Get Your Colonoscopy at 45
When Ava Duvernay’s When They See Us landed on Netflix I had to watch it alone. The dozen or so group chats and texts I had going about the series with friends was the support group I needed to make the leap into pressing play. We all watched it alone but together, if that makes any sense.
The series hit home in so many ways because I currently live in Harlem with a few friends who sat in those same police stations. Not only do I have three sons but I work closely with three programs that are filled with Black and Brown boys — NYCBOSS, FC Harlem and Milbank. On a random day I’ll see Dapper Dan, Marcus Samuelson and Corey on Lenox and 125th.
When They See Us is the long version of Ice Cube’s Here’s What They Think About You. That’s the voice I hear in my head when these situations play out. These folks aren’t here for you. They are against you. Not always in a confrontational way, but you feel it.
And I understand that uneasiness folks have with against, but consider the math.
If you had a 1% chance of dying in a Delta Airlines plane or your child had a 1% chance of dying from eating Cheerios, then you wouldn’t be signing up. Now imagine no one at Delta and General Mills paying a penalty for those deaths.
So I naturally transition from knowing the rules about when I can open my backpack in a department store to look for my wallet (pro-tip: Never) to teaching my kids when they can (still: Never). These rules are commonplace in Black and Brown communities so I’m comfortable in my reality. Acceptance may sting but you get to sleep in your own bed.
Just as I’m settled into my parental role in this real life When They See Us, I’m given a few layers of positive news. On NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt tells me that Dr Mary R Kwaan from the American Journal of Preventive Medicine recommends the age for your first colonoscopy for Black men is 45. The age for everyone else is 50.
This is why the expression “we don’t see color” is deadly.
They See Us.
It can be fatal if you lump folks into a common pool. Black men know it. Women know. Muslims know it. Folks with disabilities know it. We are not the default, so we need information that can “see color”.
This information is key to me as a 45 year old hypochondriac with good health benefits. My general physician knows that I’ll be in her office for all of the symptoms that WebMD has said I should already be dead. I was now prepared to give her some new news and she was all good with it.
Here’s where I explain that my doctor is from Spain and has the compassion of a sibling that knows my family history of death. She treats all of my symptoms like they are life threatening and let’s me know when to worry and when to just keep an eye on it. With higher than normal cholesterol she prescribed a regimen that she checks on and sends me to my heart doctor from the Bronx named Peña. Throw in a urologist named Bachtal and you realize that my medical squad “sees color”.
So my colonoscopy is scheduled and good to go.
Here’s the even-better part.
My writing has been all about transparency and sharing over this last couple of years. I was ready to talk about getting a colonoscopy because I was afraid that Black men hadn’t heard the news and they might be sensitive to this particular procedure. This was a “Your Ass is Old” moment and I was ready to share.
But before I could write I had dinner with a friend visiting NYC. He asked if we could go to a good vegan spot and I was shocked. He explained that he’d recently had a colonoscopy and all went well-enough so he decided to keep that pathway clear going forward. If you know me personally I’ve probably told you should watch The Game Changers documentary on Netflix.
Then I was involved in a group chat with a few high school classmates who talked about getting their colonoscopy like they talked about getting their teeth cleaned.
These conversations were all happening among Black men I knew because we were all in our mid- to late-forties.
This made me happy.
But reality has me typing now.
Two weeks before my colonoscopy — I’ll keep typing the full word instead of using ‘procedure’ to normalize it, though my 13-year-old referred to it as the ‘poopy-thing’ — I had an ache and needed to see my doctor. I had a crazy week of traveling and meetings ahead so I wanted to get in immediately. I get anxious about my health so I feel better if my doctor gives me an all clear. Period
My physician can’t see me so I schedule with another physician in the group. She’s super nice. She’s knowledgeable and witty. She’s empathetic and understanding. I would immediately sign her up to be my doctor if my regular physician wasn’t available.
But she was also white.
During my check-up we discussed my family history — illnesses and deaths — and she saw my upcoming colonoscopy. She innocently questioned why I was having a colonoscopy at my age and I reminded her that the new guidelines specifically recommended 45 as the age for Black men to be checked.
This very kind and qualified doctor acknowledged that the recommendation had changed but that I wasn’t symptomatic of colon cancer and wondered allowed if I needed the colonoscopy that my regular physician had already approved. I understood her questioning but I dismissed her opinion.
That’s when she added one more concern.
“Some insurance companies haven’t added the recommendation to their coverage plans,” she said.
That’s when I started questioning everything else she’d said to me in that 15 minute consultation. She was just trying to help, I’m sure, but was she potentially asking me to forego a procedure based on my ability to afford it though Lester Holt told me that this was now the new normal for Black men?
You should know that, thankfully, in the end she was right. I’m all clear.
But what if I wasn’t? The recommendation doesn’t say that I definitely have colon cancer. The recommendation says that I have a higher risk. I suppose Black men could be the target of big pharma and the colonoscopy industry to scam us out of one more treatment in our lives.
I’m thankful to the folks who’ve talked about their colonoscopies as freely as their teeth cleaning and to my doctor who didn’t blink when I asked about the recommendation. Black folk, especially Black women, in average don’t get the same treatment when they raise their hands with respect to healthcare.
When They See Us isn’t always in the back of a police car with an angry snark. Sometimes it’s a smile in a doctor’s office with good intentions.
I guess my short message here would be to diversify you’re medical team. I’m more likely to trust a police department that includes folks that look like me or understood my world. The same is true about the folks in charge of my healthcare.