Let’s dive right in, shall we?
But first, one great, big, gnarly caveat: Know that if you’re not a doctor or nurse or paramedic or cop or firefighter or haven’t seen combat, this may be a little much. You’ve been warned.
Cancer sucks. And the “traditional” treatments (cut, poison and burn, a.k.a. surgery, chemo and radiation) suck even more. The day does eventually arrive, when at long last, you’re “done” with the treatment. This is quickly followed by a few more indignities: more probing; more poking. And finally you’re left with the wondering, “Am I ever going to feel OK again?” and the ever-present niggling question in the back of one’s mind,
“Did we get it all? And if so, is it going to come back?”
When I was first diagnosed, I read and read and read and read. One of the sites I went to was the Anal Cancer Foundation. The personal accounts under the tab “Thriver Stories” was my entry point for gathering anecdotal information. A part of me believed that if I could find out exactly what to expect, what it had been like for others, this would somehow help. It would brace me for reality. It would reassure me that what I was experiencing was “normal.” It would serve to remind me that others had been through it and had come out on the other side to actually write about it.
It also scared the living crap out of me.
So, if you have recently been diagnosed with a cancer, any cancer, but especially anal cancer, and you don’t want the shit scared out of you, stop reading right now.
Seriously. Just stop.
You will have your own experience and once you’ve survived it, you can come back and read this and go, “Oh yeah; that’s exactly how it was,” or “Thank God that wasn’t MY experience,” or “Honey, your ride was a piece of cake compared to mine!” Meanwhile, you have my best wishes for swift treatment and recovery and…this goes without saying…a long, long life.
I went to the doctor because I thought I had a hemorrhoid. Several (in fact, too many) of the personal stories of anal cancer that I read started exactly this same way: “I thought I had a hemorrhoid.” If you think you have a hemorrhoid, PLEASE just have someone who knows what they’re looking at, look at it. Not your Mom; not your lover. Unless they have the initials “M.D.” after their names.
I was lucky. My general practitioner recognized her limitations – she had little experience looking at actual hemorrhoids, and immediately referred me to a gastrointestinal surgeon, who had looked at enough assholes (literally) in her years of practice to know that what she was looking at was most likely not a hemorrhoid. In fact, my “hemorrhoid” turned out to be Stage 1 squamous cell carcinoma of the anus. We caught it early. I might have been faced with Stage 2, 3 or 4 if I’d been too embarrassed or squeamish or just plain couldn’t be bothered.
Anal cancer is rare. But just like all the other cancers, if left unattended, eventually (after cut/poison/burn) it may lead to surgical removal of parts of your gastrointestinal system (colon, rectum), which then requires rerouting your body’s solid waste through your abdominal wall into a bag. That’s what a colostomy is. It’s a scuzzy word with an enormous “Ewwww!” factor, but people live and work and have sex lives after colostomies. For them and their loved ones, it’s better than being six feet under.
If my cancer reoccurs after treatment, this will be my only option (as far as Western medicine is concerned).
Obviously, any cancer runs the risk of the worst possible outcome. And yes, there are people who would rather die than go through the cancer treatment protocols that are available through our painfully inadequate medical system. Honestly, I can respect choosing to forego treatment, such as it is. But at least find out what’s really going on in your body, so that you can make an informed choice.
NEXT STOP: Part II: “The Surgery”
[NOTE: This blog post was inspired by the prompt “What I Don’t Want To Write About Is…” which is part of the Brave Blogging class I took with Andrea Scher.]