COLORECTAL CANCER: A BIRD’S EYE VIEW
The first sign that something was wrong was a bright crimson burst on the bum-wipe, at the end of August, 2018. A two-month wait, and a colonoscopy in Fergus confirmed that there was a tumor in the rectum that was cancerous, while a A CT scan also revealed a stone in the left kidney, which was zapped after Christmas at the Guelph General hospital.
After a long night back in the Emergency Room, an ultra sound showed there was still a fragment of stone floating around in the kidney, which meant I could not go for further tests at the Grand River Hospital in Kitchener, and was forced to spend Christmas holidays with the community in our usual way: around the Christmas tree in the Loyola House lounge, eating and drinking around the fireplace, and playing with Austin, our Greyhound. I never thought I’d be grateful for a kidney stone.
I met with the surgeon at his office in Kitchener. He spent a long time looking at his dusty laptop screen and then asked, “So what do you think?”
“What do I think about what?”
From there the conversation, such as it was, went on to present me with my options.
There followed a difficult period of discernment. I didn’t really want chemotherapy, I wasn’t sure I wanted radiation, and not even sure about surgery: why not just let things take their course?
Being assured by a medical friend that I would go downhill very rapidly without treatment, I settled on the short course of radiation (five days of it), rather than the long course (a month of radiation and chemo combined, aimed at shrinking the tumor before surgery). There were no side effects from the radiation.
Surgery (four hours of it) followed on the 20 February. I was meant to spend four days in the hospital, but it ended up being thirteen. I had a distended belly from gas, and to that belly was attached an ileostomy, a clear plastic sac inside which could be seen the shiny red nub of my stoma – a section of the small intestine which had been drawn up through a hole in the upper part of my trunk, below the ribs. There was only one day when the gas pain was unbearable.
“How to you rate your pain on a score from one to ten?”
It was decided to intubate me, putting a tube down my nose into stomach. First the tube ended up in my throat, making me gag and vomit up oceans of bile, but eventually the nurses got it right, and the pressure on my gut was gradually relieved.
For a mere $280.00, I was ferried from the hospital by Voyageur Transport to our nursing home in Pickering, where I spent three pleasant weeks in the company of Joe Brzezicki and Doug McCarthy, with whom I shared a table in the dining room, and then I was judged competent to return to the Red House, to the renovated room which had been John Govan’s , now painted a silvery white, with one beautiful blue wall.
On Friday, the 21 June, the first day of summer, and exactly four months since the last surgery, I rose at 3:40 AM, had a sponge bath (with an antiseptic sponge), dressed, and, at 5:00 AM I was on my way with Greg Kennedy, back to the Grand River Hospital in Kitchener, where he dropped me at 5:40 AM.
At 6:00 AM I was prepped for surgery, and at 8:00 the ileostomy was reconstructed. I suspect it took about an hour. I was awake about 10:00 AM. The four-month span between surgeries was probably because I chose not to have chemotherapy.
I was once again in recovery, 6th floor North, this time in room 28, bed 3. The other patients were always interesting. One, a 78-year-old man, would get dressed, and go out for a walk and a smoke, and maybe a fall. He also fell inside once, in the room, but never seemed to do himself any damage.
The man beside me, in bed 4, had a CT scan Saturday morning and was found to have a small aneurism on the bowel. A further scan in the afternoon showed it had expanded somewhat, and that evening he was taken by helicopter to the hospital in Hamilton for surgery (I would like to know how that went). This kind of medical care is certainly amazing.
A young man was moved into bed 2; he was from a local Old Order Mennonite community. He almost always had two other men with him, either wearing their black felt fedora hats or then doffing them to reveal their quaint haircuts. White shirts, black pants and buttoned vests were their uniform. One whole afternoon and evening they played some sort of board game with metal pieces that clinked when they gathered them up. I was grateful when they left at 8:30 PM.
Bill Clarke and Bernie Carroll came to visit Saturday afternoon, and brought me the Kitchener-Waterloo Herald containing the New York Times International Edition. That was a nice touch.
I had seen the doctor that morning. I was told that surgery went well, and that I could go home Sunday or Monday, once the bowels were moving a little and I was passing gas. He was in again Monday morning and said I was good to go.
Bill Clarke picked me us in mid-afternoon and brought me to the Red House, and went from there to our weekly community supper and sharing at Holy Rosary Parish. That night I had a solid five hours of uninterrupted sleep, after largely sleepless nights in the hospital.
The last few days I have been getting a ride to Loyola House to attend Mass (I’m not allowed to drive for a couple of weeks), where I have lunch and answer emails. Though the diet has been mostly liquid (in the hospital it was Jell-O three times a day), I have been eating more regular meals and spending less and less time on the toilet.
Things are gradually returning to normal. I wear a large “man guard” panty liner, day and night. I change the dressing on my wound every other day, and will see the surgeon again in three weeks (on the 18 July) to have the stitches removed. I’m grateful to be alive and cancer-free! And grateful for the prayers of so many!