August 17, 2022

She Put Off Getting a Colonoscopy — Finally Getting One May Have Saved Her Life

This piece originally appeared on

Nearly 20 years after she should have had her first screening, Nancy Culling took a Cologuard test. The result changed her life.

At 68 years old, Nancy Culling was hitting her stride. She had recently retired from 25 years of teaching high school earth science, a job that she’d wanted to do since her 10th grade science class. She had a wonderful adult son, a mother who was 100 years old and going strong, and a loving husband who she’d been with for almost 50 years. The couple moved from Western New York to Florida to take full advantage of their retirement, and Nancy was excited to hone her glass jewelry making skills, float around in the pool, and catch up on some books by her favorite author, David Baldacci.

At a routine checkup, Culling’s doctor asked her about getting a colonoscopy. Culling had always been diligent about monitoring her health, but had never gotten screened for colon cancer, even though it’s recommended that adults at average risk get screened starting at age 45. Although colonoscopy technology has greatly evolved over the years and the experience is quite manageable for most people, Culling was reluctant. “Every time I’d been asked to do a colonoscopy,” Culling explains, “I said, ‘Absolutely not. You’re not putting anything in that area of my body.’ It sounded so invasive, and I’m a very private person. So I always refused.”

It was at this appointment, as Culling began to refuse a colonoscopy once again, that her doctor told her about Cologuard, a non-invasive colorectal screening test that she could do right from her own home. “When she offered that,” Culling says, “I finally said alright, fine, that sounds easy enough.”

But when the Cologuard kit arrived in the mail, Culling still hesitated. After a few days of ignoring the package, she received a reminder email: it was time to send in her sample. Culling relented: “I guess I just needed a little nudge,” she says.

Culling fully expected that her Cologuard results would be negative. “My mother had gotten colonoscopies before, and she was clear, and so was my sister,” she recalls. “So I never thought it was important. That is, until I got my result.”

Culling’s doctor called soon after she sent her kit back to deliver the news: Her test was positive, and she would need a colonoscopy. “I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I had no symptoms. I thought the test must have been wrong.”

Although she’d spent years of her life avoiding colonoscopy screenings, she knew that she finally had no choice. The procedure revealed polyps in Culling’s colon, and the doctor was unable to remove them. After a second colonoscopy, Culling’s doctor determined she would need surgery. “Compared to everything else, the surgery was a breeze,” Culling laughs. “My surgeon was great, and I felt no pain at all.”

As she recovered at the hospital, Culling’s surgeon paid her a visit. “He asked, ‘Do you want the good news or the bad news first?’ I said, ‘The bad news, I guess.’” The surgeon informed Culling that she did, in fact, have colon cancer. The good news was that they’d caught it very early, and the surgeon had been able to fully remove the cancer during the surgery. She wouldn’t need chemo or radiation; the only change in her life would be that she’d need to take half a pill twice a week to help with digestive issues.

It’s been almost three years since her diagnosis, and thus far, Culling has remained cancer-free. “I can’t believe it,” she says. “If I’d kept putting the screening off, it could have been terminal.”

Her anxiety is sadly very understandable: Since her diagnosis, Culling has known two people who’ve passed away from the disease. “They both were diagnosed at late stages, and it was miserable for them,” she recalls. “They had to go through surgery and chemo, and both passed away within two years. They were such good people — sometimes I wonder why this happened to them, and why I was one of the lucky ones. I feel so fortunate that I got screened when I did. ”

Each year on the anniversary of her surgery, Culling makes a big push to get the word out about the importance of screenings. “If anyone even mentions cancer,” Culling says, “I go into teacher-mode and explain that they have options.”

This month, Culling and her sister are fulfilling a lifelong dream of visiting Africa together. “I can’t wait,” she says. “I want to see elephants, and giraffes, and hippos. I want to see it all.”

When she reflects on the tumult of her diagnosis, Culling’s main takeaway is that life is a gift not to be taken for granted. “If I hadn’t been screened,” she says, “I might not be alive today. I might never have gone to Africa, or have gotten to show my husband and son how grateful I am that they were with me every step of the way. I can’t predict what would’ve happened if I’d waited, but I know this experience has taught me to appreciate every single day. Even if I spend a day doing nothing, I think, ‘I’m still here. How lucky am I to have this day?’”

If you are 45 and older and at average risk for colon cancer, talk to your doctor to see if Cologuard may be right for you. Rx only. See for Important Risk Information.