Finding Urethra

“Let’s have you pee in a bed pan today!” My nurse exclaimed with an air of excitement, like we were about to go see our favorite band.

I had been in the hospital for almost four weeks, (to treat Peritoneal Mesothelioma, a rare cancer), peeing through a catheter the entire time. I was game to try going on my own, but I was weak and wasn’t sure I would have the strength to pull myself up on the bed. My nurse took out my catheter then helped me into an awkward position, crouched above a cardboard pan.

The pan looked like a larger version of those biodegradable herb containers; my vagina an alien spacecraft hovering above a brown pebbled earth.

“I’ll give you some privacy,” said my nurse, leaving the room.

I looked out the window at the falling snow. No urine was exiting my body. “I command you to pee!” I said in a theatrical voice to an empty room. Nada. Not a drop. I was sweating and wanted to lie down, the position required too much strength to hold.

The succulent-crystal gurus say, “Ask The Universe – with love and gratitude – for what you need. Then visualize having what you need – and poof! – you will manifest it.” So I asked the universe to help me pee, in what I hoped was a loving and grateful manner. Then I visualized a long river-like flow of urine exiting my body – swoosh! I paused, ears tilted, in full manifestation mode. Nothing. Maybe the universe was busy helping people with more serious problems, like those living in camps in war torn countries. I couldn’t blame the universe, I’d do the same thing if I had magical powers & everyone was hounding me for help.

I was sure I was due for another blast of Hydromorphone. After two surgeries and HIPEC, (hot chemo poured in the abdomen and swished around), I was ablaze with pain. I buzzed the nurse’s station:

“Hi. I can’t pee. Nothing is coming out. Also, I think I’m due for more painkillers.” My nurse responded, “be patient, keep trying, it’ll come. And no, you’re not due for more pain meds yet.”

I stared gloomily at my crotch. “I know you’re in there, come out come out wherever you are!” Still nothing. I tried reaching for my water cup and fell into the pan.

My nurse appeared, “don’t worry sweetie, your bladder is just waking up from a long sleep, we’ll try again tomorrow.”

She helped me lie down and inserted a new catheter. I asked her about her plans for the next couple of days since I knew she was off.  “I’m heading over to Buffalo with my sister to hit the holiday sales at Macy’s.” “That sounds like fun!” I said enthusiastically. I loved my nurse, I loved all of my nurses – they were like athletic shoe-wearing angels tending to me with care and quiet confidence.

“I’ll see about your pain meds” she said, as she handed me a damp towel for my sweating brow.

After five weeks in the hospital – and no peeing on my own – I was transferred to a Rehab Hospital to work on regaining strength, gaining weight and learning to walk again. My left femoral nerve had conked out during surgery, (from being splayed out for so long on the operating table) and I had awoken to find that I couldn’t move my leg.

So, let’s recap: I couldn’t pee, I couldn’t poop – (waste was now coming out of my stomach into a bag, since my surgery had also included the bonus gift of an ileostomy) and I had a bum leg. For the love of God and all that is Holy, throw me a bone, any bone. This is too much.

The nurses at the rehab hospital were hardcore, they were like the Marine Corp of Nurses. They immediately took out my catheter and started “bladder training.” They seemed confident that I would be peeing in no time. I was instructed to try peeing on my own every two hours, so I would shuffle over to the bathroom using my walker, trying my best to avoid looking at myself in the mirror so as not to further depress myself. Sitting on the toilet with the sink water running, I would wait five minutes, then get up and do my haunted girl shuffle back to bed.

Bladder training required waiting six hours before being allowed to have a catheter inserted to void the urine. In between physiotherapy, sleeping and doing my laps around the floor, my bladder would fill up to the brim; it was horrible. At this point I was no longer on pain meds, but I would often sneak a Xanax from my private stash just so that I didn’t completely lose it.

The nurses were required to scan my bladder to see how much urine I was retaining before they were allowed to insert a catheter to drain me. A catheter, in this case a long rubbery one which looked like a hose, was lubed up then inserted into my urethra. The urine would then drain out into the brown organic pan, they called it doing an “in and out.”

Though the Marine Corp nurses were amazing, there was one whom I always dreaded having. She acted like it was my fault that I wasn’t peeing and she gave me major attitude over having to do in and outs. Instead of properly sterilizing my urethra, she would literally throw sterilized water from a far distance over my entire vaginal area. Then she would leave the room to go searching for a flashlight. Often she would attempt to put the catheter in, but instead she would jam it up the wrong hole. When she finished she would “tsk tsk” me under her breath. I knew this part of her job was a major drag, but what could I do? The universe was busy helping others and my bladder nerves had gone into hibernation.

At this point my cancer wasn’t even my main concern. All I could think about was the fact that I was a skeleton with thinning hair who couldn’t pee, poop or walk. Were it not for the support of my amazing partner, family & friends, I would surely have fallen into a pit of despair.

Then came the day when one of my favorite nurses dropped a bomb: “you’ll be going home very soon and your bladder nerves are still not working. So today I’m going to start teaching you how to do your own in and outs.” Dear God, have mercy on me please.

Thus began a brief chapter in my life called “Finding Urethra.” Because if you want to drain your urine, you first need to find the hole that it comes out of. And by hole, I mean a really tiny, almost imperceptible slit that is kind of hidden by the rest of the female bits. Maybe I’m in the minority or I missed a crucial health class back in high school, but I honestly didn’t really understand where the urethra was. So I used a mirror to watch the nurse and at night, under my blankets, I examined myself by the light of my cellphone.

I had an irrational fear of doing the procedure on my own. It’s like all my anxiety about having cancer was projected onto this one procedure and I couldn’t imagine that I would ever master the skill. I envisioned myself at home, swollen like a balloon with unreleased urine, until one day I just exploded, spraying pee everywhere.

But like anything in life, when your back is against the wall and you have no other options, you figure things out. One day, having finally located my elusive urethra, I successfully performed my own in and out! I basked in the glory of the moment, telling everyone on my floor my good news. I celebrated by eating an extra cup of ice cream (side note: the little hospital ice cream cups are, unlike all other hospital food, strangely delicious).

A few days later I was discharged from the hospital with a supply of tiny, clear catheters, lube, a giant splint on my leg, a walker, crutches and a cane. It would be six more months until my bladder woke up. Then, one day, while sitting on the toilet, I suddenly heard a beautiful noise – the swoosh of urine! The universe had finally granted me my wish.

Author’s Note:
My bladder nerves only partially woke up; I still have to self-catheterize twice a day. This is what the little catheters, aka, pee sticks, look like:

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Skinny Jeans

It was my first time trying on skinny jeans and I was excited. My legs are stocky, inherited from my mom’s side of the family who were all strong Irish farmers. As a teenager I had yearned for my dad’s long, pole-style legs and had even asked my parents if I could get my legs stretched (I had read somewhere that a lengthening machine existed).

At forty-six years old I had long ago accepted by body, but when I slipped into a pair of size 24 skinny jeans and saw my legs looking strangely slim, suddenly my insecure teenage self reappeared and she was ecstatic. Yet the reason they looked slender was because I had lost weight due to cancer. I was newly diagnosed with Peritoneal Mesothelioma, a rare, incurable form of abdominal cancer and I was in denial. “I’ll take them,” I told the shopgirl. And though I’m ashamed to admit it, for the next few weeks I actually liked how I looked. How sick is that? Speaking of sick, during this same period I did not feel well: I had difficulty eating, major nausea and twice daily panic attacks where I felt like my throat was closing.

My cancer “de-bulking” surgery was eight hours long and included the removal of my reproductive organs, a section of my small intestine and my primary tumour which I had named Maude. It also included a treatment called HIPEC, which is essentially hot chemotherapy poured directly into the abdomen while the patient is still on the operating table, aka a chemo bath.

After several days in the ICU, I was moved to the step-down unit. It was there, ablaze with pain and high on narcotics, that I made a decision: I had suffered enough. I would run away from the hospital and fly to Oregon where I had read they had passed legislation that allowed patients to “die with dignity.” But such an escape would be impossible without my skinny jeans.

“I need my clothes,” I whispered in a raspy voice to my partner. Not wanting to upset me, but suspicious of my intentions, he retrieved my hospital bag and put it next to me on the bed. I pawed at it in a drugged-out frenzy, then passed out.

I awoke to a large tiger staring at me from across the room. And someone had brought their dog to work: “I can’t believe they let animals in the hospital!” I said to myself, horrified. My great escape would have to wait, the hospital needed me; I had to keep watch over the creatures infiltrating the building.

Also, I had a new friend whom I had become very attached to and I didn’t want to leave her. A nurse’s assistant had been placed in my room to guard me, since in my delusional state I had made several attempts to get out of bed (while attached to multiple tubes and monitors). Not understanding that she was there to keep an eye on my crazy self, I thought I had my own private nurse-friend and I adored her.

Due to a myriad of complications, I spent two months in two different hospitals. At the second one, a rehab hospital, the nurse weighed me: the scale read 94 pounds, I usually weigh 120. I had lost a great deal of muscle mass; my legs were emaciated, atrophied sticks and my bum was pancake-flat. I avoided looking at myself in the mirror, it was too upsetting. I begged God to help me gain back the weight, promising never to complain about my thick legs again.

In retrospect I think my early fixation on my legs was simply my way of avoiding the intense emotions that were surfacing. I was scared of dying, who wouldn’t be? But what really troubled me was the idea of hurting those I loved. I was blessed with a partner, family, friends and a one-eyed elderly street dog who all loved me. I didn’t want to cause them pain.

Now, two and a half years later, I am back up to 120 pounds and I’m as stocky as ever. I am extremely lucky to be alive, many people with Mesothelioma don’t live more than a year after diagnosis. And though I’m grateful, I’m also aware that I’m living on borrowed time. So now I wear skinny jeans as often as possible. It’s my way of giving cancer the middle finger.

The famous skinny jeans try-on at ShopGirls on Queen West in Toronto.  I had already lost ten pounds here and little did I know that I would lose 20 more…

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Dammit!

After my surgery and heated chemotherapy (HIPEC), I spent two months in the hospital.  At one point my room looked like a funeral parlor, there were about twenty floral arrangements.  Now I love flowers and I love receiving them and I was/am hugely grateful for the kind gestures of my friends and family.  But we need to mix it up a little, too many flowers can make a patient feel like a priest is about to walk through the door to administer their last rites.  So what to buy your loved one instead?  I recommend “Dammit Dolls.”  They are bright, joyful, nutty little creatures that you can bang against your hospital bed when you get frustrated waiting for your morphine.  There are many to choose from, one is even especially designed for cancer patients, with half the proceeds going towards fighting childhood cancer:

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Another favorite of mine (no name needed):

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And they also offer these fab little Dammit Heads:

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To shop the whole collection:

https://dammitdolls.com/shop/dolls/Team-Rocket/Team-Rocket

 

 

 

 

Death in the land of Facebook

I am lucky enough to be a part of a private FB support group for those with Mesothelioma.  About 70% of the members have Pleural Meso, (lungs), 28% have Peritoneal, (abdomen, my type) and about 2% Peri-Cardial (heart).  There are close to two hundred of us, plus two medical professionals who operate & administer the group.

Thankfully, approx every month we get a new member.  I say thankfully because approx every month we also lose a member, so at least we are replenishing ourselves. One month this year we lost three people.  Pouf! Gone.  Leaving behind their dreams, their children, their spouses and families.  I’ve come to dread FB notifications, always fearing the worse.  One death, a couple of months ago, hit me especially hard.  He was a young man in his late thirties, married with two kids.  Like many other Meso patients, he had to travel a long distance to receive treatment.  Mesothelioma is a very rare form of cancer, there are only a handful of doctors who specialize in, let alone know anything about it.  Since he was going to be away from his family for treatment, we were invited to send him cards to cheer & strengthen his spirit.  I sent a lovely note, writing that I too had Peritoneal and had received the exact treatment he was about to receive.  I wrote him that I would be thinking of him and sending him strength and positive energy and that he was welcome to ask me any questions he might have.

It was radio silence for a long time after that and then….the dreaded FB notification: “I am sorry to report that we have lost another one…”  Nooooo!  He was dead.  Not only was he dead, but he suffered.  The treatment he received, the same one I had received, is called “Cytoreductive Surgery and HIPEC” – and it is fucking gruesome.  But, it is also an amazing invention.  It used to be that with a diagnosis of Peritoneal Mesothelioma you were screwed, usually dying within a year.  But with this treatment patients often gain a few additional years and sometimes even more.

Sadly this young man was not one of the lucky ones and I initially felt very guilty.  Guilty because although I have a partner, family & friends, I don’t have children.  And in some weird way I felt it would be more “just” for me to die and for him, a father, to be able to live long enough to see his children grow up.  Then, after the guilt passed, I started to get angry with “God.”

Hello God, are you listening?  Why can’t you just kill all the evil freakers out there and leave the good people alone?  People always say you – God – have a plan.  But I don’t think you do have a plan, or perhaps you are super disorganized and all of your plans have gotten mixed up and you are killing the wrong people.  Maybe you need a Personal Assistant God.  Someone who can keep all of your plans and paperwork and charts organized.  That way you can focus your energy on killing off all the horrible, bad people and saving the good people – like my nice Facebook friend who died, whose children are now fatherless.  

 I look forward to hearing back from you regarding my suggestion.  Take Care.  Sincerely, Mary Ellen 

Turning into Woody

This just in: I am totally turning into Woody Allen’s hypochondriac character in “Hannah and Her Sisters:”

The other morning, while brushing my teeth, I became convinced that the bottom of my mouth – the salivary glands – were swollen with cancer!  I mean I was convinced!  I inspected them and quickly came to the conclusion that they had never been so large and that in the three months since my last CAT scan, my abdominal cancer had taken over my mouth!  I spent a solid fifteen minutes googling and staring at horrible images of mouth tumours.  Then I called my dentist and explained the situation.  I’m sure they thought I was NUTS, but they were totally cool.  Since I was due for a cleaning anyway, they said I should just come in and they would take a look at my highly suspicious, swollen, I’m about to die, cancerous mouth.

On the streetcar over I prepared for the worst.  “Your cancer has spread to your mouth.  We we will have to remove your entire mouth, you will no longer be able to speak.”  I started to sweat.  Walking the few blocks to the dentist’s office I passed a beautiful old church – Toronto has an amazing assortment of stunning old churches – and I decided that I should go in and say a few prayers.  I tossed money in the saint’s box and lit a candle:

Dear God, please don’t let my mouth become mis-shaped from this horrible cancer.  I already have a tummy that is mangled looking, I don’t want a mangled face as well.  Please help Tom and my family deal with this terrible new diagnosis.  If I need to get traditional chemo, please let me keep my eyebrows.  I don’t mind losing my hair, it’s been fucked up ever since my HIPEC/hot chemo treatment.  I will purchase a nice pink wig with bangs, but I really like my eyebrows.   And please don’t let me get down to 90 pounds again, because I already gave away all of my “emaciated clothing” to The Salvation Army.  Again, please bless my family and Tom.  Thank you.”

After several ridiculous prayers and many dollars later, I left the church and walked the death march to the dentist.  I love my dentist, he is the best.  He assured me that although the bottom of my mouth was larger than most people’s, there was nothing to be worried about.  But, he said it was totally normal that with a large-bottomed mouth like mine I might think there was a problem (bless his heart!).  Oh the Joy I felt upon hearing that my cancer had not spread to my mouth!  I practically danced all the way home and then passed out exhausted on my bed, dreaming of pink wigs and saints and perfect mouths.

 

Love and Loss

Since my beloved dog Leroy died, the house has been painfully quiet. My partner is enjoying the calm, dog-free environment, but I am not. We have no children, so at night there is just the sound of music playing and laptops buzzing. No pitter-patter of paws, no head-butting, no fake sneezing, no barking, no “I wanna go on a walk” dance performance, no cuddling, no old-man snoring, no silky coat to be combed, no belly rubs, no licks on my face. I can’t live like this.

I want to adopt a dog now, but my partner wants to wait. He wants to wait a long, long time – as in he never wants to get another dog. He is worried that my cancer will start to metastasize, (Peritoneal Mesothelioma), that I will die and that he will be left devastated and having to take care of the dog – something he is not sure he will be up to doing. Now, the thing is, I can’t promise him that all that won’t happen. Right now my cancer is stable, but unfortunately Peritoneal Mesothelioma is rare and aggressive and without a cure. So yes, I could be dead in a couple of years, that’s entirely possible. What’s also possible is that I live for another five years or more. With this diagnosis the average life expectancy is 12 months. But, but for those lucky enough – like me – to be able to have Cytoreductive Surgery and HIPEC, (hot chemo poured in your abdomen), then the life expectancy increases to up to five years and beyond. There are even a few people in my private Facebook mesothelioma group who are ten years into living with their disease.

I don’t know how long I have until this cancer kills me. But I do know that having a dog allows me to experience pure joy and I think joy is the best medicine out there. If I’m being totally honest, I think I deserve that joy and I want it now. And yet, I have this amazing partner by my side. When I was in the hospital for two long months, he visited me every single day. He is not freaked out by my hideous ostomy bag and he is more than happy to continue having an intimate life with me despite my rather mangled looking tummy. He is protective of me and my immune system, buying bottles and bottles of vitamins and making sure I eat enough protein. He is in love with a woman who has a terminal illness – how fucking hard must that be?!! So, how do I reconcile my desire for a dog with my wanting to support my partner as he navigates the emotional war zone of living with cancerdame?

To Be Continued…

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Bony Moronie

“I got a girl named Bony Moronie.  She’s as skinny as a stick of macaroni!”

“Bony Moronie” by Larry Williams was my theme song while I was sick.  My partner introduced me to the great little ditty and it became my go-to song to lift my spirits.  I’ve always weighed between 115 and 120 pounds.  I’ve never been Bony Moronie “skinny” per se – I have the stocky farmer limbs of my Irish ancestors – but I’ve always been slim.  By the time I went into surgery for my Mesothelioma, anxiety (and cancer), had caused me to start to lose weight and I was down to 110.  After the grueling surgery I was fed only ice chips for ten days. ICE CHIPS people, nothing else.

One day my nurse announced cheerily that she was going to weigh me.  Suddenly I found myself standing precariously on the scale, hunched over like a frail old lady. “90 pounds!” cried the nurse, with a touch of theatrical flair.  Ninety Pounds.  OMG.  What normal 47 year-woman weighs 90 pounds?!  The number horrified me.  At that time I had not yet viewed myself in a full-length mirror, I had only seen my face in my makeup compact.  I was not emotionally prepared for how shocking my appearance truly was.

It wasn’t until January 2015 when I saw myself naked in a large mirror.  I was at the rehab hospital and tipping the scales at 96 pounds.  I remember the moment I saw my whole figure for the first time, I had sort of an out of body experience.  I looked at the pale, stringy haired, emaciated woman in the mirror and wondered who she was.  It was very difficult and painful to accept that I was looking at my own reflection.  From that moment on I mostly tried to avoid looking at myself, for I feared that I would spiral down into the depths of despair and not be able to climb back out.

One of the things that drives me bat-sh*t crazy is the expectation by many people that because I am “lucky to be alive,” I somehow don’t have the right – or it’s deemed in poor taste – for me to talk about how bad I feel about my body.  As cancer survivors we are allowed to feel both tremendous gratitude for the second chance at life and simultaneously feel deep pain about the ravaging of our physical selves.

And with that, Larry Williams – take it away…