There’s help for ‘ostomy depression’

  • Sun Sep 26th, 2010 9:23pm
  • News

By Kristi O’Harran, Herald Columnist

We’re going to be grown-ups today and discuss a bodily function. Some members of Janet McNiven’s family don’t even want to discuss this topic.

Let’s face it, what goes in must come out, somewhere.

McNiven underwent a colostomy seven years ago. Like 750,000 people in the country today, she has a bag attached to her abdomen to collect her bodily waste.

On a list of the least appealing post-surgical lives, I bet folks would commonly list the results of a colostomy as particularly undesirable.

As described at, a colostomy is what is created when a portion of the colon or rectum is removed and the remaining colon is brought to the abdominal wall. An ostomy refers to the surgically created opening in the body for the discharge of body wastes.

We give great respect to McNiven, 59, who is willing to talk about hemorrhoids and rectal surgery to press her message about the value of support groups.

Thirteen years ago, she underwent a hemorrhoidectomy. According to, we all have hemorrhoids. It’s a mass, clump or cushion of tissue within the anal canal containing blood vessels. When the cushion enlarges, there can be a bleeding problem.

McNiven, who graduated from Everett High School and Seattle University, received little relief from the surgery. She had a second operation, then decided she could not live with poor results.

She isn’t someone who likes to complain. The accountant and volunteer, who lives in Everett, ended up at a Swedish Medical Center pain clinic.

“I saw a doctor about 150 times in five years,” McNiven said. “I had 18 little procedures. For three and a half years, I took morphine daily.”

And she said she has a high tolerance for pain. Childbirth was nothing, she said.

The pain doctor told her she was his most challenging patient.

“I had to lay down all day,” she said. “Even the morphine did not take the pain away.”

If her husband took her out to dinner, she carried along a pillow to sit on.

“I was always hoping I would get better,” McNiven said. “I had such a zest for life.”

She did not recover. She said she wore adult diapers for incontinence. At age 53, it became apparent she needed more surgery.

“I looked forward to the colostomy,” she said.

Her elimination system was surgically rerouted. McNiven had no qualms showing me the small bag that catches waste. As she learned to live with the attachment, she found she had questions and concerns, she said. She developed what she calls “ostomy depression.”

For her, attending support groups provided practical answers. She learned about hygiene, emotional coping and how to comfortably travel.

“I’ve snorkeled in Maui,” she said. “You adapt.”

McNiven said sharing her experiences at group meetings became her mission in life. She advocates for the Snohomish County Affiliated Support Group of the United Ostomy Associations of America.

She writes a newsletter for patients called Snohomish County Ostomy Insights. Support group Vice President Verna Turner of Lynnwood said it’s up to each patient if they want to attend meetings.

She’s been a member for 27 years. Turner said she’s seen patients leave the support group, then show up again with a question. At coffee time, after meetings, some folks feel comfortable asking questions one on one.

“It isn’t something you want to push,” she said. “It is a place where they can talk to other people. There is no other way to get the facts.”

For more information, visit or call Cathryn Dihle, president of Snohomish County Affiliated Support Group of the United Ostomy Associations of America at 425-337-7221 or call 800-826-0826.

McNiven aims to help others who undergo rectal surgery.

“This is what I am here to do,” she said. “I am grateful to be alive.”

Kristi O’Harran: 425-339-3451,

Support groups

Those who undergo a colostomy may join support groups to get practical advice about living with the outcome of the surgery. For more information, visit or call Cathryn Dihle, 425-337-7221 or call 800-826-0826.