Unicorns & Grapefruits

If ever there was the perfect concert to have your ostomy bag leak during, it would be at a Flaming Lips performance. Picture lots of glitter, color, sparkle, inflatable creatures and a lead singer wearing rainbow wings while riding a lit-up unicorn. Part psychedelic rock, part theatre, part performance art, The Flaming Lips don’t put on a typical show.

Among a sea of mostly twenty-eight year olds, many of whom were dressed in colorful costumes and probably high, (no judgement, it’s the perfect concert to be high at!), stood my partner and I, both 49 years old. We fit in just fine. I was dressed in black skinny jeans, Adidas, a colorful long tunic and sparkly necklace. The problem was, instead of eating magic mushrooms or smoking a joint before the show, I had decided to pound back an entire, GIANT grapefruit. Now, keep in mind that I have an ileostomy: the lower part of my small intestine – the ileum – has been surgically brought out through an opening in my abdominal wall (the opening is called a stoma). Visually, it kind of looks like I have a strawberry sitting on my tummy. Ron, as I like to call my ileum/stoma, spews out everything I eat into a bag. Usually food exits my body in liquid form and it is fairly simple to empty the bag into the toilet throughout the day. But, certain foods like grapefruits, get digested differently and they exit my body in a much thicker fashion. So, essentially I had a hideous traffic jam of very thick grapefruit trying to exit my ileum and make it down to the safety of my bag.

Fast forward to me touching my bag – I always check it a million times when I’m out of the house – and feeling wetness! My worse nightmare had come true – a bag leak in public! Sweet Jesus! Thankfully I always carry supplies with me wherever I go, so I made a mad dash to the ladies room. The bathroom had speakers so I was able to listen to the show as I struggled with my bag explosion. In the stall next to me was a young woman wearing a unicorn headband. She was in her stall for almost as long I was in my mine. I’m not sure what she was doing, but I’m pretty sure she was having more fun than I was.

The bag clips on to a sticky thing called a “flange,” which is what encircles my ileum. After doing a bag change I always lie down and apply light pressure with my hand to the flange and bag: the warmth of my hand helps to properly affix the flange to my skin. So I decided to half sit, half lie on one of the chairs in the lounge section of the bathroom – LOL. I watched as 28 year olds wearing faux ripped jeans, applied massive amounts of eyeliner and lip gloss. They looked so fresh and shiny and beautiful and for a moment I felt like crying out of envy. I’m sure I looked like a total weirdo, half lying on a chair, holding my mid-section. But thankfully no one bothered to ask why I was splayed out so strangely – they probably just thought I was tripping hard on psychedelics. So again, it was the perfect concert to be at.

We had to leave a little early because my tunic was wet and I was exhausted from the emotional drama of the experience. But before going I was lucky enough to see their lead singer Wayne Coyne, perform David Bowie’s song “Space Oddity,” while surfing the crowd in his giant clear ball. So thank you Flaming Lips for helping me to survive my first public bag leak. #unicornsandgrapefruits

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Photo from blog.TO.com

Bears, Bags & Crows

I just returned home from a wonderful trip to Vancouver.  I was there to visit my old high-school friend and to celebrate one and a half years of stable cat scans.  I went solo, sans partner, because I wanted lots of girly time.  It was a very emotional experience.  I hadn’t seen my friend – we first bonded in 1986! – for six years and I hadn’t been to Vancouver for twenty years.  Vancouver’s beauty is awe inspiring.  It’s the kind of beauty that makes you believe in God, even if you’re not religious.

At Toronto’s airport security line I was asked to step aside to a private room so that they could inspect my ileostomy bag.  I had explained to them that I had a “medical device” on my stomach.  Looking back now, using the word “device” probably wasn’t a good idea.  It kind of has a nefarious, “red flag,” Homeland Security sound to it, lol! (note: on the way home I said nothing and they waved me straight through security).  Two lovely security ladies escorted me to a sectioned-off cubicle where I raised up my tunic and camisole to reveal my somewhat mangled, scarred tummy and Ron’s unfortunate looking beige click-on bag (Ron is my stoma!😀).  Style note: There should be Wonder Woman themed ileostomy bags, I would definitely pay extra for those!  How much more fun and empowering would it be to see yourself with a mini version of Wonder Woman’s outfit on your belly everyday?!

One of the security officers, (very young), couldn’t hide her surprise/confusion/horror when she looked at my bag.  Poor thing, I think I traumatized her.  I told the officers I had cancer, that that was the reason for the bag (I occasionally use the “cancer card” and I feel no guilt in doing so).  The older of the two ladies was lovely.  She looked at me with compassion in her eyes and she said: “Pray. Pray and you will be healed.” She was clearly a believer and I appreciated her kind words.  Since going to Catholic School for first & second grade, I have been praying every night.  In fact my nightly prayers are long and exhausting because each day I seem to add a new person to my prayer list.  I find praying to be comforting, meditative and it allows me to take a moment to express my gratitude, which I think is important.  But do I think praying will save me?  No, no I do not.

The trip was full of laughter, amazing conversation & good food (except for the Gluten Free cake – never again!). I did get a tad worried when I noticed a critical mass of crows – there were crows everywhere!  And every night at sundown the crows gathered together and flew by my friend’s house on their way to their nighttime retreat – which strangely enough was the TV studio my friend works at. Watching the crows swoosh by my window was a bit unsettling.  I found myself wondering if they knew something that I didn’t: perhaps my Mesothelioma had mestatisized and they were coming to devour me?

Also on my worry list – my worry list is as long as my prayer list – were bears. Vancouver is surrounded by forests and mountains – it looks like the movie “Twilight,” – I half expected to see Edward jumping Vampire-style between the trees. But with all that lovely nature comes many bears!  My first night there I read about a treat-seeking bear who had trashed a Lexus to get to a box of protein bars!  A few days later I found myself waiting for my friend in her SUV.  We had packed snacks and I suddenly realized that the residential neighborhood we were parked in was surrounded by forest – EEK!  I quickly jumped out of the car and joined my friend – there was no way I was going to survive brutal abdominal surgery and chemo only to then be devoured by a bear!

On my way home, at the Vancouver airport, I started feeling very sad.  I wondered if this would be my last visit with my old friend.  Over the last year and a half I have watched as several of my Mesothelioma FB friends have died from this wretched disease.  One day their scans are stable and the next day they are back in the hospital.  Mesothelioma has a “bad rep,” it’s like the Hell’s Angels of Cancer.  It’s known for being very aggressive and brutal.  But for now I will just be grateful.  Grateful for friendship, grateful for a stranger’s kind words and grateful for not being devoured by crows or bears.

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Out & About with Ron

My stoma, Ron, is always busy spewing out everything that I eat and drink.  It is exhausting keeping up with him – staying hydrated and nourished is practically a full-time job.  Though Ron has resided with me on my tummy for a year and a half now, I am still not 100% comfortable bringing him out of the house.

Emptying Ron’s beige click-on bag in a public washroom is stressful.  First of all, I don’t like to be rushed and women’s bathrooms always have lineups.  It takes a few solid minutes to smoothly and cleanly empty the bag.  With ileostomies the “output” tends to be very liquid, so you have to line the toilet bowl with tissue, otherwise there will be a splashfest of gnarly!!  Then you have to make sure that the opening of the bag is perfectly clean before you roll and seal it back up, otherwise you risk burning your skin or ruining your clothes. (Been there, done that!).  Finally, there is the always humiliating scent.  Ron, like most stomas, could use a lesson or two on pretty fragrances, perhaps a little lavender or mint to go with that “output.”  The smell is shockingly hideous.  I have a toilet bowl spray called “Poo-Pourri” and though it does help, (if you spray twice the suggested amount), it is expensive and most people with stomas probably won’t have access to it.  So going to a new restaurant or to a dinner party at someone’s house, I am now always filled with dread, as I don’t want Ron to ruin the vibe or people’s appetite.

Then there’s how to dress to conceal a stoma bag!  Right before my cancer operation – when I got Ron – I had started wearing high waisted 70’s style jeans with fitted tops.  It was a good look on me and it made me feel attractive.  Now I have much more limited options.  My go-to outfit consists of skinny low-rise jeans (the jeans hit me under the bottom of the bag), a snug stretchy camisole to kind of “flatten down” the bag and a loose, longer top.  Thankfully I can pull off this look, but as someone who enjoys clothing I hate not having more options.  Plus, even when concealed, the bag can fill up quickly making you look lump-sided.  The other day I had lunch with my lovely cousin and by the end of eating I was tenderly holding Ron’s full bag – I was cradling it as if I was cradling a miniature alien baby!  Whether I was comfortable or not I was forced to empty Ron’s bag at the restaurant or risk having it explode.  No one can prepare you for the strangeness of having a stoma.  It is heartbreaking, lifesaving and funny all at once.

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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…

Go Juice Yourself

If one more freaking person tells me that juicing will prevent my terminal cancer from returning, I will strangle them.  Or, at the very least, I will de-friend them on Facebook. Believe me, I know all about juicing – I lived in Los Angeles for twelve years!  And it’s not like I’m sitting around all day eating Doritos and drinking Orange Crush!  I eat a balanced diet, but I also include one daily treat – like a couple of cookies or a bowl of ice cream.  I inherited my sweet tooth from my paternal Grandmother who used to hide chocolate bars all over her house!  If anything, I am more aware than others about the importance of diet because I have an ileostomy.  With ileostomies, and mine is a “high-output” one, food (or juice!) goes right through you.  So I am very aware of getting enough calories and nutrients to keep my immune system strong.  I have managed to get myself back up to 115 pounds – from a low of 90 pounds! – so I clearly know what I’m doing.  I understand that people just want to help and that often they don’t know what to say and I truly appreciate everyone’s concern.  But please, enough with the Juicing.

Beauty Prep

It was six thirty AM, time for Sharon to start getting ready. She liked to look good for her surgical oncologist’s morning visits. She asked her nurse for a bowl of water and washcloth. Later in the day she would get a proper bath, well, as proper as you could get while lying in bed. But for now she just wanted to wash away last night’s grime. She washed her face, neck and armpits. She followed up with a moisturizing wipe, the kind used to take makeup off, it left her face with an attractive glow she thought. Then she brushed her teeth, using a styrofoam cup as her sink. As soon as she finished, a strong wave of nausea overcame her. Fuckety fuck fuck she muttered. She rode the wave for a few minutes – “nausea surfing” she called it – then thankfully it passed.

She propped up her travel mirror on the table next to her hospital bed. Looking in the mirror her first instinct was always to burst into tears. Her face was pale and scarily thin, she looked like a refugee from some godforsaken country. She had lost twenty-five pounds and her hair was falling out, shedding like a dog all over her pillow. But her daily beauty ritual of “putting on her face” as her grandmother used to say, (may she rest in peace), was essential to Sharon’s emotional survival. It gave her a sense of normalcy and the tiniest feeling of still having some control over her life and body. She applied blush to the deflated apples of her cheeks, plucked a few stray hairs, then added a tinted lip balm. Obviously she didn’t do a full red carpet look, if for no other reason than she didn’t have the energy. She finished primping by putting on scentless hand lotion and wrapping her bright pink Pashmina over her bony chest.

Feeling completely exhausted from the effort she lay back down, but then noticed that her overnight drainage bag was full of urine. Worried that it might overflow, she buzzed her nurse. A different nurse appeared this time. “You’re going to have to start urinating on your own, you’ve had this catheter in for too long, ” the nurse said with a bossy edge to her voice. “My bladder nerves were damaged during surgery, they’re taking awhile to bounce back.” Sharon said, trying not to reveal any emotion. The nurse gave her a chastising look, her expression suggesting that it was somehow Sharon’s fault that she wasn’t able to urinate. Dear God, where was her sweet nurse?

Ten minutes later her surgeon and his team of oncology residents were staring down at her. They always seemed very tall to her. It felt like being surrounded by tall, large headed aliens who were staring down at their human specimen restrained on a metal table. A very handsome resident, Dr. Josh Doukas, pulled her gown aside and inspected her ten inch long abdominal scar. “Looking good, looking good,” he said. She felt humiliated. Her sad little tummy, all mangled and grotesque. Why did Josh have to be so good-looking? “Now let’s take a look at your stoma, how has your output been?” If there is one thing a girl does not want to be asked by a handsome medical resident, it’s “how is the fecal waste matter that is flowing out of the red intestinal stump on your stomach?” Sharon wanted to disappear. Instead she smiled and patted the hideous bag affixed to her belly, the one that was collecting her waste. “It’s working well, though I’m still only eating soft foods.” The surgeon and his team continued to ask her questions and discuss her case amongst themselves. Sharon was a bit of a Cancer Celebrity, in that she had a very rare type of terminal cancer. The doctors, though they made a decent effort to hide it, were actually quite excited to have her as a patient – she was a fascinating case.

After lunch the physiotherapist and her assistant came by to help bring Sharon on a walk. They were both plain looking, lovely young women. Makeup free, hair pulled back in ponytails. The types who wore Patagonia jackets and comfortable European made shoes. Along with Sharon’s bladder, there had also been damage done to the nerves in her left leg. Apparently it had something to do with being splayed out on the operating table for twelve hours. So much to Sharon’s surprise, when she had awoken from surgery she’d found that she couldn’t walk, one leg was fucked up. The three of them walked slowly, Sharon’s urine bag attached to the walker, her giant splinted leg awkwardly inching forward and brutal pain shooting out from her incision area. She had once read about doctors who performed “vaginal tightening surgery” and for a moment Sharon wondered if her surgeon had tightened her tummy while stitching her up. The pain was enough to bring on another wave of nausea. She bent her head into the little plastic barf bowl that the assistant always brought on their walks and threw up a little clear liquid.

Sharon succeeded in making it across her room and halfway down the long corridor. This was considered a victory and for her prize she was offered a pain killer drip and some frozen yogurt. Sharon passed on the yogurt, but was excited about the painkiller drip. Maybe this is what it felt like to be a heroin addict – you looked forward to it, it was the highlight of your day. What if she became a drug addict? Then again she thought, who cares? I’m already dying, so why the hell not? She laughed to herself as the drug hit her body. She felt warm and cozy and happy. The sweet nurse – Louise was her name – stopped in and put a couple of pillows under Sharon’s legs so that they were angled upwards. “Sleep well Darlin,” she whispered to her.

Urethra, Where Art Thou?

My surgical oncologist, a fantastically tall and freakishly young looking Doctor, told me exactly what to expect after my surgery:

  • He told me I would feel like I had been hit by a truck.  Lovely.
  • He said that he would be giving me a stoma/ileostomy, since he was performing a resection on my bowel.  Disgusting.
  • The hot chemo that he would be pouring into my abdomen while I lay on the operating table, (called HIPEC), would cause some hair loss.  Thank God I was starting off with 80’s style Big Hair.
  • He added that, unfortunately, he would have to perform a hysterectomy so I would go into early menopause.  Fuckety Fuck Fuck.

I remember taking a Xanax while he rambled on, but I also took diligent notes in my little spiral notebook, adding lots of exclamation marks and angry faces.  As hellish as this whole ordeal sounded, at least I knew what to expect.  Or so I thought.

Fast forward to three weeks post-surgery.  After various complications, including a couple of days of being delusional where I was convinced that my mind was being taken over by something called “Crowd Sourcing,” – LOL! – I finally graduated from the ICU, to the Step-Down unit, to my own regular hospital room.

Throughout this period I had a catheter, since I was too weak and sick to get out of bed. Plus, my left leg no longer worked.  I had awoken from surgery to find that the femoral nerves had been damaged.  Are you fucking kidding me?! Apparently I had been splayed out on the operating table for so long that some of the nerves had checked out.  My surgeon reassured me that “most likely” I would regain full mobility.  NICE.  Could this get any worse?  Why yes, actually, it could.

One day my nurse said “let’s have you pee in a bed pan!”  She said it with an air of excitement, like we were about to go see our favourite band perform.  It sounded like a reasonable enough suggestion, though I wasn’t sure I was strong enough to pull myself up.  But I was game to start peeing again, I hated looking at the giant bag of urine attached to my bed.  So I tried.  But nothing came out. Not even one freaking drop. “Don’t worry,” said the nurse, “your bladder is just waking up.  We’ll try again tomorrow.”

After five weeks in the hospital – and no peeing on my own – I was transferred to the Rehab Hospital to work on regaining strength and learning to walk again. The nurses there were hardcore – they were like the Gangsters of Nurses – they immediately yanked out my catheter and started “bladder training.”  I had to try peeing on my own every two hours.  But nothing came out and I was in major discomfort.  After six-eight hours a nurse would scan my bladder – “it’s completely full!”  Really?!  How shocking!  Then the nurse would perform an “In and Out,” which is basically sticking a well-lubed skinny tube up my urethra and draining out the urine into a pan.  Cue “The Glamorous Life” by Sheila E.

I loved most of my nurses, but there was one crazy-assed broad who I hated. She acted like it was my fault that I wasn’t peeing and that it was a major imposition on her to have to perform an “In and Out.”  Instead of properly sterilizing my urethra, she would just THROW sterilized water – from a far distance – on my entire vagina.  Then she would start searching for a flashlight because she couldn’t find my urethra.  LOL.  Often she would attempt to put the tube in, but instead she would jam it up my vagina.  OMFG!  Are you kidding me?!  Where did this nurse go to school?!

At this point my cancer wasn’t even my main concern.  All I could think about was the fact that I was a ninety pound skeleton with thinning hair who couldn’t pee or poop.  Were it not for the support of my amazing partner, family & friends I would have surely slid into a deep, bottom-less depression.  Then came the day when one of my favorite nurses dropped The Bomb: “so, today I’m going to teach you how to do your own In & Out.”  Noooooooo!!!!!!!  This can’t be happening.  This can’t be my life.  How is it possible that after leaving a crappy marriage and finally meeting the love of my life, I now have terminal cancer, my bowel sticking out of my tummy and I have to stick a tube up my f-ing urethra every time I need to pee?!  “Are you there God?  It’s me, Mary Ellen.  This is bullshit!  Thanks for nothing!”

Thus began a 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 imperceptable slit that is kind of hidden by the rest of the female bits.  I now understood the crazy-assed nurse’s need for a flashlight.  Maybe I’m in the minority and I missed a crucial health class back in grade school, but I honestly didn’t really understand where the urethra was. Yes, I have a degree from The University of Toronto, but I studied Philosophy and Religion, trust me, urethras were not covered.  So I looked at google images of the female anatomy.  I used a mirror to watch what the nurses did.  When I couldn’t sleep, I used the light from my cell phone to search for my elusive urethra.  And then, finally, “The Big Reveal.”  Just like those reality makeover shows where the formerly dumpy looking woman with Sister Wives hair walks out on stage to great applause, looking chic & fab, I excitedly and with great fanfare, found my urethra and drained my own urine!   I basked in the glory of the moment, telling every single person I encountered about my ninja-nurse like abilities.  I was a Rock Star.

A few days later I was discharged from the hospital with a supply of pee sticks, lube, a giant splint on my leg and a cane.  It would be six more months until my bladder woke up.  I became a pro at self-catheterizing, my urethra and I were besties.  Then, one day, my bladder awoke from its epic long sleep.  I sat down on the toilet and heard a beautiful noise – the swoosh of urine hitting the toilet bowl.  OMG I am peeing!