Invest in three foil roasting trays 8” x 8”. These will fit in the pan above the waterline but low enough not to hinder the movement.
Inform anyone else in the house you are entering the toilet and you may be some time. It might help to have some music playing in the background. Gentle music that is, I wouldn’t recommend something like Ride of the Valkyries.
Get a couple of wooden sticks in readiness, place the first roasting tray in the pan. You are now ready to perform.
Do your business in the tray. The first time you do this can be a tense moment. Your thoughts will turn to how you will deal with the next stage of the proceedings. Don’t worry, using the Haverson method of faecal capture, it is easy to obtain the samples.
When you’ve completed the test,
the kit has to be posted to the lab. I remember dropping it into the post box thinking my best efforts would be nestling among greetings cards, bill payments and tax returns.
If all is well, a letter arrives giving you the all clear. Or, like me on one occasion, you get informed the test was unclear so you need to have the dreaded colonoscopy.
At the first appointment I saw a nurse who explained that a small camera was going to be thrust up me and would explore areas I didn’t know existed. To ease the passage, so to speak, I could have a a shot of something. Apparently some macho individuals waive this offer but I gladly accepted.
The nurse insisted I must not come to the hospital on my own. For a few hours the sedative would leave me thinking I was fine but in fact I would not be fully in control. She recalled one patient heading unsteadily off to the car park.
She insisted I shouldn’t worry about it as most tests were negative, only two in 100 will have an abnormal result. But in the next breath she told me if it was serious I’d be taken “straight up to the ward”.
The fun started a day or two before the procedure. The bowels must be empty so I was allowed only water or, for some reason, beef broth. Then, the day before, I had to take a powerful liquid to completely clear them. I was advised to wear joggers for easy escape and set up camp as near as possible to the loo because when the stuff worked, time would be of the essence as there would be a volcanic-like explosion.
I just made it.
A friend drove us to the hospital so Mrs H could be my minder.
The sedative must have worked as I can’t remember much about the procedure other than the doctor announcing, to my relief, that all was clear.
While waiting for our lift home, Mrs H guided me to a seat in the café. She had been told not to let me out of her sight but when she joined the queue she couldn’t see me and was worried I might wander off.
“When I joined you, you were sitting there as happy as Larry,” she recalls.
Still woozy I was told to do nothing when I got home. I don’t remember this but Mrs H sent me to watch telly while she made a cup of tea. But she went up to change first. When she came down I was staggering in the direction of the kitchen to make the tea and had to be led back to the sofa.
I couldn’t help wondering how I had failed the bowel test but been given a clear colonoscopy. Then I remembered almost the last thing the nurse had said to me. Blood can get into your poo in many ways including such simple things as bleeding from the gums when cleaning teeth. That was it. I remembered that had happened around the time of the test.
Now, the night before I do the test, I clean my teeth very, very carefully.
While a bit weird, the test is quite painless, but it does have a funny side. So when the envelope drops through the letterbox, don’t hesitate, take the test. It could save your life.
Still fancy that chocolate Hobnob?
Bowel cancer kit