Technically speaking, I guess my last form of cancer treatment was on August 20, 2019. That is when I endured my twelve-hour surgery to remove my rectum, build a permanent colostomy, take out the rest of the cancer tissue that was present, conduct intraoperative radiation, and do a complete hysterectomy, including ovaries. A lot.
I remember one of the surgeons told me that by Halloween I would feel “back to my new normal!” Having never had major surgery or any medical issue at all really, I was a little taken aback at first by the recovery process. I actually had trouble walking again and almost passed out when the nurse tried to help me walk after surgery. Eventually, though, I mustered up enough strength, and making those regular laps around the hospital floor became routine. Multiple times a day. Have to keep the body moving and blood pumping I guess! I actually only spent six days in the hospital after that extensive surgery, only six! For some reason, my body just…worked.
To say I was terrified of what body I would wake up to is an understatement. I had never even had a real surgery before for God’s sake! I did not know that my ostomy would be permanent until I woke up from surgery. I knew there was a chance yes, it was discussed beforehand. However, my surgeon also told me she would do everything she could to avoid it. We talked about margins and LARS. We discussed quality of life and what it meant. It was heavy.
I could not eat for the first few days, liquid diet only. Then they slowly increased my food intake to see if my bowels would “wake up”. This my friends, is a terrifying moment wondering if your new bathroom system is going to work? So we just have to…wait around? Sure enough, a nurse came by to check and said there’s output in your bag. I was kind of floored I didn’t notice (was also on a lot of pain meds!). The nurses came by and emptied my bag for me every time they came in.
On the white board in the hospital room there was a series of videos they wanted me to watch about my ostomy before being discharged. I was not into this. The conversation went something like this:
Husband: You have to watch these videos before we leave.
Me: I’m not watching that.
Husband: Yes, you are.
Me: No. I’m not. I don’t care about it.
Husband: Yes, you are. *turns on videos*
Sure enough, by Halloween I actually was feeling pretty good. I drank two whole bottles of wine to celebrate! [Insert meme about how Catherine does not drink anymore because she has lost the power of choice, this issue predates cancer, but cancer gave me the gift of realizing it] I had a small blip where I was briefly hospitalized due to a potential blockage about 6-8 weeks after surgery. But with fluids, it seemed to clear itself up. I even avoided the dreaded NG tube. I was about ten seconds away from meltdown city when the nurse bounded into the room and said “hold on, they said don’t place the tube yet, they don’t think it’s a true blockage”. I surmise it was an adhesion but I really haven’t had any issues since. Other than that my body has just…worked. I have had some frustration with my ostomy and finding my new routine but that’s to be expected I guess.
Other than that, survivorship has been a breeze! Just kidding. Albeit, it’s been amazing to be on this side of cancer and be no evidence of disease and i’ll always be grateful; however, it does come with its own set of challenges. I thankfully do have a good quality of life now but there are lasting side effects I will deal with for the rest of my life.
I have had innumerable adventures in survivorship such as learning to manage and irrigate my ostomy, learning to dress my new body, finding medical providers to manage my care going forward, managing menopause symptoms and medication, managing my own rage and sadness, managing ongoing skin issues from vaginal reconstruction, trying to build my life back after a seismic shift from cancer. It’s a lot.
Truth be told, I was in a hard spot prior to cancer and cancer gave me the gift of knowing I wanted to do more with my life. Prior to cancer I had been fired from my job, was generally discontent with motherhood and life, and had little direction. My husband and I decided I would stay home for a few years with the kids since having multiple kids in daycare wouldn’t even make my paycheck worth it. Enter cancer.
Honestly, making a lot of decisions after cancer, I kind of felt like I was floating through them. In a nutshell, I did have trouble controlling my drinking prior to cancer. But I was not able to admit I had a problem. After my cancer treatment concluded, I found myself still stuggling with the same issue and knew it had to go. I fell into the world of recovery and had never identified or loved anything so much. I started praying for direction and guidance and got a job at a local university. Not only a good job, but a great job that actually is flexible and aligns with my kid’s schedule well. Throughout this time I was also regularly attending my own therapy sessions. I would exit every therapy session and could hardly get the pen to write quick enough as I tried to word vomit back down everything I had just discovered about myself. My husband and I also went to couples counseling together during this time. It was fascinating, honestly. I learned so much about my own behavior and how to ask for what I need. How to act in a relationsip and respect the other persons needs too. I did have a good friend who gave me a journal during treatment. It has exactly zero entries in it from my year of treatment.
The summer after my treatment ended I began to seriously think about going back to school to become a therapist or counselor. I needed to make income to help my family but could I also actually find something I loved? I ordered my transcripts from undergrad without saying anything to anyone and began looking up schools online. I wondered if I could really do it? Should I attend the university where I was employed part-time? Maybe getting an online degree would be easier? Could I afford it? I spoke with admissions from a few different colleges. I prayed about it. I talked myself out of it numerous times. I ultimately applied to and was accepted at the small university I currently work for part-time. While my employment does not cover any tuition, I have applied for over fifty scholarships and aim to remain employed to help cash flow my masters. Of course student loans are there too, to help me make my way through school.
I’m incredibly excited about it; however, I’m also plagued by a lot of doubt as it gets closer. Just mainly keeping up with life demands alongside work and school. Let’s face it, this program will take me longer to complete than the traditional two-three years it does for a full-time masters student. By the time I complete this program and am ready to enter the workforce, I’ll probably be around 43 years old. Just starting my career at 43. That’s wild. It seems reckless in the most adult and responsible way you could be reckless. I wonder if this is financially irresponsible, as I’m probably supposed to be saving for my own children’s college fund and not my own. I’m questioning my time management skills and how I’ll ever be able to study, read books, make dinner, write papers, work, shuffle to practices, keep up with voluneer commitments, walk my dogs and remember to put out the trash.
But I’m also incredibly ready and grateful for the challenge that lay ahead too. I decided after cancer I wanted to be a helper and I do have some really cool visions of stuff I could do to support early onset cancer patients and new moms. Can I group that together?! I’m not the first working mom in history to do it and I certainly won’t be the last. I guess that’s why I kind of feel like I’m floating through it all because if you know me, I do not take chances. I do not typically do hard things. I usually take the easy way out. But cancer made me realize my time was almost up and I honestly just think I’m capable of so much more. I want to know. This time my past is shaded by events that I know have made me stronger and more resilient. I just hope I can be trained to pass on that same spirit of resiliency.