[cancer] Life changes, the smaller kind; potty talk edition

I’ve been talking a lot lately about sex and cancer, about the overwhelming aspects of chemo, the impact of cancer on my circle of intimates, friends and family. But it has had other, less obviously dramatic impacts on my life, some of which are still very strong.

One of the most basic changes is not particularly TMI, which is that my sleep metabolism shifted substantially after the colonic resectioning of May, 2008. When I emerged from the immediate post-operative recovery period (during which one sleeps twelve or fourteen hours a day, or more), I found myself sleeping six hours per night instead of my classic seven and half or eight. This was a welcome surprise, and I immediately leveraged it to expand and firm up my exercise regimen.

So one of the frustrations of this round of surgery has been the intense oversleeping during recovery. I’m down now to six or seven hours per night, which tells me I’m at the tail end of the substantial recovery. Which is to say, I still have healing wounds, internal pain, range of motion issues, etc., but I’m a lot more myself. One of my chemo fears is that the sleep will spiral back up. Fatigue and lassitude are classic, and basic, side effects of chemotherapy.

Because I use those waking hours. That’s how I sustain a Day Jobbe, parenting, a writing career, a love life, a social life, and still get laundry done. I’m not superhuman, I’m just awake and energetic more than most people. The eighteen hours a day I’ve been used to was a gift of the first Excellent Cancer Adventure. This round of New Adventures in Cancer threatens to take it away. Not pleased, me. Not pleased.

Another basic change was in my digestive health. (Here we’re getting into the TMI territory.) I’ve always had a wonky lower GI tract. That was quite possibly an early warning signal of cancer, though I never realized it. I carry my stress in my colon, so when things get bad-weird, I get the runs, or at least eye-watering gas. This has been true since I was a kid. Historically, a beef-heavy meal (even a large cheeseburger), or a fat-heavy meal, could send me sprinting to the small room within a very short time, there to park myself a while.

After the colonic resectioning, I followed my doctor’s advice and cut out things which I knew to be irritants. That meant no more beef. I’ve knowingly eaten about six bites of beef in the last eighteen months. (Which sucks, because I love hamburgers. And turkey burgers/veggie burgers are not the same.) I’ve completely abandoned caffeine. As long as I was at it, I gave up high fructose corn syrup, too, and became much more of a food label reader in the process. (I’m confident that step explains why I weigh fifty pounds less these days than when I went into the colon surgery, as much as all the exercise does.) In general, I shifted my diet more heavily towards fruits and vegetables, away from processed foods, meats and starches.

Guess what? I experience a lot less of the bathroom sprints these days. On the other hand, on a normal day I can experience eight to twelve productive bowel movements. Often under a fair amount of pressure, meaning I clean the toilet a lot. All of which is just freaking weird. And I frequently experience what I call “surprise poops”, one reason I almost always sit down to pee these days. Just in case…

My colon guy keeps telling me I should be back to normal there. He only took 22 cm of my colon, specifically the sigmoid colon from the colorectal junction upwards. I have over 100 cm of colon remaining. But each section of the colon moves at different speeds, and the sigmoid is the “brakes”. I think I experience a combination of overdelivery from further up the pipe, and signalling errors from the rejoined colorectal junction. Both of which seem logical enough to me, whatever my doctor says.

As a result, I have a notably toilet-centered lifestyle. I can and do hold it in long enough to sit through a movie, or a moderate car ride or short flight, but that’s about it. I don’t really mind, given that my few experiences with constipation have been far more disruptive to me. But it still feels weird to me sometimes. I am generally pretty unapologetic about my life choices and behaviors (viz. my wardrobe), but bailing out to the can a lot is unsexy, uncool and socially disruptive, and it’s one of the few things that will still consistently embarrass me.

I don’t know how chemo is going to affect this. Possible side effects include both diarrhea and constipation (at the same time?). It’s also apparently quite common to lose weight due to significant undereating, given nausea and the accompanying loss of appetite. How all this will affect my colonic health remains to be seen. I’ve long since given up ever being normal in this regard, but I’m not looking forward to being even more not-normal.