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 thought scheduling my ileostomy reversal surgery was going to be a piece of cake after finishing my chemotherapy and resting my body for a month. In my mind, all I was going to have to do was call up my surgeon and pick a date, like making a haircut appointment. Sadly, this wasn’t how it worked. No matter how anxious I was to get through the final hurdle of my cancer treatment journey, there were multiple unpleasant procedures I had to do first in order to get the green light for my surgery.
The first procedure was a barium enema. I remember my surgeon explaining I needed this done to see if there were any leaks in the new colon connection he had made during my tumor removal. I heard the word enema, and all kinds of images flashed in my mind. I figured something was going to be done rectally, but surprisingly, it wasn’t. Instead, a skilled diagnostic radiation technologist placed a long, skinny catheter through my ileostomy, injected a dye into my intestines, then watched on a monitor as the liquid traveled all the way down to my rectum.
While this sounds fast and easy, it wasn’t. Things didn’t move quickly (of course), and I ended up having to step off the exam table and jump around to try to help the liquid move quicker. After an hour, the mission was accomplished, and an X-ray was taken to check the final results, which thankfully looked good.
The next batch of challenges was balloon catheterization procedures. These were done by my surgeon to stretch my new colon connection wider to prevent any obstructions of stool after my surgery. I had to prepare for these procedures as if I were having a colonoscopy. This actually wasn’t too bad for someone with an ileostomy, as it only required that I consumed clear liquids for a few days prior. During the procedures, I was placed under anesthesia, and luckily, I didn’t feel much pain afterward. My surgeon was trying to get a specific size of opening, but it couldn’t be done all in one visit, so the stretching had to be done on two separate occasions.
The final pre-surgery event was another barium enema, this time done rectally, to once again check the integrity of the newly stretched connection and make sure no leaks were present. This was vital, since any leaks in the intestines could cause serious complications after the reversal surgery. This was the most uncomfortable of all the procedures I had to endure. A barium liquid was slowly injected into a long tube, and it had to travel past a certain point before we could stop. When I was done, I recall having a terrible urge to run to the bathroom, which, of course, required passing through a small waiting room in a busy hospital. It was so embarrassing and comical all at the same time.
A few weeks after these tests were completed, my surgeon finally said he was comfortable scheduling me for surgery, and the date was set. Join me next week when I will share my ileostomy surgery and dramatic post-op experience.
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.