HOW I DID IT is an ongoing series where readers share firsthand experiences living with an ostomy.
At 32, I was diagnosed with Stage 3 rectal cancer. Because of how low in the rectum the tumor was located, I had no other option but to have colostomy surgery. Not having a choice, I quickly accepted that this would be my new way of life, but accepting something and embracing it are not the same.
The first year with a colostomy, I often felt like I was dressing someone else’s body (note: I was also in full-blown menopause because of radiation). Recovering from surgery took much longer than I was prepared for. I had a difficult time finding clothes that I felt comfortable in, tops that could easily hide the bag or pants that would give a little when the bag would fill.
During the second year, I began to feel a little better. With the help of physical therapy, I was getting stronger and the more I exercised the more energy I had. As my abdomen healed, finding clothes seemed less challenging. During a conversation with my surgeon, his nurse mentioned this process, telling me that irrigation is only effective for patients with a colostomy, so it was an option for me. It was during this time that I began to contemplate the possibility of an irrigation process.
Colostomy irrigation is a way to regulate bowel movements by flushing and emptying the colon at a scheduled time. Simply put, water is used to flush out the colon through the stoma. If this is done routinely (every day to start, although some colostomates find they can go two full days between irrigating once they’ve been doing it for a while), the body is “trained” to only empty during that time. If patients are dedicated to this process, they can possibly get away with only wearing a stoma cap or a bandage to cover the stoma, so wearing a colostomy bag is no longer necessary. This process takes dedication, and I wasn’t sure if I would ever be brave enough to try this, but I ordered an irrigation kit just in case.
I thought a bikini was something from my past and never to be seen again. But one day while looking through a friend's Facebook photos (Becca Babcock, Miss August 2008), I saw that she was wearing a bandage on her abdomen, AND she was wearing a bikini at the beach. While she had a different type of ostomy, I was instantly inspired to try that foreign process of irrigation. It’s not that I hated wearing a bag, but as much as I tried to conceal the appliance, it still had a huge influence on what I wore.
I called my husband to tell him that I was going bikini shopping, and then called my ostomy nurse to schedule an appointment to learn more about how to do this process. That night I made the decision to commit a portion of my time every evening to irrigating. That was seven months ago, and since then the only time my body has “emptied” without irrigating was if I was sick or ate something that didn’t agree with me.
Colostomy irrigation has been such a liberating experience. I no longer worry about carrying ostomy supplies with me. I’m not brave enough to go without a “bag” very often, but that time is coming. I no longer worry about clothing choices and I can’t remember the last time I asked my husband if he could see the appliance through my shirt.
As with most colorectal cancer patients and survivors, the term “poop pain” is common jargon. For a few colostomy patients, “poop pain” means things are moving too slowly through the colon. With irrigation, most times I can quickly relieve these pains with a flush of the colon. I also tend to feel less bloated and less gassy. I no longer even think about the possibility of pooping in public. I feel so much more like my old self without these concerns. I no longer feel like I’m dressing someone else. Now into year three, I have embraced my colostomy. My scar and my “bag” are nothing more than reminders of how far I have come.