Claire Firrell knew something was wrong, and she was worried enough to leave work and go to the emergency department on a Friday morning.
“They did some tests, then gave me instructions to prep that night for a colonoscopy the next morning,” says Claire. “Following the colonoscopy, I was diagnosed with colon cancer and scheduled for surgery six days later.”
Rather than go online to research the diagnosis, Claire relied instead on the information provided by the doctors and nurses at Cleveland Clinic. Claire had a lot of questions. Would she need chemotherapy or radiation? Would she lose her hair? Would she live? What was she going to do?
Along with answers to her questions, the medical team talked to her about the possibility she might have a temporary ostomy bag after surgery. An ostomy or stoma is a surgically created opening that allows waste to leave the body – output through the stoma cannot be controlled so a pouch or bag needs to be worn at all times.
After surgery to remove the tumor and a section of her colon, Claire woke to find she did have an ostomy bag. Her Cleveland Clinic colorectal surgeon, Hermann Kessler, MD, PhD, explained that it would allow her colon to heal without being exposed to or traumatized by the chemotherapy she would need based on the pathology of her cancer.
“I wasn’t happy to wake up and find the bag, along with a port for chemo,” says Claire. “But the nurses were very helpful – some of them had even been through the same thing. It’s overwhelming because the ostomy bag is a big production, there are many different kinds, and it seems very involved, but once you learn, you get into a routine like anything else.”
Claire met with Cleveland Clinic medical oncologist Alok Khorana, MD to discuss the specifics related to her chemotherapy. She also had daily appointments with a stoma nurse when she was in the hospital, followed by visits from a Cleveland Clinic Home Care Services nurse.
“I had great confidence in the relationship between Dr. Kessler and Dr. Khorana. It was clear they were in constant contact about my care and worked very well together. For me, that was an extra level of reassurance and confidence that we’re all part of the same team.”
“I was determined not to leave the house, or change out of pajamas, but my home care nurse worked with me, encouraging me to try on work clothes to see the bag wouldn’t be noticeable,” says Claire. “She also pushed me to go to Target and use the family restroom to empty the bag. I was convinced I wouldn’t be able to do that in a public place, but I did, which made me realize I could go to work and be normal. This wasn’t the end of the world – in fact, it was helping me heal.”
Claire’s chemotherapy consisted of 12 rounds, three days a week, every two weeks. She had her ostomy bag for a total of nine months. “I was so opposed to the bag and didn’t want to deal with it in addition to knowing I had cancer. But I don’t know what I would have done without it. What if someone hadn’t invented an ostomy? If I hadn’t had that option available to me, I wouldn’t have been able to carry on with my life. You want to heal, so that’s a good reason to have it,” she says.
Throughout her initial diagnosis, surgery and treatment, and even after, when her cancer came back, and she underwent radiation treatment, Claire is grateful for the strong partnership between her surgeon and her oncologist. “I had great confidence in the relationship between Dr. Kessler and Dr. Khorana,” says Claire. “It was clear they were in constant contact about my care and worked very well together. For me, that was an extra level of reassurance and confidence that we’re all part of the same team.”
Cancer free today, Claire’s advice to others who may find themselves in a similar situation is to have a sense of humor, and to make the most of the resources available from Cleveland Clinic. “It can be overwhelming, but since you have to deal, you might as well get the best information you can. I can’t say enough good things about the people at Cleveland Clinic. Top to bottom, it’s been amazing,” she says.
Cleveland Clinic Cancer Center,
Digestive Disease & Surgery Institute