At some level, I knew I was standing in the middle of New York City traffic, but my mind was in another dimension entirely. Reminders of your mortality will do that.
The day hadn't started off so strangely and scarily, but it hadn't started off to be much fun either. I was going to my doctor's office for a colonoscopy, my second in nine months. Colonoscopies aren't supposed to happen nine months apart, of course, unless the first one turns up something worrisome and mine had. Back in August, my doctor discovered a suspicious polyp that needed to be removed. It turned out to be precancerous, and while a large majority of such growths do not eventually become cancer, colon cancer usually starts with just that sort of polyp. So did I have the 40-some years left to me that I had been more or less counting on or just a year or two? You ask a lot of existential questions like that when you get the kind of news I had gotten. And you do a lot of hoping that when you return for a follow-up exam, all will be well and the problem will simply go away.
Now I was going in for that follow-up. Surely I would get the all clear, and life would go back to being what it had been. I didn't, and it didn't. My doctor found another polyp, higher up in the colon a more dangerous location.
I left the doctor's office and stood out on the street wrestling with the news. Pedestrians bustled by all of them, I felt, untroubled by the kinds of things I was feeling. But of course, I wasn't alone. Indeed, I had something in common with millions of people across the U.S. I was a medical statistic, one of many, many patients who receive the kind of diagnosis I did every day of every year. The very fact that I was joining so large a population meant that this was by definition a routine story. But that's the case only if the story isn't about you.
When it is about you, your mind races. Am I at fault? Could I have done something differently? What do I tell my children and wife? What if I actually get cancer? Have I done everything I set out to do in life? I am a physician who gives advice for a living. I have spent much of my professional life extolling the value of healthy eating and regular exercise, and I practice both. So how in the world did this happen to me?
Part of the answer to that last question is luck of the draw. A healthy lifestyle can dramatically lower your risk of cancer, but it's no guarantee of anything. But there was more at work too at least in terms of how and when I learned of my condition. I take pride in being a good doctor and a good family man, but the fact is, I had been a pretty bad patient. Living my life on television, dispensing medical advice every day leaves me with a solemn obligation and moral imperative to be honest and to own up to mistakes and I made some. They may not have been big, but they were more than enough to threaten my health, my future and the well-being of my family. The experience transformed me from Dr. Oz to just plain Mr. Oz, and it taught me a lot, both about myself and about my patients.
50 and Fabulous?
The story started about a year ago, when I celebrated my 50th birthday with a big bash attended by family and friends, many of them doctors. I bragged that I would commemorate my half-century mark by scheduling a colonoscopy, something I routinely counsel my patients and viewers to do and something that I didn't look forward to with any more enthusiasm than anyone else does. Making light of it by making an announcement of it helped ease the reality that I had crossed midlife's threshold and somewhere out there a colonoscope was waiting for me.
Some guests suggested that the procedure be shown on my program, pointing out that viewers would be well served to see how easy this simple screening could be. I agreed, figuring that if I had to go through the prep and hassle, why not put it to good use? The gravity of the test was the last thing on my mind. Indeed, if I wanted to be truly honest with myself, I might not have scheduled it had I not been such a show-off at my birthday party.