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.
I was overwhelmed and exhausted after being discharged from the hospital following my rectal tumor removal and ileostomy placement surgery, but a huge uphill battle still awaited me.
My journey to recovery was full of setbacks, but through perseverance, prayer, and patience, I was able to see real progress eight weeks later.
The first hurdle came just hours after arriving home. I had to learn how to administer antibiotics via IV into a PICC line in my arm. A nurse came to my house to teach me this complicated procedure. I had to mix a powder and liquid, flush out my PICC lines and the IV with saline, and hook up several tubes.
My head spun from all the information. Fortunately, my auditor instincts kicked in, and I asked my brother to record the whole thing on my phone to play it back later. This was a brilliant idea since there was no instructional video available (I suggested this as feedback later). After another lesson the following day, I started to get the hang of it and completed the 14 days required all by myself. I was so glad it was over and proud of how I handled it.
The second obstacle was coping with physical exhaustion. I enjoyed long, energetic walks prior to surgery, so feeling wiped out after going up and down a few stairs shocked me. I patiently pushed myself each day to slowly build up my strength again. I started by walking to our backyard patio to get a few minutes of summer sun on my skin. Then a few days later, I walked around our block. I increased my distance every two or three days and watched myself go from twice around the block, to four times, then eventually to a nearby park after a few weeks. Although I’d feel wiped out and take a nap immediately afterward, my stamina improved, and this encouraged me to keep going.
The third obstacle was a sudden 20-pound weight loss, which came from my lack of appetite and the high volume of output from my ileostomy. Although things seemed fine the first few days after coming home, my appetite slowly disappeared and the weight fell off. In less than one month, I went from looking healthy to a sack of sagging skin and bones. My doctors and my weekly visiting nurse started to get worried (and me, too), but over the course of three months, the weight came back on. I did this mainly by adding pecans, walnuts, and olive oil to a high-calorie protein shake I drank for breakfast and as a snack after my walks. I also added a bowl of homemade rice pudding with coconut milk ice cream and nuts for dessert after dinner.
My final obstacle was the plastic drain surgically inserted through my bum into the huge, infected abscess I had at my surgical site for an entire month. I couldn’t sit, struggled to sleep, and could only lay in one specific position.
After a few weeks of this, I became so sore in my right hip and lower back that I had an emotional meltdown one night. I was exhausted and there was no relief. I asked God to help me, and soon found a natural pain ointment called NeoRelief that soothed the sore areas enough so I could rest at last. Soaking my feet in a warm tub of Epsom salt helped relax me as well.
When the eighth-week post-surgery arrived, which was the typical timeline for recovery, I remember proudly thinking to myself how far I had come. By this point, I could move, eat, and sleep normally again. I hope my story helps encourage anyone currently facing this situation to hang in there. It gets better, I promise.
Come back next week when I will share my experience living with an ileostomy for nine months.
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.