By Steve Graham
Following several requests, we are publishing the Colon Diaries as a single article.
Colourful language and very graphic... visceral even, in a way that engages our curiosity and provokes a shared sense of dread and vulnerability.' A real Tour de Force - this is an absolute must for everyone.
The Colon Diaries by Steve Graham
So they had to find out and I was sent for a CAT Scan. Now I’m assuming we’ve all seen the movie ‘Stargate’ (well for those of you who haven’t, it’s a big circular high-tech gateway to another time or dimension, where people step through into a land that time forgot or to another world altogether). This is how I imagined the CAT Scan machine, except that’s how I would have imagined it if they hadn’t sent me four massive sachets of ‘Clean Prep’. What’s ‘Clean Pre’? I hear you say, well it’s basically industrial strength laxative. I can just see them at the manufacturing meeting saying, “Come on boys we’ve produced this wonder powder capable of reaming a man dry and we’ve got to come up with a name, and we’re not using ‘Bowel Blaster’ or ‘Shite Shifter!” So they settled on ‘Clean Prep’. I spent the day before my scan necking four litres of warm water and the magic powder, to spend the next four hours watching the world fall out of my arse. So by the time I got to the CAT Scan I was starving. When I go in, suddenly it wasn’t the high-tech ‘Stargate’ I’d imagined, suddenly it was a giant donut and I was Homer Simpson gliding through, “MMM donut…”
Then I had the week from hell, waiting, waiting to find out how far it had gone, waiting to find out if the cancer had spread. I was grumpy bastard, like a bear with sore head and my poor girlfriend was at her wits end. Finally the waiting was over and me and my long-suffering girlfriend were called in for a meeting with the Head Surgeon to discuss my case.
The surgeon was a big man, very authoritive yet sensitive. He spoke very carefully and very concisely. He spoke a lot, but the main words I remember were; “You’re very lucky, were able to take the curative route, your cancer is very localized and there is no sign of any spreading”. My girlfriend and I turned to each other and the tears ran. It’s hard to believe you can be so happy just to have localized cancer, but that was the best news I could have ever had.
Then we discussed the operation, it all sounded simple, open me up, cut the dodgy bit of manky colon out, join the two good bits back together, Bob’s your uncle! But they wanted to operate quickly, I was two weeks of my 50th birthday, and I gingerly asked if they could do the operation after that. And the date was set, two days after my birthday I was going in.
There was the whole should I tell people, or should I not, I’d obviously told my family, but friends, other people? Now I’m an intensely private person and initially I chose not to tell anyone of my six-week ordeal or my diagnosis and I had to think long and hard to myself why? And if you want to know the truth? (as that’s what writing this thing is all about) I didn’t want to appear vulnerable, spent, over the hill. My 50th birthday was on the horizon, that was enough of great leveler as it was, but, ‘happy 50th you’ve got cancer’, was just too much. I felt like that limping Stagg now marginalized to the edge of the herd. They say pride goes before a fall; well I was at the bottom of the staircase on my arse. But the day before my birthday, out drinking with a close bunch of male friends, I just blurted it out! And for those of you who were there, (you know who you are) I’m sorry, but the overwhelming, and genuine wave of positive emotion I received back from them, completely blew me away. It was totally unexpected, but, I guess whatever I was feeling about my own vulnerability, was present in each and every one of them and that’s when I realized I wasn’t alone.
So came the morning of my admission, and they had one last invasive indignity left in store for me, a little pre-cursor to the main event. I received a phone call from the hospital saying they had forgotten to tattoo the inside of my colon, just like that. Now, you can forget your gloves, your sandwiches, your bloody keys for God sake, but who forgets to tattoo the inside of a colon?
So back in for another colonoscopy but this time I was having a ship’s anchor and my girlfriend’s name emblazoned up my back passage. Well actually, the whole point of the exercise is, a tattoo is done next to the tumor and is visible from the outside of the colon and allows the surgeon to easily identify the correct spot to make his incision, but I still liked the idea of the ships anchor. When I say I liked the idea, I don’t know how many people out there have had tattoos, (this was my first) and I know people say it hurts, but believe you me, you haven’t felt pain until your have the old indoor tattoo. I think I can safely top most tattoo stories now, “Have you got a tattoo?” “Oh yes, on my shoulder, bloody painful, how about you?” That’s when I can confidently reply, “I’ve got a tattoo where the sun don’t shine and you don’t know the meaning of pain.”
So at 5.45pm that same day I was finally admitted. It was a strange time to enter a ward of a hospital, it was a mixed open ward and most of the curtains were closed. The patients were winding down to settling in for the night, a few had visitors but there was this eerie quietness about the whole place. The male matron greeted me in and showed me to a bed, but for some reason I was reluctant to get undressed, as if I hadn’t quite admitted to myself that this was it, even though my operation was scheduled for 9.30 am the following morning, but I guess I hadn’t quite believed it. A male nurse entered and reminded me I had to go through the whole ‘Clean Prep’ scenario again (clear my bowel before the operation). So here I sat, suddenly feeling like the condemned man, with a last meal of arse cleanser.
Then I’m left alone, in the silence, when the curtain swishes again and in comes a small diminutive woman and announces, “I’m probably the last person you want to see right now, I’m the stommer lady.” I’m just looking at her blankly, thinking, the stommer lady? What the hell is a stommer lady? I’m racking my brain, is she some kind of new age preacher, a crystal healer? She is just smiling inanely at me, “Stommer, you know the stommer bag, a colostomy bag? I’m sure the Head Surgeon went through it with you?” I’m caught completely on the hop, as she explains I have to be marked up, in case the surgeon needs to fit the bag, she needs to mark the spot on my belly. “Now we like these things to be discreet.” How can a fucking bag of shit be discreet! But I just nod, “now, we like to put it below the waistband, you’re not one of those hip-hop types who wears his waistband really low are you?” I’m fucking fifty; do I look like a bloody hip-hop type? I just shake my head. “Okay, stand up and show where you wear your waistband.” I stand and position my underwear just below my navel. Then she proceeds to mark a big black circle, about the size of 50p piece well above my navel. I’m thinking, what happened to positioning the bag below the waistline? The only person who could hide one of your bags would be Simon fucking Cowell! Then with a swish of the curtain she’s gone.
By now I’m shell shocked, truly rattled and to be frank very scared, probably more scared than I’ve ever been in my life. Then my girlfriend arrives, her face puffy and red from crying. We lock eyes, and we both break down. She was just a mess, as we try to talk, but we both know there was this undercurrent feeling that this may be that last time we ever see each other again. I hold her, she sobs, I could feel her body shaking, she apologizes, “I should be the one comforting you.” I told her it was all going to be okay but truth to tell, I didn’t believe it myself. We try to make small talk but it was pointless. We exchanged loving vows then I tell her it’s best she goes. If she stayed any longer I knew it would only get worse, more so for her than for me, because she was the one with the possibility of waking up the next day and finding out she was alone.
Now I lay in the darkness of that ward thinking is this is? Is this as far as I go? I thought of my mother, I’d lost her to cancer last year, and that her name was Mary and I was in St Mary’s Hospital. I talked to her a lot that night. Then I recalled that gristly noxious lump I’d first seen on that camera, my tumour, my cancer, my enemy and thought it’s him or me now. Somehow I slept. I was woken at 6.30 am by a male nurse with the immortal line, “morning sir, it’s time for your enema.” I was reminded of that awful joke, ‘with friends like this, who needs an enema’. I groggily get out of bed and the nurse continues, “would you like me to do it? Or do’you want to do it yourself?” I had to laugh. After my bizarre early morning alarm call and my bowel truly sluiced, I was ready for whatever the day was to bring. I had a mantra; ‘If I don’t wake up from anaesthetic then I won’t know a thing about it, if I do, then that’s a bonus.’ I just kept running that through my head as they wheeled my bed out of the ward.
Suddenly, I’m in an episode of ‘House’ – I’m being wheeled back stage along the obligatory long corridor, past numerous operating theaters, passing a variety of surgeons, all in full scrubs. Finally we turn right into my theater and I’m parked in the anesthetist’s anti-room. I can see the big operating theater lights through the swing doors as various people come and go. I begin to shake and stare up at the ceiling where there is a set of shabby Harry Potter stickers, (presumably to reassure sick children, either that or they’ve had Dumbledore through here). The two anesthetists calmly talk me through the procedure. I’m trying my level best to stay calm, then they inject the anesthetic. Suddenly my body goes into convulsions, or maybe this all happened in my head? But I thought the left side of my body was getting the anesthetic and could breathe but the right side was dying and couldn’t. In my head the anesthetic was connected to my email, the left side of my body was normal email but the right was email with attachments. I remember screaming to the anesthetists “you’ve gotta connect to the attachments, you’ve gotta connect to the attachments!” Then I woke up.
I groggily came round in (what I now know was Intensive Care). The room was swirling, I was drifting in and out of consciousness, but I saw the face of my beautiful girlfriend smiling at me. I tried to talk, to make sense, but it was all very surreal. As I regained some sense of where I was, I realized I had what seemed like a million tubes, drips, and wires hanging out of and off my body. I was like a collapsed puppet draped with his strings. But I was alive, I didn’t have a bag, my gristly little friend had gone, and beautiful woman was smiling at me, and at that point I knew, it was going to be all right.
But what can we learn from all this? What can I learn? Could I have done anything different, should I have changed my lifestyle, changed my diet?
Whilst many cancers are brought on, in truth most cancers are random. How often do we hear of a non-smoker who contracts lung cancer, or a non-drinker who gets cancer of the liver. We get what life deals us, but what I got was the most important thing of all, another chance.
So I say to you all, if there’s even a shadow of doubt about your personal health, something that doesn’t seem right, but you learn to live with it – don’t! The main enemy in any cancer case is time, so go and get whatever it is checked, don’t leave it or put it off. The experience I’ve been through – whilst invasive, traumatic, painful and emotionally harrowing – had a good outcome and if I had left it, it could have been very different.