The unsung benefits of having a total gastrectomy

It’s been eleven weeks since my total gastrectomy, and I’vespent most of that time whining about all the disadvantages associated with nothaving a stomach. I reckon it’s high time I pay tribute to some of thebenefits.

The biggest boon has been weight loss. Of course, this won’tapply to folks who had no problem with their weight prior to surgery, butfor someone like me, who’s spent most of his adult life carrying around anextra 15 or 20 kilograms, it’s kind of awesome.

I’ve been rooting around in my wardrobe off and on over thelast couple of months, digging out duds that I haven’t fit into in years(lucky for me men’s fashions age a bit better than women’s). I’m currentlywearing a pair of dark blue jeans with a 32-inch waist that I bought myself as areward a couple of years ago after losing 10 kilograms—then proceeded never to wear,having already regained some weight by the time I got the pantlegs hemmed. Italmost feels like getting free jeans.

I also treated myself to a sweet skinny person belt; one ofthose ridiculously expensive, already broken-in brown leather belts that come in nothing but small sizes and can be found only in high-end clothiers like HoltRenfrew. (I picked it up for 80 per cent off at HR Last Call, and it still qualifiedas the most expensive waist-cincher I’ve ever bought.)

Then today, while riding up our building’s elevator, I happenedto catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror while stretching. My sweater lifteda bit and I saw a profile of my midriff. It looked good. Not Calvin-Klein-underwear-ad-good, but nice enough for a guy who once suffered sore abdominalmuscles from sucking in his belly too deeply and too long while schmoozing at oneof his wife’s company’s fancy Christmas shindigs.

What’s more, while attending the birthday party of a friend’s sonyesterday nearly a dozen people I hadn’t seen in months told me that I lookedgreat. I can’t remember the last time anyone uttered those words in mydirection—save, of course, my lovely and generous bride, who has offered themeven in times when I haven’t necessarily been deserving of them.

Weight loss and associated perks aside, another benefit ofhaving a total gastrectomy has been cash savings.

Both restaurant and grocery bills have dropped noticeably sincethe surgery. The simple truth is that I eat less, and what I consumetends to be pretty cheap. For example, my lunch at the High Park cafe today consistedof a wholly satisfying $4 French onion soup, and the supper I’m eating right now is a single slice of pizza.

Plus, I’m pretty sure I’m spending between $10 and$20 less per week on junk food. I still eat things like chips and chocolate onoccasion, but a single 50 gram bar of chocolate, for example, now serves as three separatesnacks.

But perhaps the most unexpected benefit that has come withhaving no stomach is that I feel great.

I went to the driving range today, worried that my incisionsite might not dig all of the turning and exertion that goes along withswinging a golf club a few hundred times. Even pre-surgery an extended trip tothe range would leave me sweaty, sore, and a bit exhausted.

Surprisingly, I breezed through a couple of large buckets ofballs with nary a break. Better still, I felt like I could have kept right ongoing had my wife and daughter not arrived to pick me up.

I’m going to chalk up my new physical stamina to two things:The weight I’ve lost and my post-op diet, which is a far cry healthier than mypre-op menu. Simply put, it’s the result of eating better.

So, basically, I’m feeling really good these days. Or at least better than I did prior to surgery.

I do, however, feel a bit bad for total gastrectomy patientswho spent their lives treating their bodies as temples before their surgery.They don’t have any post-op benefits to look forward to.

What’s more, they’ve lost out on their big chance to letthemselves go. They’ll never know the satisfaction of, say, trying to finishoff one of the Bishop and Belcher’s Big Belch appetizer platters—which consistsof six cheese sticks, ten hot wings, eight chicken fingers, five potato skins, three slices of cheese toast, a basket of onionrings, and a huge serving of fries—all by themselves.

I may never again be able to have a go at the BigBelch, but I’ll always have the memory of that one fateful evening that Igave it my best—and the night spent sleeping on the bathroom floor that followed.

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New hope for an end to my oesophageal woes

Had a CT (CAT) scan last night. My first ever. I liked beingaround such expensive technology; it made me feel like I was in the future. Butthe preparation was a bit of an issue. The technician had me drink half a litreof barium solution. Needless to say, it’s difficult for me to drink half a litreof anything, let alone a thick, tasteless milky substance. Still, I managed todo it over the course of about half an hour.

The reason for the scan was to establish a baseline for mycancer-free torso. I’ll be the recipient of some sort of upper-body diagnosticsannually from now on, and they’ll compare what they see in future images tothis initial one. That way they won’t jump the gun on any suspicious lookingspots that are benign or simply a natural part of my anatomy.

More interesting than the scan, though, was news I receivedon Saturday from a fellow total gastrectomy patient I’ve been in touch with whohas been suffering oesophageal problems very similar to mine. He had anendoscopy last week, and his doctors determined that he had a stricture; anarrowing (due to excessive scar tissue) of the oesophagus at the point itjoins with the intestine. Most people have a gap of two- to three-centimetresall the way down their throat, but his had been reduced to just 9 millimetresat the scarring point.

What’s more, they were able to take immediate action torectify the issue. They slid a balloon down the scope and inflated it to threeatmospheres of pressure at the stricture point, which effectively tore the scartissue apart to widen the gap. He went home that day. At the time he wrote me,two days later, he hadn’t experienced any more of his throat issues, despitehaving eaten a couple of sizable meals.

The last time I saw my doctors, they suggested that I mighthave a stricture as well, and said that if I did that the balloon trick couldsolve my problem. I’m not scheduled to see them again until July, but in lightof this news I might try to bump that up a bit. If I could conquer this one lastproblem I’d feel like my life would be pretty much back to normal. Here’s hoping.

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A note of encouragement to those about to go under the knife (and one woman in particular)…

Iwas searching for something to write about this weekend, and then I read acomment posted beneath my last entry by someone about to go through her totalgastrectomy. It moved me. So, instead of writing about how I’m feeling thisweek (same old, same old), I’m going to respond to her comment.

Cindy,I’m happy to have been of some help. I know how scary this canbe. The good news: Two months post-op (to the day, actually) I feel likemy life is pretty much back to normal. Certainly, my eating schedule seemsbizarre to most, and I’m still suffering the weird throat bubble/goo thing I’vewritten about previously (as well as infrequent bouts of nausea) but I’m learning to cope. I’m still doing all the things I love—save gorgingon burgers and chips—and I feel about as healthy as I ever have, thanks inpart to my healthier diet.

IfI may make one suggestion: Record your experience. Even if it’s just a privatejournal. Then, whenever you feel like you’re having a bad day, go back and readyour earlier entries. You’ll realize a couple of very important things.

First,you’ll see that despite how you feel now it’s probably better than you felt acouple of weeks ago. This goes both for the pain associated with recovery andthe symptoms that go along with having no stomach. Those symptoms may persist,but they’ll either get better with time or become something that you learn todeal with and incorporate into your routine.

Second,and perhaps more importantly, you’ll come to understand how strong you were forhaving made it through such a trying ordeal. This is one of those things thatmost people can relate to only through movies and television. It’s awful tohave to go through it yourself, but once you do you’ll realize you have astrength that most people never discover. Trust me on this. I speak fromexperience.

Oneother thing: Don’t assume that everything that happened to me in the hospitaland after will happen to you. One thing I’ve learned from corresponding withothers who have gone through this is that everyone’s total gastrectomyexperience is different. I’ve done pretty well, but I know of one woman—one ofthe founders of BeStrongHearted, actually—who is almost completely back tonormal less than a year post-surgery. She wrote in her blog last fall that shecan eat a Lean Cuisine meal in about 15 minutes (lucky her—it takes me about anhour) and that she almost never suffers nausea caused by dumping syndrome.

And,of course, should you ever need someone to talk to, feel free to contact me,either through a comment on this blog or, if you prefer something less public, viaemail (I can be reached at chadsapieha@yahoo.ca).

Goodluck with your surgery. You’re lucky; it’s early enough in the year that you’llstill be able to get out and enjoy the majority of the summer. Personally, I’mlooking forward to a little golf. J

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