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Cancer: Year One, Part Two

Updated: Mar 27, 2022

My in-laws came to visit a few weeks later, in the middle of March. We had all our kids and their significant others over for a family dinner with Grandma & Grandpa and during dinner I started to not feel well and went to lie down. I had a fever and chills, which turned quickly into convulsions and I was rushed to the hospital. I remember Glenn trying to get my jacket on and Maxx trying to get shoes on my feet, all while shaking and convulsing uncontrollably. It would have been hilarious if it wasn’t so terrifying. The cancer had perforated my bowel and if I had waited any longer I may not have made it. I spent the week in hospital on heavy antibiotics and then on Saturday, March 17 I had my colostomy surgery.

By that time I was as ready for surgery as I possibly could be. I had uncontrollable diarrhea and was in constant pain, so I was relieved that something was being done, but at the same time not able to handle all of the emotion and trauma so I just shoved it down deep inside, trying just to get through all the physical challenges.

I may write another post about the challenges of getting used to a colostomy bag, but itt will most likely read like a dark comedy and include a few harrowing but also pretty funny stories, including one race along the Trans Canada Highway late at night, trying to get home because I had a sudden case of explosive diarrhea. Not something you can take care of in a Tim Horton’s or McDonald’s bathroom! On second thought, maybe not.

After recuperating I went through six weeks of radiation, five days a week, while taking chemotherapy orally. Radiation is interesting because it’s not painful at all. You just lay on a table and the machine circles around you for eight or ten minutes, then you get changed and go home. I was usually in and out in under 20 minutes, but it knocked me for a loop. I was so tired I would come home and sleep for the rest of the afternoon, and when I had to pee it felt like I was peeing razor blades. Radiation burn. I was introduced to the poor man’s bidet, which is just a squeeze bottle full of warm water that you squeeze on yourself to help you relax and pee, and it worked! I went everywhere with that squeeze bottle in my purse for the next few months! I was also losing weight and was quite frail by that point, and had a lot more nausea then than I did through some of my chemo treatments. Certain smells made it worse - I couldn’t eat fish or cooked vegetables of any kind, or even look at them or think about them. Those were the two things that sent me running for the bathroom heaving.

Another two months to recuperate and then I had my big surgery to remove the cancer on August 9th, 2018.

Dr K, my surgeon, was awesome. I was supposed to see a different doctor the week that I had been so sick in hospital back in March, but I was too sick that day to even go by ambulance, so they rescheduled me for two days later, in hopes that by then the antibiotics would have started to take affect, and that’s how he became my Doctor.

The first time I met him I was sick and scared, and he held my hand and told me it was going to be ok. That he and I were driving this train and he was going to do everything he possibly could to make me better, but that I was the one calling the shots. Exactly what I needed at that moment. I still get teary-eyed thinking about what a relief that was.

The surgery went well and the Doctors all felt confident they had gotten everything. I was slowly regaining my strength and looking forward to getting home and washing my hair! I was feeling great! I had a morphine pump in one hand and a fentanyl pump in the other, and I was hitting them hard. Look at me, what a champ!

Then the nausea hit. I think it was three or four days post-surgery, and it hit in the middle of the night. It was dark and I was all alone and exhausted, and I couldn’t stop throwing up. I had an incision from just under my breasts down the middle of my abdomen, circling around my belly-button like half a traffic circle, right to my pubic bone. I was terrified that my incision was going to burst open and my guts were going to spill out everywhere and that would be it. Logically, I knew that wasn’t the case, but in the middle of the night, on heavy pain-killers, anything is possible. I spent that night and most of the next day heaving, not able to keep anything down.

Five days post surgery I was having a really bad day. I was exhausted and tired of being in the hospital and throwing up, and everything was pissing me off. Especially Glenn, fussing over me and making sure I eat (by this time I had lost close to 50 pounds and looked like a skeleton). THE NERVE! So I snapped at him and he decided to go out for a walk to get away from me for a while.

I got up to go to the bathroom, and as I looked in the mirror I noticed my hospital gown had come untied at my neck, but when I tried to tie it back up I couldn’t get my left hand to work. It was the weirdest thing I’ve ever felt. No matter what I tried I just couldn’t get my left hand to tie my gown so I decided to go lay back down, but it took me a few tries to get out of the bathroom, because my left hand also couldn’t manage to grab the door handle. I finally gave up and used my right hand, which seemed to still be working fine, and called the nurse for help. Thank God I did. Glenn returned about the same time that the nurse answered my call for help, and by that time I couldn’t turn my head to the left to look at them or move the left side of my body. The nurse thought it may just be because they had taken me off the heavy opioids the night before and suggested we wait for twenty minutes or so before she called the Doctor. A few minutes later my eyes rolled back, and I started to have a seizure. Glenn ran to the hallway and yelled to the nurse to “You need to call the Doctor RIGHT FUCKING NOW!” I love my husband!

I woke up to a young, handsome Doctor straddling me and looking into my face trying to wake me up while two or three others were running, pushing my bed into the elevator with machines all over me. They asked me if I knew where I was and I said “Of course I do! I’m in the Chilliwack Hospital waiting for surgery! Duh!” (I wasn’t. I was in Vancouver and had already had surgery. Chilliwack is a small town in the opposite direction from where we live, and I’ve never been in that hospital as a patient!)

I was immediately taken somewhere for tests, I know I had an MRI scan of my brain that night, but don’t remember much else. Glenn was left alone, not knowing if I was going to live or die, and had to call the kids, my parents and our friends.

Our kids and my parents made the hour drive into St Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver in record time and sat around the rest of the day and half the night until they finally heard that I was stable.

That was our daughter Bailey’s 25th birthday. She was more than a little traumatized by that, as we all were, and for the next few years she celebrated her birthday on a different day. (The next year I found out on August 13th, the day before her birthday, that my cancer had returned. We didn't tell anyone for another week or so, just so she could enjoy her day.)

Our youngest daughter, Noa, was at the gym when Glenn called. She hasn’t been able to go back to that gym since, and dammit! She left her favourite water bottle there!

I spent five days or so in the ICU. I was so weak they had to tie me into a walker because they were afraid I would fall over and hurt myself. Skin and bones, and very greasy hair and wearing my adult diaper, learning to walk again by being tied into a walker. FUN!

After I was out of ICU and back in the regular ward I met my nurse Meghan. She was loud and boisterous and told me all about her life and the trip she was about to go on to Europe. She treated me like a human being, not just a patient. I would hear her as soon as the elevator doors opened and she walked onto the ward at the beginning of her shift. I’d relax and smile. She washed my hair for me a few times and we laughed ourselves silly. I couldn’t lean over the sink to wash my hair for real or have an actual shower, so she used the hospital’s hair washing system, which includes a plastic shower cap that contains some weird substance that doesn’t need water but really just leaves your hair looking and feeling worse than when you started, but maybe smelling slightly better.

Brie was the head nurse in the next ward. Glenn stopped to ask her something one day and started talking to her about me, and then she started to come see me every once in a while over the next few days to make sure I was ok. She brought me adult diapers because every time I stood up I would pee. No one had warned me or let me know that after a major abdominal surgery like that it takes a while for everything to go back to normal. It was awkward, especially since one of the nurses who had to clean me up quite often was a friend of one of my best friends daughter, and I had met him a few times. The thought that I may run into him again at a party was a more than a little mortifying, so I was very thankful for those diapers.

Finally, after a little more than two weeks in hospital, I was able to go home. I had another six weeks to recuperate and build up my strength before starting chemotherapy.

Chemo started in early October, so I had to have a port inserted into my chest, under my skin. It looks like a tiny little computer mouse and is where they insert the needle for IV chemotherapy, and the cord goes up to my neck and into my jugular vein, so when the chemo drugs start pumping through it goes into the vein and instantly out to the rest of my body. It wasn’t a big deal except that I felt like I’d been punched in the chest for a few days afterward.

More needles, blood tests and chemo every two weeks, and a few more races to the emergency room with high fevers and possible infections over the next months. Nausea, vomiting, sweats and hot flashes, and medication that turned me orange for a few days, and weight gain. There truly is no justice. The fun just never stopped until finally, on January 23, 2019 I had my final chemo treatment.

Everyone who goes through chemo gets to ring a bell when they finish their last treatment and get a certificate signed by all the nurses. I couldn’t wait to ring that stupid bell, and when the day finally came it was late in the afternoon and I was the only patient left, but I rang that bell with all my strength and a big grin on my face, and Glenn and a few of the kids were there to celebrate with me. Then I told all of the nurses that they were great but hoped I never saw them again, and I left.

I’m done! I just lived through the worst, most intense year of my life, but I made it!

More to come next week...©

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