Gut Health During Treatment and Recovery


Physical & Sexual Health
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Theresa Maschke joined the Fight CRC team in May 2021 as a Content Writer, binding her love of writing and editing with her experience as her husband’s (a stage III survivor) caregiver. Theresa lives in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, with her husband, Joe; three kids, Elizabeth, Joey, and Caroline; and newest addition, her puppy named Buddy!

We don’t often think about our guts until we or someone we love, or both, have issues with them or other parts of our digestive systems. For example, we all know that fiber is good for us, but a salad isn’t easily digestible for someone who has or had colorectal cancer. While food used to be a delicious “slice of life,” now it comes complete with an anxiety filling.

When Joe was diagnosed with rectal cancer three years ago, he went from being “the guy who eats anything and everything and doesn’t worry about anything,” to the guy who now has to think about and plan all things foods and medicine. If I knew then what I know now...

When he started chemo, he felt terrible. Food tasted terrible. What was once a way of life: “Food for fun! Food for celebrations! Food for date nights!” changed drastically. Joe ate to survive. Some days eating was a struggle because he just didn’t feel like it. There was no joy in his food. 

Apparently, Joe takes his smores like I take my coffee. Very seriously.

As Joe progressed through radiation, his appetite came back some, but his digestion issues were constant. Food passed through his system quickly, and it was very difficult for him to keep weight on. But he pressed on eating because he knew how important it was to keep his weight up throughout treatment.

I love through food. When I bake, it is an act of love. (My cooking, ah, not so much.) Joe’s inability to enjoy all my homemade and baked love was like a knife through the heart. I was wounded that he wasn’t raving over my German Apple Bundt Cake. It sounds ridiculous now. But that was my Caregiving paradox. Joe’s lack of positive reaction to my baked goods had nothing to do with his lack of love for me. He wasn’t eating for enjoyment. Just for life.

After Joe’s surgery, his appetite came back, but he had an ileostomy, and he was bothered by it. He wanted his insides to be healed up completely, so he could be reconnected and get rid of the ileostomy. Although he understood that his ileostomy was lifesaving, he was impatient and annoyed by it. The less food he ate; the less he thought about or had to deal with his bag.

Then after his reversal surgery, he had a “hot damn and Hallelujah!” attitude, except that his gut and digestive system were still recovering. They had been significantly rearranged so that he was not processing food as he once had. 

Two years post-surgery, Joe’s gut and digestive system are not the same. His surgeon said it would take time for his body to adjust, and that adjustment seems to be slow moving. He takes medicine with every meal to slow the roll of the foods he eats; so they process more slowly and don’t just run directly through him. 

When Joe turned 51, my daughter, Caroline made a “fire cake” complete with a hose (to the left) putting out the flames of “51.”

He drinks protein shakes because they are a constant and he depends on them. He knows how he feels after drinking his protein shakes. He knows that he can have a successful day at work with no gut or digestive issues. 

Joe has worked up to date nights that involve food, and we get smaller meals, share a meal, or take some to go. He doesn’t eat as much as he once did, but it’s OK. He’s finding what works and making it work for his life. We try to do other things like throwing axes, wine tasting, bowling, OK and eating. Eating will always be a part of life.

Life is short. Life is not easy. Life is about living with whatever compromises we need to make along the way in order to live happily. 

Let’s face it: Food is at the center of all things social, and we have to learn how to navigate what works and what doesn’t work for us. But it can be frustrating at times. 

Always check with your doctor, nutritionist, or other healthcare professional if you need support or help, or if you have questions.

Fight CRC has an abundance of resources and help for people with cancer and the people who love and care for them. Be sure to check out twice-monthly Resource Meetups if you need support. Because no one fights alone. 

This photo was taken 11 days after Joe had his colonoscopy and was told he had a tumor in his rectum. By this point and by such swift movement by his medical team, he had met with the surgeon, then his oncologist, then his radiologist, and he had an appointment to get his port put in. We celebrate our “engagement anniversary” every year, because we have always felt “celebrate as much as you can every day.” It is quite a coincidence that the night we went out to celebrate this engagement anniversary they 1) took a photo and 2) the frame they put it in says, “Live well, and always find cause for celebration.” Even in the worst of times.

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