(Squeamy Alert: I mention and discuss poop a lot in this post. Just to warn ya.)
I just finished my last chemo treatment for colon cancer a little more than two weeks ago and I really wanted to celebrate by doing something that involved getting the hell out of the house. The last time I attempted an overnight trip anywhere was Christmas 2022, a week after my first chemo treatment, and we went to Victoria, BC for two nights. Since then, besides an unwanted stay in the hospital four weeks ago when I got an unexpected kink in the gut that needed unkinking, I haven't traveled away from my house AT ALL. Only for chemo treatments and an occasional drive into the countryside and some kayak trips in lakes and inlets close to home, but never an overnight trip.
So for my first outing, I decided we should go camping. I haven't camped in a tent in about six years. I used to camp out all the time, but the older you get the more you have to pee in the middle of the night and the harder it is to crawl out of a tent and try to find a toilet before you get your clothes unnecessarily wet.
And now, besides worrying about peeing, I have an ostomy to add to the mix. Now I basically poop out of my side into a plastic bag. And that bag always seems to fill up at night, and how do you empty it in a tent? So yeah, a camping trip wasn't the smartest option for me to pick, but after six months of chemo I just wanted to feel totally normal again.
The place we picked to camp was Sun Lakes Dry Falls State Park in our beautiful state of Washington, and the main reason for camping there (besides the fact that it's a drop-dead gorgeous place to camp) was that I also really wanted to kayak Deep Lake (more about that kayak adventure in another post, but here's a picture of the scenery at that lake--my husband Steve is the guy in the kayak).
I was pretty nervous about taking this trip because of the aforementioned gut-kink that happened a few weeks ago. It was a totally unexpected wrench in my recuperation plans. Apparently, because I went through two operations to remove the tumor I had (this happened back in October 2022) there is now a lot of scar tissue around my intestines. And that scar tissue can cause a partial blockage which can then cause a kink, and when a kink happens, nothing--poo, gas, whatever--can get through, and I ended up in an ambulance with insanely intense intestinal pains. The way to fix this problem is for the nurses to stick a tube down your nose and throat and into your stomach and pump the stomach out, causing a back-pressure that, hopefully, helps the gut unkink itself. If that doesn't work, they have to perform surgery, which causes more scar tissue and more issues later on. I did NOT want that, so I bravely tolerated a nurse shimmying a tube down my nose and throat, which isn't pleasant but is scads more tolerable than a twisted gut. Luckily, my gut decided to untwist itself after about 24 agonizing hours.
Hopefully this won't happen again, But the unnerving this is, it could, at any time. There's really nothing I can do to prevent it, so the thought of camping out in the wilderness several hours from the nearest hospital was a bit terrifying. But, we went anyway because you can't live your life in fear of things. Heck, you could have a heart attack out there and still be in the same predicament, but that doesn't stop people with potential heart issues from camping if they really wanna. So I wasn't going to let my issue stop me. I scouted out the nearest hospital, and we made the plan that if I felt any gassy pains at all, even if they were mild, we'd pack up and scoot to said hospital as fast as we could.
But that didn't happen. The trip was glorious. Camping was fun again, although we had a crazy windy night and decided not to spend the second night in the tent because it was supposed to drop in the 30s and we hadn't prepared ourselves for camping in the cold. We hotel camped the second night, went to Leavenworth and had German food the last day of our trip, and drove the four hours home.
It was a glorious first Post Chemo trip. But of course, the main reason for this blog is to talk about how to travel with disabilities, especially cancer and an ostomy, so the next part of this blog entry will be how I tackled that.
The Pee Problem
No nice way to put it--the hardest part of camping for me is waking up in the middle of the night desperately needing to pee but not having a toilet handy in my tent. Because I have cerebral palsy, which gives me amazingly bad balance, getting up and stumbling off in the dark to find a public toilet is pretty risky, let alone actually making it to said toilet before the pee decides it's waited long enough and gushes forth regardless of whether I've reached the toilet or not. If I really need to pee in the middle of the night, the best I can usually accomplish is to roll out of the tent and crawl to the nearest bush or rock and hope nobody is skulking around the campsite and catches me in this completely humiliating position.
You can buy cartridge toilets, but they're bulky and who wants one of those things in a tent? I finally found a decent solution. If you are a person who shares my "gotta pee NOW!" predicament, and you crazily insist on camping in a tent instead of investing in a camper with a toilet, this is what you do: Buy what I like to snootily call an outdoor chamber pot. I have two cheap plastic ones, both which come with a little funnel for us females to successfully pee into. I keep one set in my kayak dry bag and one in my car, just in case I get stuck in an amazingly bad traffic jam (which happened on the way home from our camping trip) and can't make it to a rest stop. I made sure to bring one in the tent with me when we camped out on this trip. I bought these on Amazon--click HERE to check it out.
The other thing I was going to do (but forgot) was bring some Depends. As much as I hate to admit to it, Depends would have been smart to sleep in. Yup, I'm at the age where Depends is now a reluctant, but potentially necessary, option.
The Poop Bag
It's doubly difficult to camp now because of the colostomy. If you don't know what an coostomy is, it's when they poke a piece of your colon out your side (called a "stoma"). My stoma is on my upper right side. A bag is attached to the skin to cover and protect the stoma and to capture all the poo that dribbles out of it. (I have childishly but accurately named it my "Poop Bag"). Every few hours, the Poop Bag needs dumping. You don't want it to get totally full, and unfortunately at night is when I seem to poop into that bag the most. So at some point in the wee early hours, I usually need to dump it.
And the way you dump an ostomy bag is to unvelcro the end of the bag over a toilet and squeeze the stuff out. Sounds easy enough except it isn't. It can get messy. Splashback is an icky concern. Missing the toilet and getting poop all over the place (on clothes, skin, the floor, etc.) is another one. Unfortunately, it sometimes happens.
My solution to the embarrassment of creating a mess in a public restroom was to purchase what is called "Wilderness Waste Containment Bags". They're kind of expensive, but they contain a gel that neutralizes and solidifies poop and pee, and you can throw 'em out into the trash when you're done. I figured if I had to dump the Poop Bag in the middle of the night in my tent, this was the way to go. Dump it right into the waste containment bag, let the gel do its stuff, and voila! Problem solved.
Interestingly, after all this preparation, I did not have to use any of these things, so I can't tell you how well they worked. Miraculously, I slept through the entire night without having to pee AT ALL. It was a Christmas miracle in June!! Never have I gotten through a whole camping night without having to make a run for it, but that morning I woke up, crawled out of the tent, put on my shoes, and leisurely walked to the public restrooms without even having to do the Pee Dance on my way. And I dumped the Poop Bag into the public toilet like a pro.
Which of course means I'll have to go on another camping trip so I can hopefully try out my solutions and let you know how they work. And that will have to wait for another blog post. But in my NEXT blog post, I will stay away from the icky topics of poop and pee, and discuss Sun Lakes Dry Falls State Park, what makes it so amazingly special, and how I rate its facilities for people with disabilities. Stay tuned!