Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Long and Winding Road

It’s been almost one year since I finished my fourth round of chemotherapy. Since then I’ve been feeling well. My test results are all good. Last fall, I went back to work. I even feel great at work. Clicking-my-heels-great. Staying-up-all-night-barking-at-the-full-moon-great. On December 31, 2010 I had my feeding tube removed. Happy New Year!  No more liquid diet (we called it “tube food”) for me. Back to eating solid food. My hair is chemo curly and my eyes are still blue. My husband still loves me like he used to do. I am cancer-free. And the best thing that any doctor can tell you about cancer is this: the further away you get from cancer, the closer you get to being done with it. So, I’m well on my way.
    Then I got this belly ache. In the past two months it’s been a regular event. Nothing truly awful, just a little belly ache that comes and goes. And since things seemed to be moving along more or less as well as they ever did, I figured I was all right. I didn’t worry. I just walked around saying “I have a belly ache.” Denial is not a river in Egypt, folks.
    My husband says that when old people say to each other “how’s it going?” they are really asking “are your bowels moving regularly?” When I was a kid whenever somebody didn’t feel well my Nova Scotian grandmother would ask “have you moved your bowels today?” and if you hadn’t, you were ordered to report to the bathroom and not come out until this movement had been achieved. We kids would gigglingly oblige, tickled by her very proper choice of words, and half crazy with the fear of having the dreaded enema, which was generally applied while brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles waited for news just beyond the bathroom door. Oh, the shame. No wonder I was in denial.
Depression-era photo of Gramma and her daughters, Mom (R) and Aunt Phyllis. The economy may have been sluggish, but not their colons, by God. Gramma saw to that.
    No one likes to hear they’re full of crap. When your own doctor tells you that, right to your face, it really hurts. It hurts almost as much as being full of crap, which hurts really bad. If you are one of those people who says “please, I’m eating!” when those of us in the medical field begin discussing the darker side of human physiology gone awry, this is the time for you to butt out. No pun intended. 
    As it turned out my colon was on strike, backed up so badly that my stomach wasn’t even emptying any more. The emergency room tests showed a sad and painful truth. Even a couple of shots of something really strong for pain didn’t eliminate the pain from my lack of elimination. The situation had gone on for far too long, but like I said, feeling so good in so many ways had trumped that little old belly pain for quite a while. My stomach was like a little voice moaning softly into the darkness: “what about me?” it growled. “what about how I feel?” I was ignoring that voice. Having no appetite was a good thing, too, as I’ve grown very fond of my favorite 1969-era jeans. Quit your growling, flat stomach!
The beautiful and deadly croton plant grows right here in Key West. I wonder if they have one behind the hospital emergency room? 
    My doctor finally told me, as I shivered on the rock-hard gurney in the ER, that my stomach was the size of a football. It should be the size of a baseball, at most. My daughter Susan wants fruit analogies always. So I told her that my stomach was the size of a large papaya when it should be the size of a small mango.
Croton seeds contain oil from which a potent laxative is made. Remember in John Steinbeck's East of Eden when Kate slowly poisoned Faye, the owner of the whorehouse? She used croton oil. Way too much of a good thing. Ugh. Imagine being Ex-Laxed to death . . .
    I once asked a surgeon what thing he did to his patients that he dreaded most. The naso-gastric tube, he quickly answered. The tube threads down through a nostril and into the esophagus and then down to the stomach. The tube is hooked on to a suction machine which empties the contents of the stomach with great efficiency. You’ve heard of having your stomach pumped? That’s what happened to me the other night. Like most people, the thought of the nose-hose, as the set-up is slangily referred to by medical personnel, is horrifying, about the worst atrocity imaginable. But guess what? It wasn’t that bad. True, it isn’t nice. Yes, it feels weird as hell. You should never underestimate the power of modern sedating drugs to render you remarkably tolerant to the poking probes of tubes sliding into places the good Lord never intended for them to go. Cancer survivors know this.
    It takes about an hour to empty the contents of one football-sized stomach. Then they replace all that sludge with a laxative, right down the same handy tube. The result of that laxative is a most impressive purge, the details of which I will spare you. The next morning I awakened nose-hose free, clean and warm in my cozy bed, with vaguely disgusting memories of an awfully crappy night.
    Two things you should take from my story. One: eat your fiber. Try for 25 grams a day. It ain’t as easy as you think. Look on labels. I thought a bowl of oatmeal every morning was all I needed to keep my fiber quotient up. Hell no. You need a whole lot more fiber than that. Like most parts of the human body, you can get away with abusing your colon for many, many years. But when your very tolerant body can take the abuse no longer, it rebels with pain. And that means you’re in trouble. Don’t ignore pain. It means something. Especially when it goes on and on and on. For weeks. Or months. It means you need to find out what’s wrong.
    Second: once again I have witnessed firsthand that the most merciful people on this planet are nurses and nurses assistants. In the past two years I have been through some of the most distasteful procedures imaginable, and at every event, there was a nurse, or a team of nurses and assistants, urging me through the rough patches, assuring me of my ability to cope, ignoring the distasteful by-products of my ever more tenacious grasp on life as this and all human bodies grow weary of putting up with our abuse. If you’re digging your trip on this long and winding road, don’t forget the care and maintenance of your vehicle.
    Happy trails to you.


  1. So glad it was not a scary thing and a "simple" fix!!! I have some other suggestions for you: eat fats. Unrefined organic coconut oil -- I buy it by the gallon for $50 from Mountain Rose Herbs, lasts for about 3 months for all four of us. Keep it on the counter, never goes bad.

    Butter - grassfed from cows not given antibiotics or hormones, raw if you can get it. Think Amish butter. Butter is a superfood.

    Your fiber needs something slippery to get the food moving along -- it won't do it on its own.

    Fermented cod liver oil -- another superfood.

    And fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchee. If you can get it unpasteurized, excellent. If it's pasteurized, that kills all the good stuff and they have to add it back in... might as well take probiotic pills which are a great alternative: billions and billions of flora to repopulate. Your gut is probably free of any and all flora after the amount of chemicals you've had. They don't replace quickly and sometimes not at all depending on your diet. Good to supplement this -- you probably know this!

    I had the nose thing, too. I didn't think it was bad either... funny what we look forward to when we are desperate for relief, eh? A nurse told me she was going to give me a catheter and not to hate her. "Are you kidding me?" I said. "Bring it on -- I'd love to stop peeing on myself!" Probably TMI for other blog readers, lol...

    Love you. xoxoxoxoxxo

  2. Hi fifty: I love your comments. I know that you're just like me: when it's TMI for everybody else you and I are saying, "yeah, and then what?" They say curiosity killed the cat. Really? And then what? Love, June

  3. My sister, Nurse Jacie from West Virginia, has offered many a gross tale at meal time to her delight and my horror. Nice to know I'll feel right at home, conversationally, when I finally unload this NJ house and return to Paradise permanently, neighbor.

  4. All the old conchs know to drink aloe juice when you have a stomach ache.

  5. Hi June, this is Joanie Sullivan. I have been reading and enjoying your blog. I haven't gotten the hang of leaving a post however. I resurrected my old gmail account so now I think I can do it.
    In my house whenever anyone complained about anything my mom would ask "How's Your Bowels?" It only took thirty-odd years but I finally know what she was talking about.
    My last chemo treatment was also just a little over a year ago!! My second post-cancer screening came back all good, completely C free. This is a happy July 4th! enjoy

  6. Joanie: You made my day, Girl!!! And yes, those bowels are important. Chemo left me with curly hair and an even curlier colon. Ha!!! Eat your fiber!! Love, June