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Clogged Plumbing: Constipation and Cancer Treatment

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A cancer-related side effect I faced was constipation caused by pain medication.

John Smelcer talked about his cancer-related side effect of constipation caused by pain medications.

Some side effects of cancer treatment are difficult to talk about. Constipation is high on that list. My teenage daughter always laughs whenever she hears the jingle at the end of the radio commercial about constipation and diarrhea. You know the one I’m talking about.

The truth is that some of the medicines prescribed to cancer patients can lead to constipation, especially certain pain relievers. At your “TEACH” session before beginning treatment, doctors or nurses will generally point out this uncomfortable, yet common, side effect. Nurses and technicians taking your vitals at every time of the day will ask the ubiquitous question: “When was the last time you had a go?” Naturally, they are concerned about basic body functions like going Number Two.

For me, it was the pain meds that clogged the works, so to speak. I know some cancer patients have pain, but I didn’t really have any pain associated with my tumor (Lymphoma). The doctors prescribed pain medicine just to be on the safe side to keep me comfortable. But the discomfort of constipation was terrible. I put food into my body, but day after day (sometimes three days at a time), nothing came out the other end. There are many remedies for constipation. I must have tried them all from over-the-counter laxatives to stronger, doctor-prescribed laxatives, to herbal teas that promise relief. But none of them seemed to work. I’m embarrassed to say it, but the best thing to relieve my constipation was those inexpensive glycerin suppositories. Slide them in, and in no time at all, viola. Problem solved. No one likes to talk about the topic. Who wants to tell other people about the slippery little suckers? But it worked like a charm every time. They kept me going, literally. Eventually, the doctors discontinued the pain meds and the constipation never returned.

During my six months of chemotherapy for stage 2 non-specific, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, I wrote almost a hundred poems about my experiences and feelings. I wrote every day. The collected poems were published in Running from the Reaper: Poems from an Impatient Cancer Survivor. On a sunny day in early February 2023, I rang the bell. I beat cancer. Among the many poems was this one about how my wrecked body didn’t function as well as it used to:

PITY PARTY

When my wife married me, I was strong, muscular, confident.

You could tell I had once been a bodybuilder.

But six months of chemo stole that from me.

Nowadays, I’m gaunt, boney, withered—

a wasteland of flesh and blood.

When you look up “emaciated” in the dictionary

it shows a picture of me.

Before cancer, my hair was white and my blue eyes sparkled with life.

But now I am bald and wrinkly like one of those hairless cats.

Chemo has made me ugly, turned me into something

even I don’t recognize in the mirror.

I can’t even pee normally. I have to go through contortions

like I’m playing Twister and raise my arms over my head

to spell out Y-M-C-A from that old Village People song.

I’m always constipated. It’s so embarrassing.

I worry my wife won’t want me anymore. Who would?

I know she vowed for better or for worse, in sickness and in health,

but I’m pretty sure she didn’t bargain on being hitched to a corpse.

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