My “medical problem” is on a part of my body that people generally sling insults or make jokes about. I’m not in the habit of sharing dinner conversations about this body part with polite company. The only people who might deign to chat with me about it are my mother and my doctors. Maybe a sister.
So blogging about this feels awkward. I’m embarrassed. Even more than I would be if I were writing about, let’s say, a divorce, or a former heroin habit, or that porn movie one might have been in. Although, for the record, I have no experience with those last two.
But for those who are currently, or have been, or are about to go through something similar, this might be helpful in a let’s-get-real kind of way.
It was a good thing they kept me in the hospital overnight after my tumor surgery because my surprise back injury required a powerful narcotic for the pain, more than this procedure normally would have required. They administered intravenous dilaudid, an industrial-strength opioid, stronger (milligram per milligram) than morphine. I was grateful for the blissful night of sleep. Healing requires solid rest.
However, it was also a tactical error to receive as much dilaudid as I did. As remarkable as this drug was for addressing my pain, it was also extremely constipating. Shortly after noon the next day, they discharged me. I hadn’t pooped yet. In fact, I hadn’t pooped since the previous morning before my surgery. This was not typical for me. I expressed my concern, but they assured me I’d be fine. They were full of shit. But not as full of it as I was. If I’d known what was coming, I would have insisted on staying put until I’d had my first proper bowel movement.
My surgery was Friday morning and I was actually hungry for solid food by Friday night. I had several small meals on Saturday while still in the hospital and then a little something here and there at home. I reluctantly ate some breakfast late Sunday morning, although I was already feeling mildly impacted. But it wasn’t until Sunday afternoon (more than 48 hours after my last bowel movement) that my body finally said, “Before anything else goes in, something’s got to come out.”
If you’ve ever thrown your back out, you know how agonizing it is to get into and out of a sitting position. But if you’re going to poop, sitting is kind of your only choice. So in addition to the unavoidable pain of sitting, there was the unbearable stretching of the anal tissue that had recently been cut and sutured. And on top of that pain was the torture of straining through the most severe constipation of my life. I almost passed out.
This turned out to be the worst part of my post-op experience. On a pain scale of 1 to 10, it was easily a 15. It reminded me of the final pushing stage of birthing my son, after 36 hours of labor. [Which, by the way, is a pain that, contrary to womanly folklore, I have never forgotten.] This time I didn’t have a coach though, and I was too distraught, exhausted and overwhelmed for my brain to access my archived Lamaze breathing file. I wondered if the neighbors could hear me screaming and whether they would call 911. I came this close to dialing 911 myself.
This too shall pass. This too shall pass. This too shall pass. My new mantra.
The recovery for anal tumor surgery typically takes six to eight weeks. It’s not as if I could cover the surgical incision with a bandaid and keep the area clean and dry, because whether I wanted to or not, my body still needed to take care of business down there. Stuff needed to be wiped, or somehow watered down and patted dry. On top of being cut and stitched up, I had these details to contend with.
I cursed whoever was responsible for the absence of bidets in the United States. Europe and Latin America got them! How come we missed out? Sitz baths would have been the next best thing. Soaking in lukewarm water would have been soothing and would have flushed the area gently. But because of my thrown out back, there was no way to maneuver my body into and out of a bathtub.
I settled for a portable sitz bath that could be placed over the toilet. After doing my business and flushing, I’d have my helper slide the sitz bath underneath me while I managed to hover over the toilet, and I’d settle my tushy into that baby and soak for as long as my lower back could stand it. It helped. A lot.
A word (or eight) about getting help: Any modesty you may have – let it go.
Toilet paper was suddenly not my friend. In fact, I became a bit of a toilet paper snob. Cottonelle Clean Care only, please, and not the “Ultra” version. Forget about Charmin, which was too soft and linty. As for all the other brands? They were like sandpaper. Months later I would still be carrying a roll of my beloved Cottonelle in my rather large purse. Like my American Express, I wouldn’t leave home without it!
Another useful trick was moistening the toilet paper; not too much that it lost its integrity, but enough to clean better and ease up on the friction. I used a spritzer and moistened the paper with 2-3 sprays. Preparation-H moist towelettes also came in handy. The “women’s” version has soothing ingredients like aloe and camomile, but they do contain witch hazel which may have too much of a zing for some.
It took about a week for the biopsy results to come back. It wasn’t just a hemorrhoid; it was a cancerous tumor. And the tissue they were able to remove did not have clean margins, which meant my body was still playing hostess to cancer cells.
Time to develop a plan of attack. Although it helps to send your body lots of love when it comes to cancer, it also entails being willing to go to war on its behalf. For me, this was to become the yin-yang of living with cancer: compassionate meditator and ninja warrior all rolled into one.
Another surgery would have been my preference, even after that whole nightmare, but a panel of oncological and surgical specialists determined this would be counter-productive. As badass as my GI surgeon was (I’m sorry; calling her “badass” is a private joke I have with myself), there was nothing else she could have removed without compromising the functioning of my sphincter muscle. Without it, I would not be able to poop like all you normal people.
My prognosis was good though. We caught it early (Stage 1) and the treatment protocol they were recommending was tried and true. Twenty-eight sessions of radiation, Monday through Friday, for five and a half weeks; plus concurrent chemotherapy the first and fifth weeks of radiation. If we did nothing, the cancer could eventually spread to my lymph nodes, to my organs and then kill me.
When it comes to cancer the choices are, like Sophie’s: either horrible or hideous. Did I want to undergo treatment and live with side effects that were going to make me wish I were dead? Or did I just want to be dead? Horrible or hideous.
My doctors wanted me to take the full eight weeks to recover from surgery and get nice and healthy.
Before they accompanied me to death’s door.
In order to save my life.