#1: Lights, Camera, Colon!
The first time I heard the words ‘Ulcerative Colitis’ was just after a colonoscopist had pulled a camera out of my backside. I’d like to say that this was as unglamorous as my story gets, but compared to what’s happened since, the first encounter was fairly dignified.
In December 2015, I had my first colonoscopy. In 21 months, I’d experienced two prostate exams and a suppository treatment, so when it came to having things enter my back passage for medical purposes, I was already becoming accustomed to the process.
As I laid on my side post-colonoscopy “procedure”, inhaling as much Gas and Air as I could muster, I reacted to the news of this newfound condition in a way that I felt suitably befitted a man in his late twenties currently trying to get as high as possible on a hospital bed whilst wearing a gown and a pair of paper boxer shorts that have a giant opening on the rear end:
“Oh, right,” I reply, before inhaling again. “Do many people fully recover from it?”
“Um, a few people do,” says the colonoscopist, cautiously. “A lot of people are okay taking various medications though.”
“That doesn’t sound too bad,” I say cheerily, as the nurses prepare to move me through to recovery room. I’d been trying not to speak too much during the last five minutes of my “procedure”, as I realised I’d been making an unhealthy amount of dad jokes for far too long. While a small part of me was still howling in embarrassment at my inability to stop regurgitating every cheesy joke I’d ever heard in my life to the medical staff, a larger part of me was now relieved to find out that my diagnosis wasn’t anything cancer-related. It was March 2014 when I first noticed blood appearing in my stool, so I’d had a long time to ponder the worst case scenario, even though I’d already been reassured by my GP that they didn’t suspect serious foul play. Either way, it was good to have it confirmed.
That’s not to say that Ulcerative Colitis (UC) is a breeze, though. Far from it. It’s a chronic, lifelong illness that affects the large bowel (aka, the colon and rectum), causing tiny ulcers to bleed and produce pus on the inner lining of the colon. This, in turn, can produce symptoms such as diarrhoea (sometimes with blood), extreme, chronic fatigue and weight loss, severe stomach pains, anaemia, osteoporosis, depression, eye, skin and liver problems, joint pain, mouth ulcers and fistulas - where one internal organ (in this case, often the large bowel) creates an abnormal ‘channel’ into another organ, or to the outside surface of the body.
The fun doesn’t stop there, either. The medications often used to help treat the illness can leave you vulnerable to other issues, such as flu, pneumonia, shingles, blood clots (including deep-vein thrombosis, (DVT)), and, if you’re lucky enough to have pancolitis* (which affects the whole of your large bowel), a greater risk of developing bowel and colorectal cancers at some point during your life.
* Guess who's got both a website and pancolitis? THIS GUY!
You can now see why the colon cameraman from earlier was careful with his words. Not only can UC be life-threatening, it’s also a very good delegator and readily outsources its misery to other conditions. How very millennial.
Just So We All Know:
You quite often hear people use interchangeable words such as ‘large bowel’ and ‘large intestine’ to describe the same parts of the body, which can get needlessly confusing – it took me about a year to comprehend it all…!
With that in mind, I’ve added a picture below to make sure we’re all clued up as to what’s going on. Feel free to check back with the image at any time if things feel a little muddled:
The Large Bowel, aka, the Large Intestine, is made up of the colon and the rectum.
The Small Bowel, aka the Small Intestine, is the really long squiggly-looking one that’s approx. 20ft long when stretched out.
It's Not Well Known, UC...
Ulcerative Colitis itself is classed under the broader title of an Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), alongside Crohn’s Disease and rarer conditions such as Microscopic Colitis. According to Crohn’s & Colitis UK, someone is diagnosed with an IBD every 30 minutes in the UK, joining the 300,000 Brits who are dealing with these relatively unknown, unpredictable and - currently - incurable diseases.
Nearly half of those affected by IBD have Ulcerative Colitis, and every patient is likely to experience a different set of circumstances to their peers. Despite being an unknown condition, there are a number of well-known faces that have UC, including former Olympian Sir Steve Redgrave and Team GB’s current 200m individual medley silver medallist Siobhan-Marie O’Connor, footballers Darren Fletcher and Russell Martin, and former England Rugby captain Lewis Moody.
The severity of UC varies widely from person to person, with scientists still unsure of what the exact cause of the illness is. Despite this, it is possible for UC patients to carry out regular, ‘normal’ lives when the illness is under control. The main points of scientific research to date have concluded:
UC begins because of three main factors.
The first is the genes you’re born with, which causes – part two - an abnormal reaction of the digestive system to bacteria in the intestine, along with – part three - an unknown 'trigger' that could include viruses, other bacteria, diet, stress, or something else in the environment.
Before my diagnosis, I believed that my IBD was Irritable Bowel Disorder (IBS) as my condition appeared to get worse during signs of stress, but IBS and IBD are vastly different: IBS causes foods to pass through your bowel in a dysfunctional way, whereas the IBD attacks the large bowel and rectum itself.
There are three ways to treat UC:
Medication, Surgery and Diet. As I’ve mentioned, there’s no known cure for UC (or Crohn’s) at present, but a combination of those three elements can help ease the effects. Medication is often taken in the form of anti-inflammatory drugs or immunosuppressants that look to reduce the power of the immune system on the large bowel and aid recovery, while surgery to remove parts (or the whole) of the large bowel will be considered if the UC becomes really bad. There are a variety of diet options available to UC patients, too; one of the most common diets is the low-fibre diet, which restricts or cuts out the consumption of high fibre (and spicy) foods, and drinks that are either fizzy, high in caffeine and/or alcoholic.
UC is more common in urban areas and developed countries in the northern hemisphere.
There is some evidence to suggest that our westernised diet is a contributing factor to UC, with the illness on the rise in Japan and developing countries that are adopting western diets into their lifestyles. However, UC does appear to be more likely to occur in white people of European descent; especially those descended from Ashkenazi Jews that lived in Eastern Europe and Russia.
UC affects men and women equally.
Neither gender is more likely to be affected by UC than the other, although (curiously) it tends to develop more frequently in non-smokers and ex-smokers than in smokers - but you’d have to be a fucking idiot to believe that this means smoking is the healthier option.
Age can be a factor.
UC can appear at any age, but it tends to appear for the first time between the ages of 15 and 25. Recent years have seen an increase of UC in younger people, with 1 in 4 newly diagnosed patients being under the age of 16.
All of the information above (and much, much more) is available for free on the Crohn’s and Colitis UK website.
Nothing But Facts - No Strings Attached
It’s a lot to take in at first, but I thought it was best to highlight the main points and flesh ‘em out accordingly as we go along – and even if this is the only one you read, at least you’ve got a place of reference for the future.
Throughout the lifespan of Too Cool For Stool, I’ll try and keep things as relatable as possible and aim to add in as many moments of humour (twisted or otherwise) as I can. For the interests of fairness, everyone mentioned in TCFS will be given an assumed name, and I certainly won’t be writing anything to illicit sympathy or to massage my ego, so you can put the violins (and/or dogs with violins) away. Speaking of which…
“One more for the road…!”
I grab one last big gulp of gas and air before the nurses cart me out of the examination room and shuttle me through the corridor to the recovery ward. I elect to wave my right arm up and down in the air like I’d stuck it out of the window of a moving car and realise that, yes, I am triumphantly wasted, and that I should probably stop giggling sometime soon…
If the rest of my time with UC was as carefree as these few moments, everything would be fine; but UC isn’t called “life-threatening” for nothing, and I was going to find that out for myself in just a matter of days.
THE SOng SUPPOSITORY
Every Too Cool For Stool story comes with its own mini-soundtrack - and it’s all available in the Song Suppository!
All of the songs are picked because of some kind of tenuous link to that weeks’ theme, whether it’s a title (Breathe & Stop by Q-Tip), a lyric (Marmozets' Born Young And Free) or an IBD related pun/joke in a title or sub-header (watch out for But(t), Honestly by Foo Fighters).
The result is a relatively eclectic delve into the brainbox of an IBD patient whose mental jukebox and crap pun generator just won’t shut up.
Get clicking below to enjoy the full Stool experience!