When I was diagnosed with cancer of the anus, (and I have never had anal sex), I was told I would have a stoma. I didn’t know what a stoma was. I was too intimidated to ask. The consultant flicked over the pages of his diary working out when he could fit me in for surgery which was to be the following week – in six days’ time.
As soon as I escaped his rooms with dates whirling around in my head, as I had to be booked in for pre-admission tests too, I went down in the lift to the coffee shop on the ground floor of the building. It’s open to the four floors of the building and people were sitting around pleasantly conversing. I wondered how many others had received similar news that morning. I was on my own as the lady who had given me a lift had taken her thirteen-year old daughter to an appointment in another hospital further into the city,
Armed with a pot of tea I googled ‘stoma’ and was aware for the first time what I was really facing into. The consultant had said, “It has to be done so we can effectively treat the tumor.” Now I understood fully what he meant as if my bowel was functioning as it had for the past 73 years, the radiotherapy would not have a clear run to do its job. It made common sense.
It was like 1984, I thought, where they listen to what is your greatest fear and then introduce it to you. A stoma or a colostomy bag as I knew it, had been the worst of my nightmares, apart from rats and mice that is. I am terrified of both.
But my hardest moment of that day was texting or emailing the boys with my news. I felt as if I had let them down. They might be in their 50s and 40s but they were still my boys.
Two years down the road, life with a stoma bag is okay, It can get grim, but all those books, and I was supplied with loads of them from CUH, do not seem to tell the nitty gritty story of this different life.
My first lesson was not to drink sparkling water. I love elderflower in sparkling water. One day, when I was in the middle of my radiotherapy, staying in Cork city during the week for my treatment, I drank a small bottle of it in M&S. I caught the 108 bus to Bishopstown from the city, had my radiotherapy and walked over to Tesco to buy a yogurt and bits for my supper in the hotel. I could have eaten for free in the hospital as they give you a voucher for free food in the hospital canteen if you are having treatment. At that point I was eating very little although I knew the importance to my body of eating. But I was so nauseous I couldn’t even keep a cup of tea down.
It was when I was in the checkout queue, patiently waiting whilst two ladies were having an animated conversation with the lady on the till, that I realized my stoma bag had blown up and burst. I was wearing navy blue light trousers thank goodness. I politely said, “I am in a bit of trouble here. Could I please pay?”
They immediately parted to make an escape route for me. Holding my errant stoma I paid for my purchases and shot to the in-store toilet.
Horrors – there was a man in the queue. I explained, “I am a in a bit of trouble.” He replied, “It’s okay missus. I won’t be long.” Bless him. He wasn’t and as soon as the occupants, a young mum and her child exited the only public toilet in the store, he was in and out in a jiffy.
In the privacy of the toilet I examined the state I was in. I was relieved and thankful that the Tesco toilet had plenty of hot water, soap and paper towels. I hopped from foot to foot trying to take off my loose trousers without causing any more damage. It was a bit of a nightmare but I managed to wash the soiled bits of my trousers and half-dry them under the hand dryer. Emergency spare knickers were extracted from my handbag. The expensive pure cotton ones I was wearing had been purchased following advice to only wear cotton or natural fibres when having treatment. Their first airing had been eventful and there was nothing more I could do with them but wrap them in a plastic bag and place them in the bin in the toilet.
I got a taxi back to the hotel but was so worried in case I had missed something and was smelly, that I couldn’t converse with the driver. They are used to taking people back to this particular hotel following their treatment so he assumed I had had a bad day. Well I had but not what he thought.
I took a lift to my floor and once in my room, ran the shower taps. I took my shoes off and stepped into the shower fully clothed. I let the warm water cascade over me and took off all my clothes. Once I had showered and dried myself I washed everything I had been wearing in the bath and hung it around the bathroom to dry.
Tomorrow was another day and I would not drink sparkling water ever again unless I was sitting adjacent to a toilet.