Facing the Fear of My Tumor Removal Surgery

Nobody wants to be cut open, but for those facing life-saving surgery, there are few options
November 7, 2019 Updated: November 8, 2019

Cancer is one of the most common diseases of our age, and yet those who face it rarely know what’s about to happen to them beyond the broadest terms. “Cancer Up Close” is an open recount of Michele Goncalves’s cancer journey from pre-diagnosis to life after treatment.

So much about the cancer treatment process for me has been about confronting and eventually conquering my fears. Needless to say, this was certainly the case when facing my first ever surgery on May 29, 2018, to remove the tumor and place the ileostomy. I was absolutely terrified.

The thought of being under general anesthesia for several hours scared me, learning what stage of cancer I was really in after my tissue and lymph nodes were biopsied scared me, and most of all, facing six months of my life (or more) with an ileostomy bag hanging out of my abdomen scared me.

I felt my anxiety rising the week before, but things didn’t hit home until May 25, when I saw my ileostomy nurse at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) in Philadelphia where I was being treated. During my appointment, he drew lines with a black marker all over my abdomen to outline for my surgeon where my belt line was, and where the ideal spot for the ileostomy would be. This was covered with a big, clear plastic sticker to protect the markings until my surgery day. As I walked out of his office, my tears started to flow. This was really going to happen, and it hit me that my body would never be the same again.

The night before my surgery, I was at a hotel with my family near the hospital. As luck would have it, I had to do prep to clean out my colon (yet again), just as if I was going to have a colonoscopy. While everyone else went out to enjoy dinner, I was in my room alone, close to the toilet drinking a potion of Miralax. I felt sick to my stomach with each sip, as I was in full-on panic mode now. I hardly slept a wink that night.

Driving to the hospital the next morning at 6 a.m., I felt like I was going to my execution. I even said this half-jokingly to my family. I tried to stay strong, but I broke down in tears just after making it to the waiting room. When the nurse came to get me, I said goodbye to my family and tried to get my courage up, but I felt like I was going to faint.

I was taken back in the prep area, where they took my vitals and inserted two IVs (which totally freaked me out), and chatted with the anesthesiologist and my surgeon. Seeing the fear on my face, and my eyes welling up with tears, my surgeon touched my hand reassuringly and said I was going to be OK, but it didn’t help.

Finally, it was time to go in. I didn’t want to see my family at this point, although there was an offer to bring them back and let them say goodbye to me. I knew that if I saw them, I would not be able to handle my emotions, so I wanted to be left alone. As the nurses wheeled me down the long, cold corridors on the way to the operating room, the anesthesiologist had some mercy on me and started to give me drugs. By the time I got into the operating room, things were quite fuzzy, which was the best gift I could have gotten at that moment. Within seconds I was out.

Join me next time, when I will take you from the moment I woke up in the recovery room, to what my first few days following surgery were like.

Until then, breathe deep, be kind, and take it one day at a time.

Michele Goncalves is a financial compliance and fraud auditor for a Fortune 500 company by day and a passionate pursuer of holistic and functional medicine knowledge by night. She is also the author of the column The Consummate Traveler.

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