When your body remembers

Like any cancer survivor, I have a lot of stories—some sad, some infuriating, some poignant. One of my goals for this blog is to share some of my memories of cancer treatment and of the many surgeries and other late effects treatments in the decades since then, which still haunt me in the course of daily life.

Today as I hurried home from the grocery store and rushed to the bathroom, the sensation of my very full bladder sparked this embodied memory of one of the many indignities suffered by cancer survivors. I wrote the story below earlier but wanted to share it in this context.

I remember that I woke slowly, reluctantly emerging from the deep haze imposed by the anti-nausea drugs the nurses give me during each 48-hour chemotherapy treatment. I blinked in the semi-darkness of my hospital room, rubbing my sticky eyes and wrinkling my nose at the omnipresent smell of disinfectant. A sharp pain in my lower abdomen startled me into wakefulness and I groaned in recognition. I searched the bed for my nurse-call button and pushed it. Glancing over at the rapidly dripping IV line, I cursed the need for continuous hydration to save my kidneys from the onslaught of toxic chemicals that was injected in that morning.

The bone cancer had left my right leg a mess of grafts, stitches, and staples; there was no way I could get out of the bed, find my crutches, and hobble to the bathroom without losing control of my bladder. I was beyond exhaustion, and by the time I woke up, my bladder was so full it hurt. I’d have to wait for my nurse, Chris, to bring a bed pan.

10 seconds. Please Chris, please hurry. I must remain absolutely still from the waist down or I’d lose it. I breathed fast and shallow, willing my body to obey.

20 seconds. I tightened my pelvic and vaginal muscles with every ounce of energy I could muster. Hurry Chris, I can’t hold on much longer. This wasn’t the first time this had happened. I recalled the humiliation of wetting my bed on two previous nights, and I fiercely vowed not to fail again.

30 seconds. My legs began to shake and tears welled in my eyes. I was losing control. It wasn’t fair. Month after month I endured the vomiting and the mouth sores and the diarrhea. Operation after operation, painful procedures, and humiliating exams of every orifice filled my days. Every time I thought I couldn’t take any more, something else went wrong. No, I screamed silently, unable to accept defeat. No!

40 seconds. The hot yellow liquid streamed from my urethra without my consent and the searing flames of shame swept over my face. Defeated, I let the tears flow with the urine. My pelvic muscles relaxed gratefully even as my buttocks cringed in retreat from the growing wetness that surrounded them. The acrid smell reached my nostrils and I bit my lip to keep from screaming in shame and frustration.

Chris walked in moments later and asked cheerfully, “What can I get for you, honey?” Seeing my stricken face, she immediately walked over and took my hand. “What’s wrong?”

“I-I wet the bed,” I said, hanging my bald head to avoid meeting her eyes.

“Oh,” Chris said casually. “No problem. Let’s get you cleaned up.” Chris disappeared into my bathroom and returned with a damp wash cloth. “Can you sit in the chair here and wash yourself while I change the bed?” I nodded gratefully, and she helped me out of bed, wrapping her arms around my shoulders comfortingly and easing me down onto the cool blue vinyl of the recliner.

Five minutes later Chris had stripped, sponged, and remade my bed with crisp white sheets that smelled slightly soapy. She helped me into bed and covered me up with a light blanket. I squeezed her hand in thanks and she smiled. I had been fortunate enough to be assigned to the same ward on almost every hospital admission, and I had become fond of the group of nurses who had taken care of me over the last eight months.

“You know what?” asked Chris as she headed for the door. “I have an idea.” She walked down the hall, and I stared at the ceiling with dazed eyes, pain and frustration gradually melting into tired resignation.

Chris returned with a clean bed pan which she placed by my left hip. Raising the guard rail of my bed to keep the pan from falling off onto the floor, she said, “Now when you wake up again, you just slide yourself onto the pan, and then call me to come get it. See?”

Such a simple solution. “Thank you so much, Chris,” I said, crying again, this time with relief and gratitude.

“Hey, none of that,” she said with mock severity. “I’m supposed to make you stop crying – you want to get me in trouble?” Chris slipped out of the room as I smiled through my tears.

…This happened almost 30 years ago, and my body still remembers.

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