CANCER TO CARING
Most creative journeys of service do not begin with a half teaspoon of blood, but mine did on a sunny day in March, 1988. At the time I was a fifty-one year old woman, happily married, the mother of four children and had a rewarding career as a teacher. This experience would take me into the depths of my soul, around the world and even to the White House.
On that specific March morning I noticed one bloody stool as I went to flush the toilet. I could have ignored it, but I didn’t. This was not normal for me. In the back of my mind buzzed the seven warning signals for cancer. Blood was one; a change in bowel habits another. However, I quickly dismissed those subliminal messages. I was a healthy individual. I went to work, but later that day, I decided to call my doctor to relate the incident. He referred me to a gastroenterologist and reassured me that it was probably a hemorrhoid. After the examination by this specialized physician, he insisted that I needed a colonoscopy to check out my colon and promptly scheduled it for the end of the week. With my script in hand for the liquid prep solution I left the office and drove home knowing that I was following a normal protocol. I shared the news with my husband and he arranged to take the day off to drive me home from the procedure. Getting an appointment so soon should have tipped me off that something was not quite right, but I was used to following doctor’s orders. Since there was no reoccurrence of any more blood, I resumed my daily routines without worry.
Anyone who has had a colonoscopy knows that the prep is worse than the procedure and my experience was the same. Chills, nausea and a miserable night prefaced the day of reckoning. In the endoscopy center I was sedated and was unaware of the drama taking place. When the medication wore off and I became more cognizant of my surroundings, I saw three men standing beside me. My husband looked ashen. The gastroenterologist spoke firmly. “You have a large tumor. It needs to be removed immediately.”
As I heard the word ‘tumor’, fear joined me on the gurney and wrapped itself around my core, lodged in my throat and I couldn’t speak. Tumor, tumor reverberated in my brain and then transposed to cancer.
The question pushed by the stricture in my throat. “Is it cancer?”
“With a tumor this size, it is very probable, but we won’t know for sure until we get a pathology report.”
The look on my husband’s face confirmed my suspicions. This was very serious. His strong hand reached for mine.
The gastroenterologist continued, “Your colon is cleaned out. The surgeon here will take you directly to the surgical suite to operate.”
I heard his words as I glanced at the wall. There was a huge sign that warned not to drive machinery or make major decisions after this procedure. That admonition and the fact that this very competent surgeon had operated on my mother to remove a breast tumor and treated her with little respect gave me the courage to say NO. As they all stood there in disbelief, the fear slid from my throat to my belly. My voice was stronger.
“I need time to process this information and make an informed decision.”
The doctors expressed their objections. This tumor was growing. I should not wait. I would have to undergo the prep again. I was not thinking clearly. Their discourse went on and on as my resolve strengthened. I would not agree to immediate surgery.
My husband who respected my wishes reaffirmed that he was taking me home. We were silent on the drive from the hospital. Each of us was trying to come to terms with this diagnosis. I’m sure it was difficult for him. As an engineer he was used to dealing with facts and these facts were deadly. Looking at all the variables and solving problems was his everyday work. I trusted him to help me sort out the options and come to the right conclusions.
I still wonder after over thirty years of this journey where the fortitude came from to hold up the STOP sign. I was not a confrontational person. I had always listened to the advice of my physicians. Where did I find the voice that slowed down the process? Becoming an advocate for myself was the best decision I made that day and provided time to go surgeon shopping. My sister in law was a nurse at the hospital and referred me to a surgeon, the best in her estimation. Unfortunately, he was away for a week volunteering his time to perform free surgeries in a village in Central America. I scheduled an appointment for the following week knowing that this invasive tumor was still growing. I would soon discover that choosing a surgeon who understood that I needed to make informed choices and was willing to take the time to educate me would make all the difference.
Dealing with a cancer diagnosis is difficult enough but telling others was heartbreaking. My children were stunned but knew that I was in good health otherwise. They wanted all the detail when I had it to share. Talking to my mother was another matter. She was a lady that showed little emotion but had a take charge attitude.
Fearfully I told my Mom of cancer’s harsh invasion,
Acting brave and feigning nonchalance.
Mama said, “Just deal with it and then get on with life!”
But choked on unshed tears ‘cause I’m her baby.
She never asked for details.
We’d just chat ‘bout surface stuff,
While worry sat between us at the table.
I sugar coated terror and played the stoic part,
The delegated role for Mama’s baby.
My daughters, on the other hand,
Craved all the dire detail,
When cancer came a calling at my door.
On tables cleared for feelings,
Honest talk was frosting free.
Masking self was not an act for Mom’s granddaughters.
Although my immediate family knew that I would have some kind of surgery to remove the tumor, I waited to inform my employer and others until I had specific information from the physician. We met with the doctor at the end of his appointment day. He examined me, reviewed the photos from the colonoscopy and explained the procedure that would remove the tumor and the rectum and possibly part of the vagina or vaginal wall. He would not know how invasive it was until he was in there to create a sigmoid colostomy. He gave me literature and encouraged me to seek a second opinion if I wanted. We did seek a second opinion but ultimately chose this patient, caring surgeon. His sympathetic manner assured us that we were part of the decision making team. He made an appointment for me to meet with an enterostomal nurse who would evaluate my abdomen, find and mark the best possible site for the stoma, the portion of the large intestine that would be brought to the surface of the skin, folded back like a cuff and become the spillway for fecal output. She would also give me information about colostomy pouches and care of the skin. The surgery was scheduled for March 16.
Now I had the details and eight days to get my life in order. I met with my school Principal and told him the news. He arranged for a substitute teacher for the remainder of the year. His wife, a registered nurse, called that evening and offered to be my private duty nurse for the night and day after surgery. My colleagues were shocked. I was one more of the staff to face a cancer diagnosis. The number was growing each year – brain, breast, lung, stomach and now colorectal cancer. Telling my kindergarten students that I would be away for the rest of the year was tearful for me. However, when I broke the news to my students at a local college where I taught an education course, some of them broke down and wept.
Living in a small town, the news spread fast. Folks called to offer any kind of help and support. One call came from a parent of a friend of my oldest daughter. He was a member of the Ostomy Association of Springfield, MA and gave me some practical information about having a colostomy and invited me to their meeting that weekend. I declined since I had so much to do.
I knew that I had no way to change what was happening in my body but I could control the rest of my life. I threw myself into preparations. I cleaned my house and went to confession to cleanse my soul. Prepared meals filled the freezer. I bought my mother’s birthday present and brought it to her before her St. Patrick’s Day birthday, the day after my surgery. I met for hours with the substitute teacher giving her oral and written details about my students and lesson plans so that their transition would be smooth. For my last class with my college students, I brought all my special children’s books to share with them and suggested ways they could use children’s literature in all areas of the curriculum. I stayed after class to help them with their projects. I contacted the person in charge of a trip that I had planned to take with other teachers from New England to attend the International Reading Conference in Australia and visit schools in New Zealand. Canceling this trip was a major disappointment although I knew I had to get a refund. I filled my days with busyness to avoid thinking about the surgery and its consequences. However, in quiet moments I prayed that I would live and not cause my family anguish.
The night before surgery I finally gave voice to my feelings. “I’m afraid,” I confessed to my husband as he held me. “I am, too,” he said. The cancer diagnosis wasn’t my biggest fear, but the possibility that I would have extensive vaginal surgery that would leave me less than a woman. This didn’t happen. When I awoke in the recovery room, the surgeon said that he had removed the tumor, the rectum and formed the sigmoid colostomy. The pathology report confirmed that it was rectal cancer and two of four nodes were positive for metastatic adenocarcinoma. As he left, a familiar woman reached for my hand. She was the mother of one of my students. “I hope you don’t mind,” she said. “I asked to be with you, today. You will heal quickly,” she added. “Your doctor talks to every patient as he is operating and tells them they will be well. The recovery rate of his patients is remarkable.” This was my introduction to the mind, spirit, body connection. I would reclaim my life.
About the Author
Ann Favreau, a retired educator, is Past President of the Suncoast Writers Guild and of the non-profit organization, The Friends of Ostomates Worldwide-USA. Ann is a member of the Florida Writers Association (FWA). Several of her stories have appeared in the FWA magazine; her poems have been chosen for several issues of their Collections anthology. She serves as a judge for the Royal Palm Literary Awards. Ann was a contributing writer for Early Years Magazine. Her work has appeared in the Herald Tribune, Coping Magazine, The Ostomy Quarterly, Phoenix Magazine, Gulf Cost Living Magazine, Florida Lion, Positive Options for Colorectal Cancer, Doorways Memoirs, Yesterday’s Magazette, and several anthologies. Ann self-published Lap Games for Little Ones, The Healing Circle, Window Eyes, People and Places, and It’s Okay to Have an Ostomy. She was a first-place winner in the Sarasota FL Film Festival Television Pitch Competition in 2012 and has won local and national prose and poetry contests. Ann describes herself as a traveler who marvels at the awesome and finds wonder in the ordinary.