“So, Does Anyone Ever…Go Back to the Bag?”

Last week I sat down with Dr. Dietz’s incredible nurse Vicki for a follow-up appointment. She asked how things are going, and I answered that it’s been a little rough. I explained how one day, I won’t poop at all. (For those with the misfortune of knowing me well enough to know my bowel habits pre-cancer, this is unthinkable.) The next day, in Vicki’s words, “All hell breaks loose.” That’s pretty accurate. For a period of 6-8 hours on those days, it goes something like this:

(Repeat every 20-30 minutes.) Strong, painful urge to poop. Feels like a bowling ball covered in porcupine quills is trying to push its way out. Sprint to the bathroom. Pass said bowling ball. Discover it wasn’t a bowling ball but actually a pathetically small, rodent-sized stool. Wait in vain for the rest of the bowling ball to eject itself. Depending on how many times I’ve already done this today, use either my Butt Buddy hand-held bidet or a full-blown shower to avoid toilet paper at all costs. Avoid sitting down for a few minutes so that the lingering fireworks in my butt can subside. Depending on my level of frustration, punch either (1) a pillow or (2) the wall.

The good news is, this isn’t out of the ordinary post-reversal. I’ve heard of folks getting up 10-15 times per night to use the bathroom until their reconnected bowels adjusted. The fact is, without a rectum, I no longer have a place to store stool until it’s time to go.

I asked Vicki the question about going back to the bag partly out of curiosity and partly because I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t crossed my mind. Each time it has, though, I’ve quickly tried to figuratively knock some sense into myself. After all, it hasn’t even been three weeks. Vicki said she’s only had a couple of patients over multiple decades who elected to have their reversals reversed. I don’t plan to be one of them, but I could certainly see how, if things don’t improve, life with a bag — for all its moments of unpleasantness — could be a lot more convenient and less painful than my current routine.

You might think I’m being a little dramatic and ridiculous, and I wouldn’t blame you. Any of this — surgery, ileostomy bag, pooping around the clock — is a small price to pay to be cancer-free. The Andrew of August 2020, when I didn’t yet know my cancer’s stage, or whether it would be curable with surgery, would probably love to kick my ass for whining about a sore butthole. Plus, when you take into account the literally unlimited diet-related experiments I can run (do I speed things up or slow things down?) in hopes of finding some bowel stability — in addition to simply giving my body more time to heal — I have a very long way to go before thinking seriously about making a change. God bless my amazing wife, the true hero of our family, for putting up with all this.

Suffice it to say, I felt compelled to issue this long-winded retraction from my earlier post, in which I said it’s “wonderful” to poop again. Sadly, it’s not. But in time, it will be!

Cougar Commencement

Today I had the opportunity to give my first-ever commencement address, at the winter graduation for business department students at Misericordia University, a place near and dear to my heart.

While it was a little weird to give a graduation speech over Zoom, in my current physical state it probably couldn’t have happened any other way. I kept the speech focused on my professional career and didn’t talk at all about my battle with cancer — things just seem heavy enough these days. It was a huge honor and I wanted to keep it positive and light-hearted.

Here’s what I said:


It’s an honor to be with you all today as you graduate from a wonderful university and an outstanding college of business.

During my years on campus, I taught classes, I coached baseball, but most importantly, I became a Misericordia graduate myself. I knew from the moment I set foot on campus, as I’m sure many of you did, that Misericordia, and especially its amazing faculty, would make a big, big impact on my life.

But today is your day, a day to recognize and celebrate all you’ve accomplished during your time here. Needless to say, this is a strange venue for your graduation, but that certainly doesn’t make it any less special of a moment in your lives, or any less humbling for me to have the chance to share some thoughts with you and welcome you to the Cougar alumni community. Today you’re closing a chapter of accomplishment of which you should be very, very proud. 

My career path is one you might describe as unconventional. In 2015, at age 29, I changed careers in a big way. I had spent all of my twenties — including three years at Misericordia — pursuing a career as a teacher and a coach. But something had begun telling me that it was time to try something completely new. As luck would have it, two childhood friends of mine had recently founded a startup out of a San Francisco apartment, a financial technology company focused on lending to small businesses. 

I packed my entire life into two suitcases, bought a one-way plane ticket, and became their third employee in a tiny office on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco. I lived in a bedroom the size of a closet in a small apartment with four roommates. I had no money, no idea what I was doing, and no plan if it didn’t work out. 

At the time, I probably seemed confident in my decision. But in reality, I was not. I was anxious, unsure of myself, and insecure. I had zero experience to speak of in business, finance, or technology, much less in building a company. Everywhere I turned, I saw confusing jargon, acronyms I didn’t understand, and tools I didn’t know how to use. In every meeting, I encountered people with degrees and experience that intimidated me.

But then, slowly, something changed. The closer I looked, the less I saw a mysterious world that I was unqualified to be in, and the more I saw that there really was no mystery. As soon as I was willing to ask dumb questions, to risk sounding silly, to dismantle all that jargon that made simple ideas seem complicated, I realized that everyone I found intimidating didn’t know nearly as much as I had thought they did. It turns out, I was very well prepared to help build a great company — I just had to trust the foundation I had built as a business student at Misericordia. 

Around that time, I became fascinated by Steve Jobs, the late founder of Apple and an icon of the technology industry. In one of his best interviews, he said this: “Life can be so much broader, once you discover one simple fact, and that is that everything around you that you call ‘life’ was made up by people who were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.” I love that quote because it reminds you of what’s possible if you keep the faith in yourself.

So, what became of our startup? We still have a long way to go, but we’re very much alive and kicking. We have nearly a hundred employees, we originated almost half a billion dollars in small business loans this year, and our investors now include some of the top venture capital firms in financial technology. Oh, and we’ve changed our name three times – turns out finding the right name for your company is a lot harder than it sounds.

As our company has grown, so has my role. I started out as a cold-calling salesperson, trying to explain to potential customers who the heck we were. Today, as VP of operations, I oversee all of the company’s sales, marketing, business operations, and product development. Best of all, I go to work every day with excitement and confidence. Don’t get me wrong — I’m still learning a lot, and I make more than my share of mistakes, but I no longer question whether I belong.

And so my hope for you, as you embark on whatever is next in your career, is that you step confidently into challenges that may scare you at first. You are prepared. As a graduate of the Misericordia business program, you have a priceless and unique skill set. You know how to think clearly, how to communicate concisely, how to work diligently, how to act with integrity, and most importantly, how to form meaningful personal relationships that are more than just transactional. That is the complete toolkit you need to be successful in basically any field, and you now have it. 

So, go find the problems in our world that interest you, the products you want to build, the people you want to help. Don’t let a lack of experience, or fear of failure, or hesitation to stray from the conventional path keep you from trying the thing that truly excites you. Maybe it’s a certain industry, or a particular company, or even starting your own thing out of thin air. And if you don’t yet know what interests and excites you, that’s ok — keep looking. Now, more than ever, the world needs what you have to offer.

Thank you, and congratulations!

A proud Cougar, Andrew Bennett ‘13 is a recovering baseball coach-turned-fintech nerd. After teaching and coaching at the high school level for three years, he earned an M.S. in organizational management from Misericordia while serving as the baseball program’s graduate assistant coach. He then worked an additional year on campus as an adjunct business instructor, also continuing to coach baseball. After spending the 2014-15 academic year coaching at Midland University in Fremont, NE, he left higher education and moved to the Bay Area to become an early employee at Lendeavor (now “Provide”), a technology-enabled financial services provider to private healthcare practice owners. He is currently Provide’s vice president of operations, responsible for sales, marketing, business operations, product development, and – depending on the day – many of the other random needs of a growing startup. Andrew earned undergraduate degrees in mathematics and physics from Hamline University in St. Paul, MN, graduating summa cum laude in 2008. Before becoming a teacher and coach, he enjoyed a brief and unspectacular career as a minor league baseball player. Originally from St. Paul, Andrew now helps oversee Provide’s office in Columbus, OH, where he lives with his wife Alexis and two-year-old daughter Addie. A colorectal cancer survivor, Andrew blogs at www.checkyourbutt.com.

What the Heck Was I Supposed to Learn From All This?

Or more pointedly, “Did I learn from this what I was supposed to?”

Now that I’m all put back together, that’s a question I’ve found myself asking a lot. With my last procedure in the rear-view, I suppose it’s natural to wax a bit philosophical. Life may still be a few months from normal — for example, I’m currently getting good mileage out of Addie’s baby wipes and Aquaphor — but the end is finally in sight.

While I’m not religious, I do count among my quasi-spiritual beliefs about life, the universe, and the like the notion that when big shit like this happens, someone is trying to get your attention. I’ve been guilty of trying at times to ascribe “everything happens for a reason”-type meaning to life’s more minor developments, but I don’t think it’s a stretch in this case to poke around a little for the lesson behind the cancer.

What’s got me concerned, though, is that I’m not convinced I’ve identified the material this test was intended to cover. Sure, I’ve come to better understand that gratitude is tricky, that you define your own luck, and that I need to be healthier, but have I really changed? Have I taken full advantage of this massive dose of perspective and used it to become a better husband, father, son, friend, colleague, and human? And if I didn’t, will the cancer come back?

In my most panicked state, I remind myself that nothing in this universe is quite so clearly as cause-and-effect-driven as our human brains want it to be. For example, plenty of amazing, inspiring people beat cancer, undergo remarkable personal transformations — becoming (take your pick) healthier, tougher, stronger, kinder, more confident, more balanced, etc. — and still battle recurrences. Conversely, plenty of other folks (though luckily I don’t know any personally) overcome some horrific adversity only to continue acting like the same jerks they were beforehand, apparently without consequence. If we know anything about the universe, it’s that it often makes no damn sense. Good people get punished too much; bad people, not enough.

What gives me hope is an inkling that maybe answering the question, “Did I learn what I was supposed to?” isn’t nearly as important as simply not losing sight of the question itself. It’s an examination without a rubric, an answer I might never get. Giving the question the time, reflection, and respect it deserves, though — that I can control.

All Hooked Up and No Place to Go

I’m back home! My ileostomy reversal surgery on Monday went very well, and in Addie’s words, “Daddy’s poo-poo bag all gone.”

This surgery was light years easier than the original ileostomy and resection. I was nervous about a repeat of the issues I had last time, when it took my intestines many days to wake back up, prompting awful nausea and vomiting, so I intentionally took it very slowly: just a few sips of Gatorade on Monday, then half an English muffin yesterday. That approach seemed to work. I could definitely sense some grumpiness in my newly reconnected bowels, but not rushing back into solids seemed to coax my system back to life at the right pace.

There’s definitely still some abdominal pain, along with the familiar cramping feelings I had last time — making sleeping tough again — but both are an order of magnitude better. It’s almost like my body is more cooperative this time because it knows it’s been put back together, whereas last time it was rebelling against being somewhat violently (conceptually, not literally) rearranged.

The question everyone has been asking, of course, is, “What’s it like to poop again?” Well, it’s wonderful! That said, it’s definitely been an adjustment, with lots of shuffling back and forth to the bathroom, trying to relearn the body’s signals. I’m not expecting to regain 100% normal bowel function, but I’m told it gets much better after this initial phase — which sure beats the hell out of the bag anyway!

I have six more weeks on the soft diet (those cravings for charred broccolini will have to be kept at bay a bit longer), and I’m back to the “no lifting anything over 10 pounds” restrictions for that same stretch. But the end is in sight, and my new butt is the best Christmas present ever.

Being back at UH reminded me how remarkable that team is, from the world-renowned Dr. Dietz to the incomparable Vicki Rumpler, NP to Rose the legendary ostomy nurse to the entire team (Carlton, Chrissy, Katarina, and so many others) on the fifth floor of the Seidman Cancer Center. I won’t miss the surgeries themselves, or their recoveries, but I will miss the incredible people there and be forever grateful to them.

Appliance Malfunction

I just got up to Cleveland, where I’m spending the weekend before my ileostomy reversal surgery on Monday. Tomorrow (Friday) I have a few appointments, but otherwise I’m planning to just relax, read, and maybe tie up a few loose ends from work. Alexis and Addie didn’t come with me — cases are spiking in Ohio and there’s not much they’d have been able to do up here other than sit around the Airbnb (not much fun for a two-year-old).

I’ve been meaning to share a somewhat hilarious story from a few weeks ago. I’ll admit, when it happened I was fairly mortified — but it was only a matter of minutes afterward that I was laughing.

It was a Saturday afternoon, and the three of us were at the park near our house. Addie was on the swings, among her favorite places in the world, and I was pushing her. Another kid was on the swing set next to ours, his mom pushing him. I noticed her glancing over in my direction a few times, like she saw something odd, but I didn’t think much of it. I’ve gotten used to having the bottom of my bag peeking out from under my shirt, or a bulge from it showing, and having it catch someone’s eye. I figured that must be it.

A few minutes later, however, I happened to glance down at the ground, and in the process I caught a glimpse of my legs and feet. I’ll spare you the imagery, but let’s just say that a bag malfunction had occurred, and it was a really bad day to be wearing light gray sweatpants and gray shoes. No wonder the poor woman next to us was giving me funny looks.

Horrified, I spun around to face away from the swings and called Alexis over. Her face was pretty priceless when she saw my disaster. The funniest part? At our park, the swings are located at the back of the playground area, farthest from the entrance. I had no choice but to walk through a dozen families in order to exit the playground and traipse across the rest of the park (a wave and a heart sign from Alexis got me through that part) and up the half block to our house. “Maybe they didn’t notice; people don’t pay as much attention as you think they do, when you’re feeling self-conscious,” you might say. While I appreciate the sentiment, my situation in this particular case was un-missable.

Anyway, I made it home and walked behind our house to our back patio area. I took off all my clothes, chucked most of them, and then went downstairs and threw my Patagonia jacket (salvageable, thankfully) into the washer. I took a quick shower, collapsed on the couch, and finally laughed my ass off.

I’m not sure this post has much of a point, so I apologize if you were hoping for something insightful. How’s this: Sometimes in life, you just have to walk through a crowd, covered in shit, doing your best to smile, hold your head high, and remember that you’ll laugh about it after.

How Grateful Is Grateful Enough?

Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday, though in my experience, it comes with challenges both mental and emotional for many people. And this Thanksgiving — well, it was no doubt a strange Thanksgiving for just about all of us.

One of my Thanksgiving goals this year was to immerse myself fully in gratitude. To be cancer-free, to have avoided chemo, to be mere weeks away from my ileostomy reversal, and to be enjoying all those blessings and more in the loving company of the amazing Alexis and adorable Addie — there really are no words. And we had a nice day. We embraced the no-frills vibe this year and got takeout bird & sides from one of our favorite local spots.

But still, the day felt odd, as I’m sure it did for a lot of families. And the more odd it felt, the more stressed I got. I’m supposed to be grateful, dammit! Nothing about this day should feel weird, or sad, or uncomfortable. All my extra super-gratitude should have made it the happiest Thanksgiving of all time. But something was definitely missing.

Gratitude is a funny thing, isn’t it? After happiness, its confounding cousin, gratitude is the emotion we usually feel most compelled to quantify. And Thanksgiving — the holiday season in general, really — sure puts the heat on.

Maybe the problem is that holidays like Thanksgiving trick us into thinking that gratitude is something to be measured at a snapshot in time, when really it’s a way of thinking, acting, and living over much longer spans. A Thanksgiving without extended family, with no gathering around a big table, watching a Macy’s parade sans spectators? Pleasant, yes, but definitely not my favorite. And I’m fine with that now, because measuring in weeks and months, I’ve never been more grateful for my health and our amazing life.

Prolapse Mishaps

Note: I’m totally fine, and this little episode was more hilarious than anything — but if you’re the squeamish type when it comes to gut-related anatomy, it’s probably best if you skip this post.

It’s amazing what the human body does, and how it can have a mind of its own sometimes. A few nights ago, at about 10:00 p.m., I went to empty my ileostomy bag and felt something strange. I use a two-piece appliance that allows you to unhook the bag without having to remove the whole contraption, so I took the bag partway off and peeked inside.

I later learned that what I saw is very common and virtually never dangerous, but at the time, I almost passed out from the sight of it. My stoma — typically a little nub or button of small intestine that protrudes from my lower abdomen no more than half an inch — had pushed its way through my abdomen wall and was extending, quite swollen in diameter as well, a good 3-4 inches out of my body. This is what’s known as a prolapsed stoma.

If you’ve never seen your guts hanging out of your stomach, it’s something to behold — and not in a good way. Fortunately my wife is a saint and managed to keep my hysterical panic from turning into something worse. I was basically pacing around the house clutching my head and squeaking high-pitched gibberish about my entire small intestine falling on the floor any minute.

First we got my amazing sister-in-law Kim, the most knowledgeable nurse we know, on the phone, and she calmed us both down a ton, explaining that this kind of thing happens all the time and — despite looking quite horrifying — isn’t life-threatening or even cause for alarm, much less the trip to the ER I thought I had in store. I called UH to let them know, and a nurse there told me the same thing, suggesting I call Dr. Dietz (my surgeon) in the morning. The next day, when I spoke to him, he said that if it happens again, lying on one’s back usually gets the thing back inside relatively quickly. “You can even gently guide it back in, if it needs some help,” he said. Well how bout that.

Since then, it’s happened a few times per day, but lying down really does work. I realized I have a certain posture when I’m working at my computer, sort of hunched forward, that applies downward pressure on that part of my stomach. I have no proof, but it seems to help when I don’t sit like that. I also have a sneaking suspicion that the original prolapse happened because I got a little careless about lifting things. I never picked up Addie, but I definitely pushed the envelope with objects around the house. A good lesson, I suppose: I never felt like I was straining, but I wasn’t taking into account just how weak my lower abdomen had become with a giant hole in it.

Anyway, that was my Adventure of the Week. Kirk Cousins picked up a win on Monday Night Football, so this week I’ll give him and his Vikings the nod over me and my guts. You can’t win ‘em all.

Two-Thirds Home

Today marks two months since my ileostomy surgery, and one month until my reversal. I can’t believe how long it’s been since I’ve written, but life has been moving fast.

Being back at work has been wonderful. I wrote a note to the team a few weeks back about how I had expected to be tired, to need to work back into things very gradually, and to have generally less stamina — but then, how all of that faded quite suddenly as the work and connections with teammates re-energized me. I’ve still had to be careful not to overdo it, but it’s felt really incredible to be myself again. Work is a big part of life, and it’s tough to be your full self without it.

Not being able to pick up Addie has remained challenging, and frustrating — and probably most of all, inconvenient. But other than that, life is far better and far more normal than I ever imagined it would be during this stretch. It’s hard to believe I’m two-thirds of the way there. And while I can’t say I’ll miss my bag when it’s gone, I will admit that I’ve noticed some ways in which it has actually improved life — like not having to search for a bathroom in public, or on a car trip.

But I do miss veggies terribly. I guess that’s a good sign that my new veggie-forward, cancer-recurrence-preventative diet — temporarily on hold until I can digest normally again — is poised for success.

Being well past the halfway point has got me wondering how, in years and decades down the road, I’ll look back on this time. I think that largely it will be full of happy memories, of mostly joy-filled months that were so, so much better than the awful ones preceding them.

I’ll remember a surgery and recovery that sucked, but then a life with a bag (a “poo-poo bag” as Addie calls it) that actually wasn’t too bad or different. We’ve had family moments I’ve cherished every second of, from zoo-going to apple-picking to trick-or-treating. As the pain and discomfort have faded, the gratitude has skyrocketed, with a deepening appreciation for the many shades of luck I’ve been blessed with recently, from rotten in the early innings to truly phenomenal when the game was on the line. I wouldn’t say I’m any better at not letting little things — work problems, for example — stress me out unnecessarily, but I am better at quickly revising those first-draft reactions with a heavily gratitude-infused rewrite. Like, “Oh wait, I’m only reacting that way because I used to think these types of problems were life-altering. Carry on.”

How will I remember the fall of 2020? In a word, probably, “Wow.”

Back to Work!

This past Wednesday marked one month since my surgery, which is a little hard to believe. After we got the great-news pathology results a few weeks back, I decided to take a short break from writing. Once we had those results and could take something of a deep breath, it felt good to distance myself as much as possible from anything cancer-related. The blog has been a wonderful way to connect with people, but a brief sabbatical felt nice.

A lot has happened in the way of recovery! I got my staples out — a small thing, maybe, but a big relief in how it accelerated the healing of my incision. A few nights ago, I cheered heartily after injecting myself with the last of a month’s worth of nightly Lovenox shots (for prevention of blood clots). I’m basically pain-free now, other than the occasional cramping at night (still haven’t fully figured that one out, but eating a much earlier dinner seems to have helped) and (who would’ve thought?) whenever I sneeze. I still get tired pretty easily, but I can walk around the neighborhood at a respectable clip, pretty much to my heart’s content.

The ileostomy bag and I are still joined at the hip (sorry), getting along much better now. I had a bit of an issue they call a “separation,” where the skin around the stoma doesn’t heal after the stoma retracts to its smaller post-surgery size. (For a while after surgery, the stoma is very swollen from all the action — in my case, probably twice the size it has settled down to now.) With a little powder and some invaluable guidance from Rose, my amazing ostomy nurse, it’s nearly fully healed now.

Just a guy and his bag.

My required low-fiber, “soft” diet has definitely been the weirdest part about this period of recovery. If you were following the blog in the days not long after my diagnosis, I decided very quickly to fundamentally change my diet: no more red meat or fried food, generally very veggie-forward, etc. The irony is that until my next surgery, I basically can’t eat fruits or veggies (in addition to nuts, seeds, and anything else that doesn’t easily break down during digestion) — the risk of things getting blocked is too great.

So, while it was tough to accept, I’ve basically had to pause the new and improved diet. It’s been lots of chicken, pasta, and rice these last few weeks. Because my options are so limited right now, I’ve even allowed myself the occasional burger, or ice cream bar. I get hungry constantly, but I can’t eat nearly the quantity I could before (as Alexis has correctly pointed out, this is arguably the biggest blessing of my new condition), which means I have to eat pretty frequently.

I’ve still stayed away from alcohol, but when it comes to caffeine, the fatigue from weeks of crappy sleep has forced me to venture a bit beyond green tea into an occasional latte or mocha. I’m trying hard not to slip back into my old habits, but a little bit of careful comfort eating has felt well worth it during this stretch. On the plus side, I left the hospital at 185 pounds (down from 205 pre-diagnosis) and have stayed there since. Hey, it’s not a weight loss plan I’d ever recommend, but it sure worked!

Tomorrow I’m heading back to work. I’m planning to take things slow, and I know I’m going to have to be very mindful of not pushing myself back to my pre-diagnosis pace. I’m going to be diligent about taking breaks, eating regularly, prioritizing sleep, and not getting worked up over problems that aren’t really problems — all the things I used to do very poorly. Frankly, I’m nervous about how that’s all going to go. But I miss my colleagues, many of whom are dear friends, and I’m craving some intellectual stimulation and the beginnings of a return to normalcy.

It’s only been two-and-a-half months, but I feel like a kid staring at the ceiling the night before the first day of eighth grade. Time to go finish my summer reading.

Some Really Great News

Yesterday Dr. Dietz (my rockstar surgeon) called, and I could sense excitement in his voice. Throughout this whole process, he’s been a very steady, calming presence — even-keeled, deliberate, and never too high or too low. So when he said he had “very good news,” I knew I was going to really like whatever he said next.

The scoop: The long-awaited final pathology report indicated that all the lymph nodes that were removed were cancer-free, and the margins around the tumor were such that (this is the best part) I won’t need chemo or radiation. All that’s left to do is wait a few months for my reconnected rectum to heal, then have my ileostomy reversal surgery and bid farewell to my bag. And I’m told that that surgery’s recovery is much quicker; you just have to prove that the ole system is working again, so to speak, before they let you go home and get back to your life.

We’ll obviously be keeping a very close eye on things. I’m not sure yet what the exact schedule of scans, colonoscopies, etc. will be, but it sounds like I’ll have something at least every 3-6 months for quite awhile — which is more than fine by me! The feeling of relief is almost impossible to put into words. I felt like we were down three runs with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, and Dr. Dietz stepped up to the plate and hit a walk-off grand slam. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but I always understand the world best in terms of baseball analogies.

Today Alexis and I celebrate our third anniversary, so I think that tonight I’ll cheat on my new diet a bit and have some champagne. Lots to celebrate here!