Challenges are something many of us face in our life, hurdles we have to jump in order to become who we were meant to be. One of the greatest of all the obstacles to surmount, based on the luck of the draw in the twenty first century would be illness and in particular, Cancer.
Cancer is insidious, a curse, a scourge on society, and a product of nature we don’t really like at all. It is a disease we would all like to do our best to avoid if possible. Percentages have proved this century however, that a majority of families will have to face it down in some form or another.
Some 15,000 Australians, men and women, young and old, are diagnosed with bowel cancer each year. An ageing population means bowel cancer rates will continue to rise – around 130,000 new cases are expected by 2020 – We can no longer ignore it because it falls into that area of the body people do not like to talk about…. follow the link and read About Bowel Cancer.
My own personal journey with Bowel Cancer started long before I realised what was happening to me. According to my surgeon, it had been coming on slowly for quite a while. Most certainly, it was already invading my body all last year when I was travelling up and down to Brisbane to support my youngest son Craig through his chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments.
The difficulty for me was also being diabetic. It seems the normal side effects that are a result of my daily medication helped hide the early symptoms something was very wrong for me. Discovering my cancer was also complicated by an unusual illness at Xmas Time whose symptoms were part of the early warning system.
A few weeks before I went to Sydney for Xmas 2017 I decided to tackle the potted plants on my balcony, which were in need of attention. It had been a particularly harsh and cold winter here in Melbourne and this was the only time I had to freshen them all up with some new potting mix, using gloves and the tools of the gardening trade as I have always done before.
Little did I know about a new age disease Legionella Longbeachae No 1, a type of pneumonia that emerged in Long Beach California during the twentieth century and has not only spread throughout America, but also is spreading at an alarming rate in Australia.
It is brought on by exposure to potting mix by breathing in the dust from its toxic contents. Too late, I found out that I should have also wearing a mask when handling it in any way shape or form.
Mind you, I couldn’t help but notice none of our heroes or popular gurus on high profile garden shows on television wear masks to handle potting mix. Some I have watched since do not even wear gloves to handle it! So, no good role models there!
When my GP gave me a blood test in early January, proving I had Legionella, she also discovered I had anaemia, a sure sign apparently something else is going wrong inside our bodies.
However, the iron levels in my blood at that point were very high, not depleted, which would have been the normal outcome. So, we resolved to check it out again when I recovered.
Recovery was a drawn out process… it took something like ten to twelve weeks before I began to feel slightly better from this weird potting mix disease. In the meantime, for me the illness had fallen into a surreal range.
Basically, everyone I discussed it with looked at me blankly and to a man, none of my friends, either male or female, had ever heard of such a thing. It made me realise how hard it is to spread the word about something new and dangerous. You can die from it.
Resuming my usual walking regime of about six kilometres some four days a week along the river and into the botanical gardens, from then onward also become harder and harder for me to achieve, especially as time rolled irrevocably by. Each day I would sit on a number of fences on the way home to rest.
Easter came and went and gradually I became very cross at myself and with my seeming inability to surmount this problem of always feeling tired, even exhausted. What’s wrong with me I thought, is my imagination working overtime?
Perhaps I should explain that in my lifetime except when I was a child, I have rarely needed to see a Dr, except in later life for my diabetes. For this I have regular checks with my specialist endocrinologist at least four times a year.
Generational change meant my previous diabetic specialist retired last Xmas and my new doctor dramatically changed my medication starting in February and again in May this year.
At that time, blood tests given didn’t show up what was in the process of becoming a new crisis at a point when she was reassessing my situation.
By June a task like vacuuming my apartment had become a worrying event, as did walking down the street to the IGA for a few supplies, going on my usual daily walk during the week to the botanical gardens, or simply walking to the medical surgery.
Feeling much like a fraud, it was just before the June long weekend when I booked myself in on the Monday for a Thursday appointment with my local GP, a very young competent member of the new generation who also came on board my health issues last year.
When I kept my long-booked appointment with the hairdresser two days before my GP’s appointment and asked him to cut it all off short, he was inquisitive. “Carolyn”, he said to me, “what is going on…you have such lovely thick hair, and in the eight weeks since I cut it last, it has become really depleted. You need to see a doctor! “So, it’s not my imagination”, I commented! “Definitely not” he returned.
Two days later my GP immediately sent me for detailed blood tests. We discovered I still had the anaemia and my iron levels had slumped dramatically. She made an appointment with a surgeon for a ‘top and tail’ – a colonoscopy and gastroscopy in three-week’s time, the earliest we could confirm, where the specialist looks inside our body to find out what is happening.
In the meantime I asked her to talk to my diabetic specialist to also make sure they were both on the same page and agree it was the right course of action. They did.
From the Friday of the procedure onward it was like being on a whirlwind. What we learned in the recovery room at the hospital after the procedures meant the next Tuesday was an appointment with a surgeon specialising in colon cancer.
Wednesday, I was admitted to Epworth Hospital here in Melbourne and on the Thursday morning I had a right-side hemicolectomy – an operation to remove that part of my bowel invaded by a very large malignant tumour.
The worry was that it had penetrated all the walls of the bowel and was in the lymph nodes, from where it can invade the rest of the body.
The major surgery and aftermath waiting over a week for pathology results was an ordeal made bearable only by the love and constant presence of my three sons Paul, Ross and Craig and my wonderful daughter in law Belinda, as well as the few close friends who knew about my situation.
There was no time to tell anyone else; it was a case of finding out and going into hospital straight away. I must admit to feeling dazed, spaced out really and glad my sons were able to guide me along.
In hospital while I knew it to a certain degree it was important to discuss my condition, I learned from my team of dedicated nurses, how important it is to share knowledge of the detection, treatment and ongoing personal experience about bowel cancer in order to help those who may contract it after me. Hence this story.
My generation (born 1944) is often called the lost generation. Throughout my lifetime it has often felt that way, especially when I discovered all my sons had been advised to have colonoscopies recently. At 73 no Dr has ever asked me to have a colonoscopy before this happened.
Along the way I also learned about the ‘poo test’ sent out by the government and have to say since I have come to Melbourne, I have never received one.
The period following my bowel cancer operation was an ordeal because of a number of factors. First of all, ever since I was a small child recovering from the effects of polio in my stomach muscles and left side, I have always slept on my left-side/stomach. You can appreciate at my stage in life to change that scenario was very hard.
Having to sleep on my back meant two nights of torturous trial and error to find the right slant to put on the back of the bed so I could grab sleep in four hour intervals with my head on the side and my body contorted in a strange position trying not to put pressure on my wounds. Lying on the back of my head is also not an option because it causes a meltdown of its own.
Pain management was a huge focus at the hospital, so I was regularly given painkillers. With bowel surgery of the type I had I discovered the important thing is to also get what is left moving along well once more.
While breaking wind is not a term ‘polite’ people in society generally talk about, I was resident in a unit where it brings about a cause for wild celebration from the nursing staff.
Each morning I was greeted by a nurse with a huge beam on her face asking was there a cause for her to smile today. At first I felt awful having to nod my head, no.
Finally, on the Tuesday night after my operation my system decided it was time to become active once more, a particularly painful experience ensuring the old saying ‘better out than in’, had merit.
Just to keep the smiles on the staff faces, I obliged again on the Tuesday at lunchtime, which immediately caused a flurry of activity and much paperwork because it meant I would be immediately discharged.
Fortunately for me my youngest son was flying in from Brisbane late Tuesday afternoon in anticipation of looking after me until the weekend when his eldest brother and my daughter in law would take over.
The first day or so went uneventfully, although my system had decided it had operated enough for the moment and it would be Thursday night before it started up again. This time however I spent a terribly torturous night, until shortly before dawn the birds started singing once more.
As a fatalist, I believe when our time is up then it’s also time to bow out as gracefully as possible. As an optimist though, I will always fight if there is a chance of winning through and gaining more time with those people I love and care about. So now the fight is on.
My pathology after the operation revealed we are still at the beginning of the story, with the cancer having made a leap into many of my lymph nodes. This means Chemotherapy is to come and the challenge is to get through it and out the other side, cured.
For the moment, am aiming to fit my life and writing career around my treatment, rather than let the treatment rule my life, although I am being sensible and resting as advised, to bring my body back to fighting condition.
As my three sons know, I do not really want to bow out yet; well at least until I have seen the final film in the current Star Wars trilogy with them all. It’s a mother and son thing!
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2018