When USA TODAY’s Nashville music critic Brian Mansfield was diagnosed with colon cancer at age 48, he figured that a lifetime of Southern-fried foods, extra-large sodas and stress eating on deadline had brought it on. Turned out he had a genetic syndrome that gave him an 80% chance of developing colon cancer. He’ll chronicle his life with the disease – and with only a small part of his colon – in a series of weekly installments.
Getting used to my new body is taking some time.
Strictly going on outward appearances, I’m doing fabulously. Sure, there’s a 4-inch, deep-red scar running straight through what used to be a nice, round navel, but that’s smaller than what I initially expected from my colectomy back in July. The four laparoscopic incisions around my scar look like bug bites; a year from now, I probably won’t even notice them.
The weight loss that accompanied my surgery is even better. Between the diet and exercise changes I implemented beforehand and the surgery itself, I dropped 30 pounds, 12% of my body weight. People who associate cancer with the effects of chemotherapy – hair loss, fluid retention – look shocked when they see me: I’m slimmer than I’ve been in 15 years. My skin’s a little loose from the sudden weight loss but, at 48, who doesn’t have some loose skin? The only time people can tell just from looking that I’ve been sick is when I have to wear clothes that used to fit but now look baggy.
Digestion requires some planning. Since the surgeon removed four feet of my colon, I’ve got less storage space than I once did. Smaller portions appeal to me more. At restaurants, sharing entrees and using doggy bags have become common.
Some foods, shall we say, process more quickly than others. I just haven’t figured out which ones. I have some friends in my situation that can’t do dairy. Others find that leafy greens disagree with them. I haven’t determined my specific digestive preferences yet. Nothing has caused a severe enough reaction to make me swear off a particular food, but it’d be nice to know what not to eat before going into a two-hour movie. Dairy and fried food seems an iffy combination, so the next time I eat mozzarella sticks, it’ll probably be under tightly controlled conditions.
On a related note, I’ve read a lot of books this summer.
I also like to know where the restrooms are, whether I’m walking into a building or mapping out a trip. When I start thinking about going to the bathroom, there’s no hurry, but it’s a good idea for me to start considering my options. (By the way, if you know me and you’re reading this, please, please don’t make a point of informing me of the location of the nearest restroom the next time we’re together.)
The one thing that has really surprised me is my equilibrium. I suppose it stands to reason that having internal organs removed and shifted around would throw off one’s balance in subtle ways one might not notice until he was, say, standing on one foot. Or, perhaps more accurately, attempting to stand on one foot.
I often get slightly dizzy if I’m standing on an incline. I attend a church with a slight slope to the floor of its auditorium, so when I grab the pew in front of me and bow my head, it’s not because I’m praying. Trees and railings have come in handy when I’ve been talking with neighbors in their hilly yards.
If I’m moving, though, it’s not a problem. Nearly two months after my surgery, I can do any physical activity I did before; I’m just more tired after I’ve done it. Lifting boxes, working out, standing on concrete floors in clubs for hours on end – everything’s back to full strength and full speed, I’m just going to feel it the next day in my arms, my legs and my back.
My wife’s employer has a fitness center for the company’s workers and their spouses, and a trainer there has put together a program to help me get back in shape. The program combines some modest strength-training exercises with a running regimen. I’ve got three goals: To indirectly strengthen my abdominal muscles by working on my chest, back and legs; to keep my weight within a 10-pound range from my surgery low; and to run a 5K in October.
Shortly after my diagnosis, the Colon Cancer Alliance noticed my tweets and told me about their Undy5000 – a fundraising event where participants often run in their boxer shorts. Nashville’s run takes place on Oct. 20. So far, six people have joined my “Mansfield United” team: My wife, Nancy; a colleague who’s been training for a half-marathon; the host of a radio show I write and his spouse; and a couple of friends from my high school years. Some of them will be running their first 5Ks with me. Initially, I was hoping to walk the Undy5000 between chemo treatments. The way things have worked out, I’m thinking I can run it.
To get there, it’s going to take some work. Though I never ran competitively, as a teen I ran distances like that almost without thinking. Now, though, I’m only a couple of weeks from being able to run at all without pain. I tire too easily, and I fall quickly back to a flat-footed pace that absorbs the shock to my guts. At my best, though, I could find a springy, loping groove that made me feel like I was taking flight.
Honestly, the 5K’s secondary. What I want to recapture is that split-second sensation of going airborne. It’s the best feeling in the world.
Music that makes me want to live
Cancer has changed the way I hear music, more than any other life event except marriage. Songs I once appreciated only on a surface level now strike deep at the core of my soul. Some inspire me; some terrify me. Others that I might have liked before I’ve got no use for now. I’ve also got more time to listen, whether it’s during my morning exercise time or while lying in a hospital bed. These songs form part of the soundtrack to my cancer story.
Comfortable, Ian Hunter & the Rant Band
Last Chance at Love, Foxy Shazam
The Descent, Bob Mould
Running Red Lights, The Postelles
Keep on Walking, Passenger
Next week: Finding community
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