Suffolk County

Boston hospitals booked solid for colonoscopies

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — For years, David Thau suffered gastrointestinal and other symptoms for no apparent reason.

“I was throwing up a lot, I had some really acute and intense stomach pain. I’d had blood in my stool, but like most 34-year-old guys, just shrugged it off,” Thau said. “It’s nothing. Nothing will ever happen to me.”

And then came the big one.

“There was one day where I felt like my stomach was going to explode,” Thau said. That led him to his primary care doctor — who directed Thau to report to a hospital emergency department.

“When I went there it was the first time I had a CT scan and immediately upon seeing that, it was pretty clear there was a tumor there,” he said.

Not just a tumor — but a large tumor.

“They described it as a baseball-sized tumor in my left descending colon,” Thau said. “They put me in for emergency surgery, basically to first put in a stent so that I could actually pass things through my bowels. Part of what was leading to the pain was that the tumor had 99 percent blocked my intestine.”

Thau wound up undergoing six months of chemotherapy at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Three years later, he remains cancer-free. To help stay that way, Thau undergoes regular colonoscopies.

“If you get screened when you’re supposed to and this is identified early, it will save your life,” he said.

Colon cancer is in the news again after the death of former “Cheers” star Kirstie Alley, who succumbed to the disease this week, after what was described as a short illness. That may indicate the disease was caught late. If so, it didn’t have to be.

“Colonoscopies are absolutely critical,” said Matthew Yurgelun, MD, a gastrointestinal oncologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. “Colonoscopies can be incredibly effective at finding colorectal cancers early or even helping to reduce the risk of getting colorectal cancer in the first place by finding polyps that are potentially precancerous.”

Colonoscopies are now recommended to begin at age 45 for those at average risk of colon cancer — but earlier screening is advised for anyone with a family history of the disease, or with concerning symptoms.

But that’s part of the problem, Yurgelun said: early stages of colon cancer often come with no symptoms. Which is why screening is so important.

However, booking a colonoscopy these days means getting in line.

“Even though we’re a couple of years out from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, that did put us behind the 8-ball,” Yurgelun said. “Colonoscopies were among the medical services, I think, that disappeared aside from emergency settings. And in a lot of ways we are still catching up.”

That would help explain the long wait times for colonoscopies at some of Boston’s biggest hospitals.

At Massachusetts General, colonoscopy slots are filled until early next spring. At Beth Israel-Deaconess, next availability is in June. At Newton-Wellesley, some gastroenterologists are booked until next fall. And at Brigham and Women’s, there’s no current availability — only a wait list.

“It is good news that people are getting in for their colonoscopies,” Yurgelun said. “But It’s imperative to catch up so that people are getting their screening and prevention on time.”

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