Cutting the bag to the right size. Not too big so that there would be leaks, but not too small so that it wouldn't cover the entire area. Cleaning off the feces-covered opening. Applying the adhesive correctly. Emptying the bag before it emptied itself… these were all terrifying new skills I had to learn rapidly.
My stomach pain proved to be advanced ovarian cancer, and I didn’t like the odds. The tumor was causing a nearly complete blockage of my large intestine.
Since the colostomy was created during an emergency surgery, it was placed in an awkward spot — just below my navel. When I stood straight, I felt the adhesive from the ostomy system pulling on my skin. So I cupped the bag over my clothes which gave it some slack. It looked like what women do when they are late in their pregnancy with a protective hand on their belly. In fact, I was asked by a stranger in the ladies room if I was pregnant. Nope. But I guess in a way I was afraid of my water breaking. Sewage water.
I wanted to faint at the sight of my exposed innards and at the grisly reality of my new life with a colostomy. But there was no time for self-pity, I was busy consulting with doctors on how to treat advanced ovarian cancer.
Trouble came quickly. I was at Memorial Sloan Kettering for my first cancer consultation five days after being released from the hospital. The surgeon took one a look at the wound and said, “You’re infected, my friend.” She prescribed antibiotics and told me I wouldn't be able to have surgery to remove the tumor if I was infected.
Some very patient visiting nurses came by to help me get the hang of things. One of them told me about the elderly patients she had assisted. They were also dealing with new ostomies and some of them had poor eyesight and arthritis in their fingers. It broke my heart.
My colostomy was actually a crucial factor in my decision about the surgeon I chose to remove the tumor. One doctor said the colostomy would be reversed only after I went through all my cancer treatments. However, the doctor I chose reversed the colostomy in the same surgery that removed the tumor.
Before that surgery took place, the doctor wanted me to have a colonoscopy. The thing that everyone hates about this procedure is drinking the prep needed beforehand. Now imagine having all that fluid which makes you have to "go" and you’ve got a colostomy bag. Wow. It was practically a HazMat scene.
It took me more than two months before I had the nerve to read the chilling pathological report and operative note. “You had massive disease,” surgical oncologist Armando Sardi told me. “The good thing is, we were able to take it out.”
I have had no complications. I was released from the hospital nine days after surgery and stayed in an apartment nearby for another 11 days. Then the staples from my 12-inch scar were removed and I went home to celebrate Christmas with my family.
A year has passed since the emergency surgery. It was Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2017. I got through it and now I am in recovery from stage 3 ovarian cancer. And if the colostomy could not be reversed, I would get through that, too. Because that's what ostomy patients do. We adapt. And move on.