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Cancer Bonus: What's the C. Diff?
January 05, 2017
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Cancer Bonus: What's the C. Diff?

Why my sudden interest in C. diff? Well, it doesn’t take a rocket engineer (which I am) to figure out that I caught a bad case.
PUBLISHED January 05, 2017

Kevin Berry is an 13-year mantle cell lymphoma survivor, in his third remission. He works on Human Spaceflight programs, is a freelance writer and editor, and supports newly diagnosed patients through his ministry, Taking Vienna. He lives in Central Florida with his wife and adult children.

C. diff, that is, Clostridium difficile is one of those special little jewels that comes, absolutely free, as a bonus gift to cancer patients. It’s a naturally occurring bacteria that you carry around inside your intestines, like its more popular cousin, E. coli. The problem is, for people with low immunity, or on certain antibiotics, it can get loose and multiply. The result? At a minimum, raging diarrhea. Since that’s something cancer patients get anyway from treatments, it’s a classic “adding insult to injury” scenario.

Other benefits of C. diff are loss of appetite, abdominal pain and sometimes fever. It’s also quite contagious, and besides the usual methods of transmission of any infection (hand to mouth or food) it deposits spores around, that aren’t killed by hand sanitizer or regular disinfectant wipes. These spores can hang around for months.

This beauty of a bug is very prevalent in hospitals. In my transplant unit, they swabbed each patient and staff member once a week, trying to spot infections early. It can be treated by an antibiotic, but it takes a few weeks to clear up. In the meantime, victims get the chance to become one with their toilets, going up to 15 times a day.

Why my sudden interest in C. diff? Well, it doesn’t take a rocket engineer (which I am) to figure out that I caught a bad case. I’d been treated heavily with antibiotics for lingering bronchitis after a cold, and that opened me up to this disease. Let’s just say Christmas wasn’t as holly jolly as could be desired.

Then, in one of those, “But wait! There’s more!” parody moments, I got a call from our local health department. My tests showed that, in addition to The joy Of C. diff, I had a pretty solid case of Salmonella. No telling where I picked that up, but it sure took the adventure to a whole new level.

So our family learned hospital-level cleanliness procedures. Since the spores are apparently impervious to anything short of nuclear weapons, I get my own private bathroom. We also learned you can order bleach impregnated wipes on the internet, since pure chlorine bleach is somewhat effective against the spores.

Since I just started mini transplants (DLI) and many of the symptoms of graft vs. host disease are common with these intestinal infections, I also was awarded a double endoscopy, via both the northbound and southbound ends of my gastrointestinal tract. One of the ways to diagnose GvHD is taking biopsies of the esophagus and intestine. This test came out positive, but my transplant oncologist decided they were false positives. So once we beat the C. diff, and the Salmonella, it’s back to the transplant boosters.

One key to avoiding these types of side effects are taking (doctor approved) probiotics, as well as (again doctor-approved) foods like active culture yogurt. So, if you’re immune deficient, or on antibiotics, you might have a talk with your medical professional about avoidance techniques.
And, as always, wash your hands. All the time!

Besides the other wonderful blogs on, I hope you'll also visit my Taking Vienna site. That’s where I talk in a much more personal way about my battle, my family and friends and other random and odd musings.
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