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.
In my very first article, I equated a cancer diagnosis and going through treatment to being kidnapped, tied up, and tormented for ages in a cold dark basement, and then suddenly set free from captivity one day. Well, March 20, 2019, was the day I was finally set free.
It was a difficult year and a half-long journey being diagnosed and treated for rectal cancer. While getting through it was a huge victory, I was anxious about the challenges ahead as I went back to my old life with a changed body.
After my tumor removal and ileostomy reversal surgeries, the doctors prepared me by explaining that life after these procedures would be different. Most of all, the possibility of incontinence. These words didn’t really sink in until I had my first experience with this issue three days after being released from the hospital. Out of nowhere, about 10 minutes after eating lunch, I had an explosion in my pajamas while in bed. It was at that moment I finally grasped how serious this was.
It was overwhelming to realize that I had absolutely no control to stop or hold back my bowels anymore. It was embarrassing, messy, disgusting, and unfortunately frequent. All I remember thinking was how I’d be able to go back to work or leave the house in this condition.
It is now nine months later, and while things have calmed down since those early days, I am still having daily issues with bathroom urgency and experiencing occasional accidents. This is especially so after having a meal and walking, or doing some other vigorous physical movement immediately afterward.
I’ve read online forums in which other rectal cancer patients have shared that it can take a year or even two for the bowels to return to some sense of normalcy. Although it’s discouraging to hear it could take this long, I’m at least hopeful that it may improve with time.
At this point, I carry in my purse an adult disposable undergarment, baby wipes, and a plastic bag just in case something happens when I am out. Even though this issue hasn’t really stopped me from socializing or going to work, it does make me nervous and choosy about the activities I agree to do. Mostly, I have to strategically plan my meals and eat lighter if I know I will be out for a long period and not close to any bathrooms.
Another challenge that I have faced since completing treatment is heavy metal toxicity and severe intestinal infections, which resulted from my chemotherapy infusions.
I knew something was going on when I woke up several times one night just after my reversal surgery sensing my fingers and toes were badly swollen and tingling with pins and needles.
Soon after, my functional medicine doctor ordered blood tests, an organic acid test, a stool test, and a heavy metal test, which discovered that my platinum levels (and four other metals) were through the roof, plus my belly was full of bad bacterial overgrowths such as candida and H. pylori to name a few.
I am currently taking herbal supplements under the care of my functional medicine doctors to rid my body of these substances as we speak, and I am happy to say that I am making slow but steady progress. I’ve even invested in a small infra-red sauna for my house to help my body detox the metals quicker. I love it so far and look forward to relaxing in the intense heat for 30 to 40 minutes after work. It is a nice way to end the day.
Lastly, I wanted to share my struggle with one of the bigger emotional challenges I am confronting. Every morning when I come out of the shower and see my body in the mirror, I still cringe at the sight of my disfigured belly all full of scars. My once flat stomach is now a caved-in, lopsided mess. While my intellectual mind knows this is a small price to pay to be cancer-free, it is still something that affects me. I’ve tried ignoring it, or telling myself that I still look OK, but I don’t really believe it yet. This is a work in progress, and I hope that someday soon I can feel comfortable in my own skin again.
Come back next week when I will close out this series in my final article by sharing my experience with the administrative and financial side of my cancer journey: short-term disability and medical bills from an out-of-network hospital.
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.