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Archive for the ‘General Mischief’ Category

Okay, I’ve been miserably long in posting this (and it’s still not complete) but here is the first installment of a look at U.S. education.

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I recently finished the classic tale of The Brothers Karamazov, written by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (or Theodore Dostoevsky, as it’s sometimes anglicized). If the name didn’t tip you off, he’s Russian, and so are the brothers he writes about. The tale was written in the nineteenth century, about the scandals of nineteenth century life in a small Russian town … and yet I think it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. It is a masterpiece in every sense.

Once I came to that conclusion, I wondered why it was that my school-age self never got the chance to read him. Was, in fact, forced to slave through stories that were boring and verbose, like Last of the Mohicans, instead. How was Dostoyevsky dismissed (never even mentioned, actually) when Romeo and Juliet was crammed down our throats not twice but three times in high school alone? At least I heard about Tolstoy’s massive classic War and Peace, and Hugo’s Les Miserables, though neither ever had a place on our bookshelves nor in our library nor curriculum. So I began thinking about our education system. I began to wonder, what are students actually learning? When English class rolls around and pupils open their textbooks, what greets them?

From my own school days I recall curricula that rarely wavered from writings of the “Big Three” – the US, the UK, and Ancient Greece – with virtually nothing newer than the nineteenth century except for a handful of short fiction and poetry. It never really struck me at the time how little we read of international authors. Even my university literature classes – open to anything written anywhere, anytime – featured little outside the well-worn paths of American, English, and Greco-Roman classics. Just in case we missed them in high school, I guess. I recall only two exceptions: a piece by Voltaire, a Frenchman; and Metamorphosis, by German author Franz Kafka. For crossing borders, that’s a terribly poor selection. Not that those authors don’t have writings worthy of study, but they were the only representatives of the greater world. I had in fact read Kafka’s famous tale as a teenager without realizing he was not American, which seems an even poorer world lit choice. I expected a great deal more out of my “education.”

I expected my horizons to be stretched; I wanted to be introduced to all manner of thing new and exotic (to me, at least). Growing up in rural mid-America and attending a small public school, I understood they operated under certain limitations. There were few frills – no AP classes, no special college jump-start programs. It was a small school with only a handful of faculty and staff, with mostly older buildings and low district millage rates. It was considered a stretch of our horizons to read Antigone (the story of Oedipus was pretty scandalous for the youth of a town with one gas station, one bank, and five churches). But now our “small” public schools have budgets rivaling that of my university alma mater. So I wonder if the latest crop of students are more well-read than my antiquated little class.

I still live in a rural area, very much like the one I grew up in, and I’m going to use the nearest public school as my model. Its middle and high school sections (with adjoining campuses and shared buildings) serve less than 900 students with more than 100 faculty and major staff (not including higher school officials or secondary staff). The middle school includes thirty-five classrooms; the high school has more, though I’m not sure by what margin; and most of the buildings are less than ten years old. Students can compete in eight different sports and graduate with more than 20 college credit hours. Sounds good, right? So let’s see how they measure up via ye olde standardized testing (not the best judge but the most decent judge I have easy access to).

Let me pre-empt these numbers by noting that very little is available on post-8th grade rankings, and virtually nothing prior to 1998. So, for starters at least, I will have to settle for comparing the 8th graders of 2009 to the 8th graders of 1998 to get any picture of the system at all. Now, on with the show. Since we’re talking literature, tests in Reading and Writing seem the most relevant, and from 1998 to 2009, there was a whopping change in our 8th graders statewide. Writing showed an increase of 5% and Reading showed an astounding increase of … [drumroll, please] … 1%. Wow. Wait a second; let me pull my socks back on before plunging ahead. In 1998, 8th graders in the state ranked 29th nationwide in Reading; in 2009, they ranked 41st. In Writing, their ranking fell from 33rd to 36th. But those are statewide and nationwide numbers, not a representation of my model school. So let’s see what else we can find.

According to 2009 literacy test results, my local high school ranked 96 of 253; the middle school section ranked 102 of 299 – both solidly mediocre. Not bad, not good, but I find it very disappointing given the present funding. Compared to what my former high school worked with, this model school is rolling in money. For instance, my high school had unpaved parking lots, not ideal but certainly functional and low maintenance. The model local school recently spent $1,000,000 on one paved parking lot. Let me repeat that: they spent ONE MILLION DOLLARS to prepare and blacktop ONE LOT so visitors and employees could walk to the main building without getting dirt on their shoes. Never mind the curriculum, crushed rock is hell in heels. But maybe their test scores are fantastic and their budget is overflowing with surplus … which I’m presently researching and hope to include in the upcoming Part 2.

As an interesting aside, I checked the state requirements, and the language arts standards specifically mention only “American, British, and Greek/Latin” literature, with later mentions of “and/or other” literatures. No wonder our school featured nothing else; the Big Three were the only outside sources of literature specifically approved by the state.

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What to look for in Part 2:

Local school results
Teachers’ pay versus test scores
State and National test scores
and anything else I run across that looks juicy

Stay tuned.

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Mary Wollstonecraft, an acclaimed 19th century writer and activist, once said, “No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness.” In everyday life, I believe this is largely true. We give in to the yearnings of either lust or money (and, really, there is very little difference) and Hell follows. A few years ago, one of the richest men in the United States was interviewed after throwing a magnificently overdone party which cost more than most Americans earn in a year. He was so wealthy, and had been for so long, that he had lost track of what he owned, forgetting cars, houses, jets, entire businesses… When asked what he could possibly still want, he answered simply, “More of everything.” Now, I don’t consider that evil – offensive and nauseating, but not evil per se – but I think it is that kind of runaway greed and self-indulgence that leads to evil things.

So why all this talk about evil? Well, I believe evil begets evil. The more bad stuff that’s going on the world, the easier it is for even more bad stuff to happen. A negative feedback loop, if you will, where the situation gets progressively worse with every trip around the loop. Or, say, sun. But it’s an intensely difficult system to change, not one you can easily knock off balance once it has some momentum. And momentum, unfortunately, has never been the problem.

Humans are easily manipulated, panicked, frenzied. A few well-placed hoorahs can put a man in power, or leave him dead in the street. We have quick tempers, long memories for grudges, and a lust for vengeance. But we are also quick to forget treacheries that did not involve us directly, and we easily swallow lies as long as our standard of living remains acceptable. We have the intelligence to fabricate fantastic weapons able to produce the heart of a star on the surface of our own planet … but not enough intelligence to accept peace. We are an interesting but dangerous species, classified as a mammal but with all the trademarks of a virus. What we need is a vaccine.

A vaccine does not kill a virus. Instead, it prepares the host for the potential of a battle with a virus. It posts guards and rallies the troops, if you will. Then, if the virus later infiltrates, the host is prepared and the virus is controlled before any damage is done. The battle is averted. The war is won, essentially, before it’s begun. And the trouble-making virus isn’t really destroyed. It is incorporated into the host, becomes a peaceful part of it, and its antibodies survive as long as the host lives. That way, if another faction of the virus invades, it can also be quelled before war breaks out. This is exactly what we need. The trouble, with humans and vaccines, is that they only succeed on one issue at a time.

As a species, I’m not sure where we’re headed. The utopian society envisioned in the early 20th century never materialized. The Jetsons are as far away as ever. As long as we keep focusing on material goods and indulgent comforts, it will probably stay that way. That’s not to say there is anything wrong with wanting a decent house, a reliable vehicle, or three squares a day. But it’s hard to work toward political stability, reduced international tensions, and peaceful resolutions when all you can think about is “more of everything.” It’s important that we not let the pursuit of perceived happiness lead us down the wrong road, toward decisions with irreversible consequences and no redeeming outcome in sight.

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After suffering through seven endless games of the NBA finals, I have never been so glad to see a trophy handed out. I understand the idea behind the popularity of sports, the opportunity for people to transcend political differences and language barriers and, at times, the human condition itself. But it seems to me that sports has become far too like a religion. And I don’t see how people get so wrapped up in a silly game.

Yeah, I said it, a silly game. Football, hockey, bowling, golf, water polo – pick your sport – it’s all supposed to be for fun, for recreation and entertainment. Kobe Bryant is, in fact, not the patron saint of basketball (and God forbid there should ever be such a thing) but you wouldn’t know it from watching his flock. People do everything but bow to him and ask his blessing. Sports are taken way too seriously. They are, quite bluntly, an opiate. They are an escape, a diversion from everyday life in the same manner as movies and TV.

And yet when I watch sports, I am only reminded of the everyday. Rampant advertising aside, most players seem much more interested in their checks than their performance, more interested in their off-field frivolities than the nature of the game. Movies and television can at least bare incredible truths and tell great stories. Who hasn’t seen part of Casablanca or been touched by the evening news? But what great truths do sports reveal? That people with money can do as they please? That people are replaceable, can be sold to the highest bidder, or, once past their peak, are no longer of value? That’s not a very nice legacy. Granted, there were amazing feats in the early days of organized sports in the U.S., from men like Babe Ruth and Roy Campanella, Jim Thorpe and Bronko Nagurski. But those days are long gone. And what remains? A tired, cheap display built on fabulously overpaid athletes of only mediocre talent.

I can almost hear the cries of blasphemy at those words. But who among all our major sports will be remembered in seventy or eighty years? What new, worthy show of goodness, or even of human endurance, have they brought to the world? It’s not even fun to watch anymore. A game that was supposed to last a little more than an hour now takes three to five, to make room for commercials and time-outs and fouls and a lot of nancying about without any real purpose. Most of the games have no real consequence, and the players are as uninterested and uninvested as high school seniors with spring fever.

What fun is that? What good is that? And contrary to popular belief, being six-foot-three and 350 pounds doesn’t automatically make you a good linebacker. Being seven feet shouldn’t bring NBA agents busting down your door. Those things have nothing to do with talent or determination or heart. And that’s what sports are really supposed to be about. Until those things work their way back into sports, count me out.

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Perhaps I should note, right up front, that I am not equating Barack Obama to a douche. Or more accurately, I am, but not in the spirit of meanness. South Park fans will understand immediately. For the rest of you, let me explain. After major elections overseas and several state primaries, my thoughts turned to voting and the process of election. A friend, discussing similar topics, brought up episode 808 (#119) of the well-known satiric TV series South Park, wherein a new school mascot must be decided by vote and the two choices are anything but ordinary: a turd sandwich and a giant douche.

To cut a complex story short, a boy who is told he must vote refuses, citing that he doesn’t agree with either of the candidates and it is a pointless exercise anyway. After heavy pressure from family, friends, and community members, including threats of bodily harm, he relents. But before doing so, he is advised by the leader of a nationwide activist group that “every election is between a Giant Douche and a Turd.”

So we have our foundation. And I am inclined to agree with Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators and principal writers of the South Park series. Most elections do seem to come down to the choice between between a douche and a turd. It is one unfortunate result of a two-party system. As much as we tout the wide variety of choice in political preferences, it really comes down to Democrat or Republican on the ballot. Though a few shudders of revolt have been felt from the Independent and Tea factions, most candidates elected to major offices still carry an (R) or (D) by their names. (Is it a mere coincidence that douche begins with (d) and turd contains an (r)? I wonder.)

So what should one do, when faced with the choice of selecting between a turd and a douche? How can one determine the lesser of two evils? Either way, the populace effected is sure to lose. Yet not voting – refusing to choose – is seen as an insult, not only to the nation as a whole but to the many who fought and died to bring the nation to where it stands today.

I argue that refusing to choose is not an insult to the nation but a measure of the abuse the political system is experiencing. Without strong figures of reason and credibility to vote for, what impetus is there to cast a vote? Why mark the box for a turd if a turd isn’t wanted in office? It becomes a catch 22: the only candidates with enough political savy and sway to reach levels of importance are all douches and turds, so only douches and turds can be elected. Which I believe is the point made by Trey Parker and Matt Stone. And for the more patriotic, who see refusal as a dismissal of the battles that gave us the freedom to vote, I can only ask if those same battles were fought so that we would only be able to choose between two corrupt, greedy, unappealing, unwanted, money- and power-hungry candidates. I don’t believe that was what any of those men and women fought for. I don’t believe that is what men and women the world over continue fighting for.

I whole-heartedly support the right to vote. 1,000%. It was meant to be our greatest freedom, our most powerful weapon of peace and justice against our own government and political system. I value that right beyond words and will defend it to my last breath. With force, if necessary. But it has been so misused. It has become such a pitiful shadow of what it could and should be. It’s the 21st Century. We are surrounded with technological and biological marvels. And yet we vote as though we are still in the Dark Ages, ignorant, apathetic, afraid. James A. Mishener once said, “An age is called dark, not because the light fails to shine, but because people refuse to see it.” Well I see it, or at least the potential of it, and I refuse to vote for darkness. I refuse to vote for turds and douches and rampant liars and unconscionable thieves. Not when we, as a nation, are capable of so much better.

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I wanted to check up on Jericho, Arkansas. If you recall, I wrote about the town a few times last fall because the unarmed Assistant Fire Chief was shot by Jericho police during an argument between himself and the police chief in court. Jericho has a reputation as a speed trap, an over-abundant and over-eager police force for the town’s size, large gaps in its fiscal reporting, and a mayor accused of gross corruption. I was unable to reach legal counsel concerning the affairs of Jericho and was trying to locate news pieces about it when I ran across the town of Turrell and found an eerily similar situation. Fasten your seatbelts, kits and cats; it’s about to get strange and deja vu ain’t the half of it.

Turrell is an Arkansas town in the Mississippi delta, just off Interstate 55, a few miles up the road from Jericho and home to some 900 people. Though it’s too small to support it’s own school (it had to consolidate with the larger Marion school district), it’s problems are massive. In December, WMC-TV 5 out of Memphis, Tennessee, reported that three Arkansas towns were being investigated for the mishandling of money, including both Turrell and Jericho. This investigation was prompted by last autumn’s events in Jericho, which pointed to various corrupt and fraudlent activities being perpetrated by the mayor and police of that town.

Crittenden County, home of the three towns under investigation, put the Jericho matter in the hands of Prosecuting Attorney Lindsey Fairley, who issued warrants against Assistant Fire Chief Don Payne, the victim in the shooting. Fairley charged no one else. His inaction prompted media to alert state officials and Second District Prosecutor Mike Walden began investigating the events with the state police. Less than three weeks after the WMC-TV article was published came a new and strange twist in the story: Turrell Police Chief Greg Martin entered the home of city councilman Floyd Holmes and threatened him at gunpoint. Just to be clear, yes, that was the chief of police, sworn to protect and serve, pulling a gun on an unarmed councilman, and his wife, in the councilman’s own home. Why? Good question. The answer is long and complicated but essentially comes down to one thing: money.

Just as in Jericho, Turrell’s mayor Franklin Lockhart is accused of hiding city funds and moving them at his discretion instead of allowing the city council’s involvement. It’s not the first time Mayor Lockhart has shut out the council. In fact, in October 2008, he fired them en masse … despite lacking the authority to do so. Floyd Holmes, among those “fired” in 2008, asserted that state law gives the council control over city finances. Mayor Lockhart reportedly contended that the council had no such power but, either way, Turrell entered the new year without a budget and suffered city service interruptions due to lack of information about the town’s financial status. Councilman Holmes said Mayor Lockhart had moved Turrell funds several times, even “across state lines in[to] Tennessee.” The mayor admits he moved the funds but so far won’t say where. According to one source, the city’s budget records have not been complete since 2006. Mr. Holmes said, “We’ve been begging for someone to do something for the last two and a half years.”

On the day of the Turrell incident, Mr. Holmes and other council member Emanual Harris showed up “unannounced” to city hall – with a couple reporters in tow – to retrieve their $100 paychecks as members of the city council. While there, they also asked for the city’s financial records which, as councilmen, they are supposed to be able to access. The records were not made available to them, though no one seems able to say why, and they were denied their paychecks, purportedly because the city did not have enough funds to pay them (according to Mayor Lockhart).

Their request, coupled with the presence of reporters, “rankled” other city officials, including the mayor, and after their appearance Mayor Franklin Lockhart reportedly issued a memo to the council members specifying when and why they could appear at city hall. Lockhart then reportedly directed Police Chief Greg Martin to deliver the notices in person. When Chief Martin arrived at the home of Councilman Holmes, an argument ensued. Chief Martin followed Mr. Holmes into his house and the argument apparently culminated in the police chief drawing his weapon on both Mr. Holmes and his wife while two interior decorators looked on.

Warrants were issued for Chief Martin and he was taken into police custody, charged with two felony counts of aggravated assault. He was released later the same day on a $2500 bond. (As a side note, I wonder what my bond would be if I were charged with two felony counts of aggravated assault against a city official? I’m willing to bet $2500 wouldn’t come close.) Second District Prosecutor Mike Walden, who took up the Jericho case, also stepped in for Turrell. “It’s my understanding, it stems from this ongoing dispute that’s been running between the city council and the mayor’s office,” he told Fox 13 News of Memphis. Mayor Franklin Lockhart has had little to say except that he stands by Chief Martin and describes him as an “outstanding” officer.

An ABC news article also provided this interesting little tidbit: “This comes just two months after Mayor Lockhart asked a judge to place a lien against the members of town council in the amount of $600,000. The mayor claims council members owe the town because they haven’t performed their duties.” Which seems deliciously rich since, by all other accounts, he has prevented them in their duties at every turn.

But then, things get really strange. (Because, yeah, everything’s been right as rain to this point.) Another article reports that Turrell is not supposed to have a police department. At all. The city council has never approved or budgeted “any money for the police department but they’re still up and operating every day,” said Emanual Harris. Co-councilman Floyd Holmes agreed. The men said they have no idea how the police officers in Turrell are being paid or how the force is operating without a budget. They went on to state that Chief Martin had been fired by the council months ago. So how is he still in uniform? Martin was re-hired by Mayor Lockhart. The re-hire was subsequently overruled by the council but was never acknowledged by the mayor or police chief. Harris says, “I want to see something or somebody come in and do something; it’s not right.”

Hopefully, prosecutor Mike Walden is the man for the job.

After bonding out of police custody, and while still under investigation, Martin remains acting chief of police for Turrell. And in relation, the town of Jennette, also in Crittenden County and also under investigation, exemplifies the gross malfeasance at work in the area. It has a population of less than 150 and cannot account for $24,000 dollars in taxpayer funds.

Something, dear readers, is badly amiss.

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If you’ve watched the world news or read a bit online, you’ve probably seen something about the riots in Kyrgyzstan, a former USSR republic that borders China and just tried to oust its president. Protesting masses took to the streets demanding a change in government, the president fled, hundreds of police were summoned to quell the riots, and many people were hurt and killed. President Kurmanbek Bakiev maintains he is still in power. An interim government spawned by the riots and headed by Roza Otunbayeva also claims leadership and openly seeks Bakiev’s resignation. So, you’re up to speed on the basics. Now for the nitty gritty.

This is all about corruption and political malfeasance. A head of government makes some questionable appointments, arrests some influential people, utilty prices skyrocket, a populace feels cheated, and suddenly dozens of people are dead and hundreds are wounded. It’s an old story, but one we seemingly never learn from. I’ve done little research on the heart of the matter (this article seems a good place to start if you want to) but I did catch a Nightline spot which mentioned police firing into a crowd of protestors. Which is really why I’m posting about it. Because I find that disgusting.

I don’t really care what the government and or President Bakiev did. Yes, it was probably dirty, and almost certainly unfair to the Kyrgyz people … because that’s what governments are good at. But to allow, and even encourage, armed enforcers to use live ammunition on an unarmed population is inexcusable.

And I’m not talking handguns, or sharpshooters taking out the small number of protestors armed with weapons taken from other guards/police/etc. Witnesses describe them as automatic sub-machine guns, and video clips show them firing full-tilt in the direction of protestors. A government that will permit such an excessive use of force on its people cannot be endorsed with any moral conscience whatsoever. With various non-lethal choices available, there is no reasonable explanation for such an action.

An ABC News article reports that initial protests in the capitol city of Bishkek were met with just that sort of non-lethal force: rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannons, concussion grenades. But the attempts to break up the crowds were not focused and angry protestors fought back with rocks, sticks, and sheer numbers. They overpowered some policemen and took their weapons, even their vehicles at times. When they congregated at the government headquarters known as the White House (no, that’s not a typo), things turned ugly.

The ABC article does not discuss why the police didn’t concentrate their efforts on the White House to begin with. It seems logical to me, especially with a demonstration in the western city of Talas the day before where protestors entered a government building and took control, purportedly holding a governor hostage. With a clear voice, the opposition was calling for the president’s resignation, so it’s a pretty good bet that sooner or later the protests would center on the White House. It would not be difficult to encircle the building with police and keep non-lethal weaponry at the ready.

Whatever the reasoning, police forces were scattered ineffectually around the city as protests became riotous and protestors grew violent. An armored vehicle, seized by protestors, threatened to ram the gates of the White House. Six men in the crowd reportedly fired shots into the air as the people decried the government. Then a group of police opened fire on the crowd.

It wasn’t clear if these police were stationed at the government building or pushing into the protestors from another direction, and to the dozens killed I doubt it matters. It also wasn’t clear why no effort was made to disperse the crowd using non-lethal means. That group of police purportedly numbered 200, were classified as “elite,” and yet never sent so much as a single canister of tear gas into the protestors before they “began firing, pushing the crowd back.” In retaliation and further protest, a government office was set on fire and several others damaged.

Protests and demonstrations in other cities deposed local heads of government. Media outlets were overtaken to spread the word of protest and opposition. And so the president fled. An interim governing body was assembled. Protestors calmed and divided. And the country – the world – waits for resolution.

I applaud the Kyrgyzstani people in standing up to what they believe is an unjust and corrupt government. I admire their determination and resolute push to see change. I hope the resolution is fair and sets the nation on a road with less upheaval and more freedom and justice. And I hope the United States stays out of it.

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For today’s consideration I offer up some statistics and information about two cancers common in both men and women, bladder and colorectal, along with some pointers about risk and detection.

For starters, how about a little definition of what exactly we’re talking about. First, the bladder. If you remember anything of biology or health and fitness classes, you might recall that the bladder stores urine until certain signals tell you it’s “full,” and then it contracts to help push the urine down the urethra and out of the body. Secondly, the colorectal area. Since they are connected physically and work in tandem as part of the digestive system, the colon and rectum are often grouped under the collective “colorectal” description. Essentially, the colon is the large intestine, and the rectum is the last six inches or so before the anus.

Okay, with the anatomy lesson over, lets get to the bits that actually matter. Bladder cancer is one of the more common cancers found in men and women but is rarely publicized. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), in 2009 some 52,810 new cases of bladder cancer were expected in men. Using Census Bureau population estimates, that means any given man had a 0.00035% chance of being diagnosed with a new bladder cancer. Those are whopping odds, I know; and, ladies, you’re numbers are even lower. For 2009, any given woman had a roughly 0.00012% chance of being diagnosed with a new bladder cancer. The 18,170 estimated new cases of bladder cancer in women in 2009 means that men are several times more likely to develop bladder cancer than women are. In fact, the ACS reports that “bladder cancer incidence is nearly four times higher in men than in women and more than two times higher in white men than in African American men.” Sorry Team Blue.

But don’t let the numbers get you down. For men, the cumulative chances of developing bladder cancer remain less than 1% until age 70 and beyond. Lifetime odds are less than 4%. And the odds of dying from it? One-fifth the chance of developing it. Women, as the earlier numbers indicated, have even less to worry about: bladder cancer odds never breach 1% by age group and is only 1.2% over the course of a lifetime. So not exactly a raging pandemic by any means. Which is especially good because bladder cancer has no good method of early detection. The most effective assessment of bladder cancer involves running an endoscope up the urethra and taking a look around. For obvious reasons, this is a procedure to be avoided unless you happen to fall among a high-risk group and or show troubling signs (especially painful urination or bloody urine). For the vast majority of us, this will never be a problem, so don’t concern yourself over it too much.

Colorectal numbers are higher. The ACS expected 75,590 new cases in men and 71,380 new cases in women in 2009, making it “the third most common cancer in both men and women.” Those numbers are also fairly even between the sexes, unlike bladder cancer. However, like bladder cancer and prostate cancer and breast cancer and most other cancers as well, the highest odds come later in life. “91% of [colorectal cancer] cases are diagnosed in individuals aged 50 and older,” reads the ACS statistics release. But it also related that in both men and women, the odds of developing colorectal cancer are less than 1% until age 60. Again, little reason to worry.

But if the 5 – 5.5% chance of developing colorectal cancer over your lifetime have you on edge, there are several methods of early detection. Most of us are familiar with the colonoscopy procedures as described (and sometimes filmed) on TV, where an endoscope is run through the large intestine in search of suspicious lesions or polyps. But if that’s too invasive for your tastes, you might consider a sigmoidoscopy, where physicians examine the rectum and lower third of the colon for abnormalities through a thin device called a flexible sigmoidoscope. It takes about 15 minutes, is less invasive, and can still take biopsies of anything suspicious. It’s recommended every five years and, like conventional colonoscopy, can occasionally (but not commonly) cause bleeding or tears in the intestinal walls, both requiring surgery to repair.

If those don’t fit your fancy, perhaps a double-contrast barium enema (DCBE) would do the trick. Recommended every five to 10 years, it involves a very thorough barium sulfate enema that physicians use to examine the lower digestive tract via x-ray. It exposes the patient to less radiation than a typical CT scan (also called CAT scan) and is somewhat less invasive than colonoscopies or sigmoidoscopies. However, if you don’t mind an enema or the slightly higher radiation of CT or MRI scans, you might opt for the virtual colonoscopy. After an enema, a small tube pumps air into colon (for better differentiation) while CT or MRI scans provide images of the intestinal tract. It’s still less invasive than traditional colonoscopies but does not allow for biopsies or as thorough an internal view. However, it does allow for imaging of surrounding tissues and produces more accurate images than DCBEs.

But if you’re not fond of any foreign materials up the backside, you might just opt for the simplicity and complete non-invasiveness of fecal blood tests. There are two types but both are quite accurate and inexpensive. One type, called FOBT (fecal occult blood test), tests feces for the heme blood component (“heme” as in hemoglobin, part of our red blood cells). The other, called FIT (fecal immunochemical test), is more sensitive and tests for the globin blood component. Pre-cancerous polyps in the colon or rectum often bleed into the fecal matter passing through the digestive tract, which can be detected by these tests. They are simple enough to do at home and are sometimes handed out free of charge at proctology centers, clinics, and other medical service providers. Doctors recommend triple-testing to reduce false positives as the body expels small amounts of blood in feces under normal circumstances. But the tests return positive results for bleeding anywhere between the mouth and anus, so don’t automatically assume colorectal cancer even if there is blood. These fecal blood tests are considered a line of primary identification, as are the similar fecal DNA tests, but for conclusive diagnoses you’re still expected to see a doctor and perhaps choose a colorectal treatment of a more invasive kind.

I think the most important thing to remember is how unlikely these cancers are. And being diagnosed with cancer is a long way from dying of it. So keep an eye on yourself, and get your regular medical check-ups if you like, but don’t waste time and energy worrying about something so unlikely. No matter what you hear on the news.

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