There are a lot of jokes about colonoscopies. I just heard one on Jimmy Kimmel. Most of them go along the lines of, I’d rather have a… (fill in the blank with something horrible) than a colonoscopy. Followed by a round of laughter then an up-the-butt joke.
I’m 33 and I’ve had ulcerative colitis for 23 years. At 10, I had a sigmoidoscopy and my first colonoscopy was at the age of 18. In the early 2000s the most common prep system consisted of drinking a gallon of fluid mixed with laxatives. It was chalky and hard to swallow. My abdomen would protrude and I’d usually vomit before I reached the end of the gallon.
Today, the prep is much easier. Half a gallon of fluid mixed with a bottle of Miralax and a few pills. One hour to drink the first liter, a couple of hours in between then another hour for the final liter. I make a restful day of it with a good book and few episodes of Game of Thrones.
Here’s the toughest part for me: where my mind goes before my procedure. Colon cancer is a scary thought. I don’t want to ever hear those words. We found something.
And I haven’t. I’m healthy, incredibly thankful for each day I get to be, and I try to make the most of it. My last colonoscopy was on Aug. 28. The next day I shouldered a full pack and set off to hike 32 miles in New Hampshire’s Pemigewasset Wilderness.
I think about my UC everyday. Sometimes more than others. My lower right abdomen can feel tender and raw. According to my colonoscopy results it’s the most active region and it’s exactly where my waist strap tightens when I put on a full pack. Most of time, it’s a symbolic pain that gives me strength because I’m reminded of what I’m working with every time I hike. But sometimes it’s a breathtaking physical pain I can’t ignore or draw strength from.
So, what can you do if you’re an active athlete with UC?
It can be frustrating when you’re planning for a long expedition with so many unknowns and your health is one of them. Yet, one thing that I’ve found to be quite comforting in the field is that most people, even people without GI diseases, have GI issues in the backcountry. It just happens. And by frequently dealing with my own and other’s GI issues, I’ve developed a few systems and tips. Now, keep in mind no two bodies are the same and what works for me might not work for you. Hell, what works for me on one expedition might not work on the next.
Here is what I like to do:
- Bring in real food. The fewer ingredients and less processed the better. Pitas, cheese, peanut butter and homemade trail mixes. Too many dehydrated meals, Clif bars and gels add up and create a less than ideal situation about three days in. My mother used the book Breaking the Vicious Cycle, Intestinal Health Through Diet by Elaine Gottschall when I was young and very ill to get my system back on track. I highly recommend it for reading and recipes.
- Get a dehydrator and dehydrate your food. The big positive to this is that you know exactly what’s going in.
- Pack Imodium, soap, sani and toilet paper and have them in an accessible part of your pack.
- Pack your medications. Tell your doctor about your travel plans and see if they recommend medication to have on hand. For example, a steroid in case a flare up happens.
- Let your climbing partner or group leader know about your disease and any specific needs that come with it. This hasn’t always been easy for me to disclose. However, having played the role as both group member and group leader I know the value of medical histories.
Additionally, I’ve found keeping a detailed food dairy to be helpful in noticing trends and patterns. I nerd out a bit with an Excel sheet and record what I eat, number of bowel movements and how I feel physically each day. Sometimes I can notice a trigger food and make changes. Overall, it gives routine and holds me accountable to pay attention to my health each day.
Any other tips out there?