As ovarian cancer invaded my body, at one point I was given no alternative other than to live without eating solid food for a month. Although this experience was eleven years ago, it will always remain one of the most vivid and horrible memories from my cancer treatment. Looking back, I’m rather proud of myself and the fact that I accomplished what was necessary to survive. In the end, I was capable of enduring something that not many other people have had to face.
How I came to require NPO (the medical abbreviation for nothing by mouth) on my chart for a month is a complicated story, but still a situation that many gynecologic cancer patients will understand. Bowel blockages occur at an alarming rate for people diagnosed with these cancers— although when I was an innocent newcomer to the realm of ovarian cancer, I still had little idea how common these obstructions are in patients with the disease.
Sometimes it’s directly due to a recurrence of the cancer and a new tumour is pressing on the bowel. In other cases, the explanation is severe scarring of the bowel due to surgery or other aggressive treatments; excessive scarring can lead to a life-threatening obstruction. The second scenario is what happened to me and prompted my medical team to take such drastic measures. At first, I was sent home following an emergency room visit, as they were able to stabilize me and my symptoms seemed to subside. However, within a matter of weeks I was hospitalized again and involved in what felt like a terrifying fight for my life.
I’d never felt abdominal pain so severe or nausea so intense, every minute that passed seemed like an eternity that stretched on forever. I was informed by my doctors that they wished to address my bowel obstruction non-surgically if possible. I was also reassured that they were almost certain the cause of the obstruction was scarring and adhesion and not an advancement of my malignancy. In any case, I was aware that my condition was extremely serious—soon it became necessary for me to receive nutrition intravenously through a PICC line, or what is otherwise known as a peripherally inserted central catheter.
At first my medical team chose to take a wait and see approach. Unfortunately, despite ongoing treatment there was no resolution to my problem. My bowel remained blocked, so I remained hospitalized and in a great deal of physical distress. First solid foods were removed from my diet, and then even liquids. Inevitably, my mental health and psychological well-being began to deteriorate as I agonized nonstop about my possible future. They finally made a decision to operate after my condition required them to insert an NG tube one evening. I’ll always remember the pain of having the tube inserted and then the humiliation of having the brown liquid contents of my stomach gradually pumped out.
I was eventually wheeled into an operating room where I underwent yet another major abdominal surgery, this time to correct my bowel obstruction. The procedure went well, from what I understand a couple of bowel resections were necessary to repair the scarring and adhesion that had developed. Upon waking in the recovery room, I was delighted to learn that they didn’t have to perform an ostomy. Still my recuperation was long and difficult and for several months I was on a low fibre diet.
Today I’m fully recovered and have so few problems with eating or digestion that sometimes I find it hard to believe this terrifying nightmare ever happened. Years after my ordeal I’m grateful that my ovarian cancer continues to stay in remission, I’m just as thankful for the fact that I’m now able to consume a normal diet and enjoy the many pleasures of eating. I become frustrated when I look around me and I witness people who don’t realize how important it is to eat properly—I see so many individuals who rush through meals without a second thought or don’t take time to prepare them. “Oh, I’m too busy to cook,” they argue. “With my work schedule and social obligations, who has time to prepare a meal from scratch?”
I would argue back that making time should be a priority—self-care and proper nutrition are essential for your long-term health and can’t be pushed aside without eventually facing the consequences. Ultimately you might discover, as I have, that cooking and dining are two of life’s greatest pleasures. Learning to cook can be enjoyable, and the shared experience of savouring a meal with friends or loved ones considerably enhances your quality of life. As for me, I’m determined that even if my cancer returns, I’ll never allow it to destroy me relationship with food.