“Love your gut or it will hate you back!” I want to shout it from the rooftops after my recent experience – a painful bout of bowel obstruction which can struck anyone but is especially prevalent in colorectal cancer patients and survivors. Having gone through a few of these, I can definitely say, without gut health, there is no other health. Physical, mental, emotional – all of this goes out the window when you’ve got tummy troubles. So, let’s dig in. I will address you my readers and My Troubled Tummy itself.
Letter to my Tummy
Dear Tummy, why have you betrayed me again? I thought we were done with all these shenanigans. I know, maybe I wasn’t my best for you, and then you responded with a full-blown rage. I ate too many raw veggies, too many summer fruits, too many mushrooms for all their health benefits. I messed up! Did not follow the bowel adhesion diet to a T, that’s true. But, believe me, I have been eating all these good staples because I need to prevent cancer from coming back. I’m young, I have young kids, I want to be here for them. So, I search for the best diet to stop a recurrence. But it seems sometimes, that is not what you like.
Apparently, you don’t agree with my plan. It doesn’t suit you well. It’s not comfortable enough. So you decide to sabotage me.
It’s not the first time
Both you, my beloved gut, and I went through so much already. We had to cut out the part of you where the big tumor was growing. Then we zapped you with thirty rounds of radiation and treated you with two series of chemo. It all seemed to be going so splendidly for a while. And now, you’re acting up again!
Until I finished chemo four years ago, I had four obstructions. What happens is that the walls of the bowels may start sticking to one another and don’t let the bigger food particles pass toward the large intestine and then out back to the outside world. Or, the scar tissue formed after the surgeries pulls on the intestines and blocks the passage of food. It stays inside and starts festering. The gut bacteria make it ferment and the owner – but not the master – of the intestines starts feeling bloated. If you catch it on time, you can get on a liquid diet and possibly reset it all back to normal.
Small bowel obstruction is a partial or complete blockage of the small intestine, which is a part of the digestive system. Small bowel obstruction can be caused by many things, including adhesions, hernia and inflammatory bowel disorders.Cleveland Clinic
If you don’t catch it on time, however, you start feeling major cramps. Then comes nausea and maybe diarrhea. For a short while. Because then, nothing else happens on that end. Nada. Zero poop, zero farts. Quiet like a church mouse. Since you don’t realize that the food is not passing through the entire system as it should, you might even continue to eat something like I did. But somewhere along the twenty-some feet of the small intestine is a blockage. Nothing can pass through and whatever you add, only adds insult to injury.
Your stomach will hurt more and more, and you start feeling like you are about to explode. You also look about six months pregnant. This could go on for about a day and if you don’t know what it is, you suffer the pain and hope for it to resolve.
So, how to prevent bowel obstruction?
I wish I had a conclusive answer to this question. But I don’t. They can come unannounced in the susceptible population, and it really makes little sense to beat oneself up over what one ate. There are some suggestions but none of it fullproof.
So, my last small bowel obstruction was four years ago. I thought my intestines had learned all the ropes. I thought I learned the process. I tried to avoid foods that might cause bowel obstruction as much as I could (nuts, seeds, tough fruit skins, etc.). As soon as I would recognize the pain I would put myself on a liquid diet, apply some heat to the stomach, and hope that the stuck food particles can dissolve and maybe pass through. Sometimes it worked in the past. Other times it didn’t, and I still wound up in the hospital four times. My last time was in 2016.
See what happens is that after a major surgery like the removal of a cancer tumor and radiation and chemo which were further destroying these tender tissues, your intestines are not the same as they were before. They’re not as elastic as before. They have a propensity to kink and twist. Sometimes it takes something as little as red beet and quinoa salad to get stuck in the wrong place. And your gut is done with you!
That happened to me in my first obstruction. But back then I was doing chemo and was told, the intestines are all sticky and it’s normal that this little quinoa grain or grains got kind of stuck in the slimy mucus and wouldn’t budge. I swore of quinoa for five years. But then they were another few, not related to quinoa at all.
The process is gruesome
A hospital visit, the suction of stomach contents, and rest are routine. But, in the worst-case scenario, you’ll have to have surgery to un-kink the twisted bowels. I wasn’t that lucky yet. Thank you my esteemed gut!
Every time I showed up in the hospital, I would be checked with a CT scan so that obstruction could be confirmed. And then came the most obnoxious, disgusting, hurting, and torturing aspect of the whole treatment: NG Tube for bowel obstruction release.
A tube that is passed through the nose and down through the nasopharynx and esophagus into the stomach. Abbreviated NG tube. It is a flexible tube made of rubber or plastic, and it has bidirectional potential. It can be used to remove the contents of the stomach, including air, to decompress the stomach, or to remove small solid objects and fluid, such as poison, from the stomach. An NG tube can also be used to put substances into the stomach, and so it may be used to place nutrients directly into the stomach when a patient cannot take food or drink by mouth.Very Well Health
Maybe it doesn’t sound so bad on paper. Well, imagine a tube about a centimeter wide being stuck from your nose, through your esophagus, all the way down to the insides of your stomach. In order to get it through, the tube gets lubed and put in your nose and then you have to start swallowing spoonfuls of ice chips so that this sensation covers the sensation of a snake going down your throat. Your swallowing contractions are actually taking the tube down. It is, as I said pure torture.
Once the tube is in, a portable x-ray is brought in so the nurses can check if it is the right place. You definitely don’t want it winding up in your bronchial tubes by any chance. If it’s all good the suction begins. The tube can suck up close to 2 Liters of a disgusting, partially digested mixture of the food you ate, the stomach acids, and whatever else our body produces to make us live. It’s not a pretty picture. We are indeed very ugly and messy on the inside.
This procedure is horrendous but it does what it needs to do and it saves the patient from surgery.
All my previous obstructions were very close in time to my original cancer fight. I thought I was done. I’ve been NED (no evidence of disease) for the past five years and I was hoping that that meant that my intestines have also recovered to come back to at least something resembling a normal state. How naïve I was! Apparently, I can expect these to be coming up for the rest of my days on this earth.
Every surgery requires stitching and no matter how great it’s done, it always leaves scars. The scars can develop into so-called adhesions.
In the United States, most obstructions occur as a result of prior surgeries. The bowel often forms bands of scar (called adhesions) after being handled during an operation. The more surgeries that involve the bowel, the more scars are likely to form. If the bowel becomes trapped in adhesions, it may lead to a small bowel obstruction.JAMA
It’s not only typical for people who had gone through colon cancer surgery. It can happen to women who underwent C-sections, endometriosis operations, and any other abdominal surgeries. Our bodies both inside and out a real temples. And once we mess with them, it doesn’t leave them happy. And they will protest, rebel, and sometimes turn against us. So, here again: love your gut or…
The most recent tummy trouble
So low and behold, a few days ago I’m thinking, hey it’s been four years since my last bout with this, I should be able to have a little bit of my fav salad. Once every four years, right? I cooked the quinoa, cut up the precooked beets into small dice, added some arugula, goat cheese, and chopped toasted walnuts. A nice gourmet salad you’d pay a good buck for in a fancy health food restaurant.
I made it, I ate about a cup of it, and I went to teach another zoom class. After about an hour, I started feeling weird. But because it’s been four years, I misread the signs. When the discomfort came, I thought oh maybe I didn’t drink enough with the salad so I made myself a tea. Then I still felt some discomfort and thought I must be still hungry. Ate a snack, still the same nagging, low-level ache. By the evening, still feeling discomfort like hunger pains, I ate half a fish taco that I made for the whole family. But this one simply refused to go down.
All night vomiting, felt like the worst food poisoning ever. But normally with the food poisoning, once the offensive food is out, you’re supposed to feel better.
Only I didn’t. I waited till the evening the next day: a horrible night of not sleeping due to pain and vomiting a few more times. Then extreme bloating set in but I was still convinced it was food poisoning. Send hubby to get the best organic bone broth to settle the tummy. All of it wound up gushing out. And then I knew that something was more seriously wrong.
The hospital visit during COVID
Going to urgent care or emergency room under normal circumstances is stressful enough. But now, with the raging COVID, it is ten times as stressful. What if I catch more than I’m going to get a cure for? What if I bring it back to my family and will live forever with the guilt that I infected those I love the most?
But it had to be done. After waiting the typical several hours, urgent care did some check-ups including a CAT scan which showed a bowel obstruction immediately.
Now, before being admitted I had to go through one more treat. My first COVID nose swab. Man is that unpleasant! A long Q-tip goes up your nose which feels as if they’re trying to grab your brain and suck it out like ancient Egyptian mummy preparers. Only the mummies to be were already dead! And then, when you think you’re done, they turn it one more time to get the other side. Still, it had to be done and 48 hours later I would now that I’m negative. So glad to know! One silver lining to the whole thing.
After this “pleasurable” experience, you’d think, nothing could be worse. And you’ll be wrong. The NG tube is a hundred times worse. The throat contracts and the gag reflex is unbearable.
So that happened. When the suction starts and as you see the container filling with the green glob, you wonder why do we ever pay any attention to the so-called presentation of food.
I spend one whole night with this experience, another day, and the second night. And then I was done! I saw that there was nothing more being sucked out since the night before and I wanted this thing out! But of course, you have to wait for a whole line of doctors to OK the tube to be removed, to figure out what’s the next step, and they happen to be in surgery or it happens to be a Saturday and there’s no surgeon on call. It took several bouts of crying and a warning that I’ll just rip it out by myself, and the head nurse finally showed some mercy and removed the damn thing out of my throat and nose.
So this was my most recent journey. I was given some hospital food: liquid diet plus chocolate pudding or something that was supposed to be a chocolate pudding even though I had zero hunger I had to eat it just to see if I vomit again or if the food will go through. Luckily I did not vomit. Luckily it went through. All the way.
I was discharged around 48 hours after arrival making it a relatively short visit by comparison to my earlier ones. Came home still extremely bloated, still in moderate pain but with hope that my good tummy will settle down at the end.
So Dear Tummy! Please be a champ, please settle down so I can catch some rest, so I can get back to work, so I can focus on being a mother and a wife, so I can stop being this patient in need of help and care. Because I am the care-giver, the bread-winner, I am strong, and I have to, I will recover.
I promise I’ll be very, very careful from now on even though I know that the best diet to prevent that cancer recurrence has lots of fruits and vegetables, – fresh cruciferous veggies are supposed to be the mainstay, so are beans and apples, cherries, other pit fruits and do on and so on.
I will have to say goodbye to them for a little while at least. It’s going to be bland, bland, bland for at least two weeks if not longer. It will be mainly soups or puréed foods, peeled fruits, and baby purees – bowel adhesions diet at it’s best. I promise I will keep my part of the bargain even though it pains me to give up on such crucial nutrients that can save my life. But life without a happy gut is not a good life, so I’ll give in. For a while. Until you, my tummy will allow me to start adding them again.
See how much I love you my dear gut? Please love me back and give me a break at least for a good while.
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Some healing foods
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Here are a few things I’ve been doing to lower the inflammation of my gut since coming back from the hospital. I think they are helping. The bloat is going down, the low-grade stomach ache is subsiding.
This is really a lifesaver. It can help coat the gut lining with soothing collagen. Also, the amino acid called glutamine within bone broth may also be helpful for digestion. I swear by Kettle & Fire broths. There are many flavors of beef and chicken broths. The beef broth is made from the bones of grass-fed cows, the chicken broths are made from organic poultry. My most favorite is the Lemongrass Ginger Bone Broth. So delicious!
I’ve been adding collagen to my morning tea or coffee daily already before this adventure. Now, it makes even more sense since collagen is so crucial to rebuilding the sensitive gut lining. There are many collagen powders in the marketplace and many of them are sub-par. It is very important to find a good one from a reputable source so do your research before buying. I did and settled on the one from Naturewise. I like it because it is made from non-GMO, grass-fed bovine sources, and it is fortified with enzymes and ginger for better digestion. Check it out here and save:
After these few days of lack of food and the general assault to my intestines, I need to rebuild my gut flora. I don’t believe in probiotic pills, they seem to be doing very little since most of these probiotics are only transitory and don’t really repopulate the gut with good flora. Instead, I opt for fermented foods. It’s definitely too early for sauerkraut and brined pickles, but I am drinking kefir and kombucha.
Especially kefir is known for having multiple strains of beneficial bacteria and yeast that actually stay in the gut rather than being passed with the poop after a day or two. You can find good kefir in a health store but you can also make it yourself and it will cost you much less. This is the starter from Cultures for Health that I swear by. It makes delicious, fresh milk kefir. If you are dairy-free, get water kefir instead.
Another great cure for tummy troubles is kombucha. Here, nothing beats Health-Ade. So delicious! You forget it’s medicine:)
So, here you go! These just some ideas you can use to love your gut. I hope you’ll never have to go through this experience but if you do, maybe this will help you navigate it. Here is to health!