Life Health & Wellbeing

Tuesday 20 March 2018

What lies beneath: my polyps would have become cancerous if left unchecked

What do you do when you live a healthy lifestyle, but can't help thinking that you might be brewing something on the inside? Fergus McDonnell faced the unknown head-on and his health check yielded surprising results

Fergus McDonnell at his Health Check screening with Cardiac Technician Aisling Fagan. Photo: David Conachy
Fergus McDonnell at his Health Check screening with Cardiac Technician Aisling Fagan. Photo: David Conachy

It's strange the way childhood memories can come flooding back when you least expect them. In the days before holidays in far-flung exotic locations became commonplace, Co Wexford was a popular destination for Dublin families, with Courtown Harbour a particular favourite.

For a fortnight every summer, we would decamp - ten kids and four more cousins - to a farmhouse a couple of miles outside the town. Our days were filled with trips to the beach, or exploring the fields around our base in Tomsilla House.

But the nights . . . the nights were magical.

There was an amusement park - the carnival, as we called it - in Courtown, and with a pocket not quite full of pennies, we would spend hours on the swingboats or the bumpers, or getting fleeced by the one-armed bandits, or just wandering aimlessly, soaking up the sights and the smells and the noise of it all.

At the end of the evening, we would gather in the small bingo hall, and apart from once winning a large box of chocolates and 100 cigarettes (it's remarkable now to think there was a time when a child could win a prize of 100 cigarettes) my main recollection is of winners being offered the option to 'take the money or open the box.'

The principle was simple. If you got a full house in a particular game, the prize might be ten shillings or (heaven help us) a crisp green pound note. And then the twist: behind the caller was a bank of small brown numbered boxes; you could settle for your prize, or you could select a numbered box, which contained a larger prize or one of the same value . . . or nothing at all.

Fast forward to the 55-year-old me, and I'm playing bingo all over again, only this time with my health. Having had no serious scares and doing lots of the right things (plenty of exercise, good diet, etc) and very few of the wrong ones, it may be too early to shout 'check' but I probably have the equivalent of a line or four corners or a diamond.

But you never know what's on the inside, do you? You could be bouncing along quite happily on the outside, while your traitor body is brewing a surprise to hit you with when you least expect it.

So what do you do? Take the money or open the box? Settle for the healthy outside and hope that the inside is behaving itself, or take a proper look at what's going on and deal with any nasty surprises before they get too nasty?

The Health Check service offered by the Mater Private Hospital had been a stone in my shoe for some time. For five years, actually. A nagging voice at the back of my head that kept telling me that I was past 50, no longer a spring chicken and rapidly approaching the age when people get sick.

So I signed up, booked the appointment and committed to opening the box.

The first step in the Health Check is to fill out a questionnaire in advance of the appointment, which is quite straightforward, except for the part where you list family members and their ailments. You're not giving away any state secrets, just giving the doctor an idea of what might run in the family.

But it can be quite unnerving to actually write down that both your parents are deceased, and while my five brothers and four sisters are all thriving, a few of them have hit various bumps in the road.

Colette Nolan, the doctor who, for her sins, was tasked with actually carrying out the check (or most of it, anyway), went through this questionnaire in a thorough but concise and sensitive way. It's a difficult skill to be able to explain complex subjects in plain language, to allay fears without painting an unrealistic utopian picture, and to reassure when reassurance might be the best medicine.

Skills Dr Nolan possesses in abundance.

My main concerns prior to the Health Check were probably the same concerns that trouble most middle-aged men - developing prostate or testicular cancer. I was also worried that decades of smoking (thankfully now over) might have done some lasting damage.

The blood tests prior to the consultation and the . . . ahem . . . 'hands on' examination showed nothing untoward in the case of the two former elephants in the room; while the stress test and the calcium scoring (screening for the early detection of heart disease) both revealed that there was no cause for worry.

The kick in the backside (almost literally) came from a completely unexpected source. The assessment includes a urine and stool analysis and the latter revealed the presence of blood in my faeces.

Lovely. Even writing it now makes me squirm, and I apologise for springing it on you like that, but as the song goes, I never promised you a rose garden.

So, there was to be 'afters'. A sequel. The call came from Dr Nolan, again in that realistically reassuring style of hers, and shortly afterward, I got another call from the office of Dr Gayle Bennett to arrange an appointment for a colonoscopy which involves . . . well, if you don't already know, look it up. The worst part of this procedure, apart from the worry, is the preparation to clean out the . . . you can look that one up as well.

Bottom line (sorry) is that I had five polyps removed during the procedure, all of which were sent for biopsies, and two of which were revealed to have low-grade dysplasia. Basically, this means that while everything is fine at this stage, if the polyps had been left unchecked, they would probably have become cancerous further down the road.

I am now officially a polyp-developer, although I didn't get a badge to announce this fascinating fact to the world, and I'll be brought back next year for another colonoscopy. If that's all clear, I'll be tested again in three years, and then five years after that.

So I opened the box and, all things considered, I'm glad I did. If you've got that nagging voice in your head, it would be great to be told that everything is fine, but perhaps it's even better to know that you've dodged a bullet. And it's important to know that the whole experience, from first contact to last, will be as efficient, friendly and comfortable as possible.

Sadly, not all life can be as innocent and carefree as childhood summer holidays.

To book a Health Check Executive Health Screening at the Mater Private Hospital, tel: (01) 885-8257, or email, or see

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