I Am Still Here: 8 Years Cancer-Free Is A Bittersweet Anniversary
On July 3, 2007, I had a hysterectomy for the treatment of cervical cancer, and I just realized that I didn't do anything to commemorate its 8th anniversary a week ago. Part of the reason for this is that Aidan and I were on the road to a family wedding that day, but the other part of the reason is that I just didn't want to. I might be happy that the cancer didn't kill me, but it's a bittersweet anniversary — all gifts exact payments — and that experience set off a series of changes that all have their own bittersweetness attached to them.
When the abnormal cells from a pap smear proved to be multiple malignancies all round and inside my cervix, it was suggested that I opt for a total laparoscopic hysterectomy. On the way to making up my mind about that:
- my first gynaecologist, upon seeing the results of my colposcopy, told me that I probably wouldn't be needing my uterus anyway, since I was of the advanced age of 35. We were about the same age, by the way, and she said this to me while pressing her 8-months pregnant belly against my knee.
- The gynaecological oncologist to whom I was subsequently referred cheerfully informed me that, at 35, I likely wouldn't be needing my uterus anyway, equating it with bothersome trash that would just irritate me if I didn't take it out. You can just toss that, she said, pantomiming throwing a small thing over her shoulder.
- More than one nurse assured me that some women were back to running 5 miles a day only two weeks after the operation.
- A doctor and nurse together urged me to consider getting pregnant before the hysterectomy, even though 1) it would mean delaying treatment of my cancer for at least a year and 2) my now compromised cervix would have me on at least 5 months of bed rest in order to carry a child to term, if I didn't deliver two months early, which I was told was likely.
I could go on for years about the minimal and dismissive nature of the medical advice I was given. At every turn, I encountered ageism, minimization of both the surgery and the body parts it would affect, weighting commitment to a pregnancy over immediate treatment*, downplay of my postoperative recovery, under-treatment of my serious pain after surgery, and a serious lack of information about possible postoperative side effects.
Because of the breezy descriptions of other women's fast andy easy recoveries and little talk of what side effects might await me, I struggled after the surgery when I didn't do as well as I thought I should. In the weeks following, I discovered that I had nerve damage in either my bladder or urinary tract, my bowel movements became deeply painful, likely due to postoperative adhesions, and I was fatigued. I had been lead to believe that recovery was going to be a snap, and yet when I tried to return to work 6–8 weeks after the surgery, I was sent home on extended leave because I kept falling asleep at my desk. Three months afterwards, I was still only able to stay alert for three-hour stretches without sleeping.
Now, eight years later, the nerve damage means I always feel like I have to pee, I usually have searing pain when anything moves through my bowels (by which I mean white-hot-and-incapable-of-speech pain), I lost over half an inch in height (I'm not kidding), and ovulation now comes with a side of painful cramps, which may be due to cystic activity. I had multiple ovarian cysts when I was in my early 20s, and these feel like them. I might not technically get my period anymore, but it sure feels like I do.
I haven't shared most of this publicly, because I didn't want to scare anyone who has a hysterectomy in their future, and I felt shame and failure at how much of my recovery never seemed to end. In truth, I am still glad that I had it done, because I never wanted to have children — fertility was the ugly monster that terrified me almost every month for 16 years — and removing my uterus made me feel more at home in a body whose femininity and fertility made me feel alien.
Despite the physical fallout, I would have this hysterectomy all over again. I really would. Because being alive and well? It's pretty fucking fantastic.
In the years since July 3, 2007, prompted in part by this whole cancer piece of my life, I had a nervous breakdown, I permanently left the abusive workplace I was in at the time, I quit smoking, I quit drinking, I started designing websites and writing and speaking for a living, and now I am working with more focus on my health and wellness as a whole individual. That is the aforementioned string of bittersweet life changes that came out of my experience with cervical cancer. I literally broke down, and then I put myself together. I am still putting myself together. Truthfully, though, I think we're all always putting ourselves together.
It's a hard thing to confront addiction every day, it's a hard thing to recover from years of stress in an abusive work environment, it's a hard thing to do an about-face and establish yourself in a new career, but it is all a testament to the strengths I was not certain I possessed when I called on them. It's all part of my perpetual work to be human who can leave this place better than they found it.
Despite the greatness of being alive, though, I am the queen of ongoing side effects, and the real and present fear of cancer's return is always within arm's reach. I had CT scans every 6 months for five years, at which point I was given the all-clear, but actuaries know the real score, and I couldn't get life insurance until I was cancer-free for seven years. Diagnosis, treatment, and years of checkups take cancer out of the realm of ideas and make it a real, concrete object that literally inhabits your life. It's hard to shake.
Although eight years free of cancer is a thing to be joyful about, it would have been dishonest of me to portray it as a solely shiny affair. There are just too many difficult stories ravelled into its place in my life. I wasn't prepared to pretend utter happiness a week ago, but I wasn't prepared for honesty, either, and so I kept quiet. Sometimes, stories have too many threads and hazards to dig through in the middle of a road trip.
It would be easier if this were a concluded chapter rather than an ongoing thread I couldn't drop. It could be a tidied mess neatly separated from my present. Today, though, I'm ready look at the whole messy but decidedly happier thing my life has become.
I am still here. I am still here.
* A daughter of a family member's friend who was about the same age as me was given the same advice at about the same time to have a child before having a hysterectomy. She was later diagnosed with ovarian cancer and died from the disease.