I’ve never considered myself in the greatest of shape, but certainly healthy. No high blood pressure, no drugs. I do yoga. I walk a few miles a day. I meditate daily. Sure, I am 25 pounds overweight, sometimes drink too much wine, and usually eat too much chocolate. But … a cancer diagnosis? I did not think I would ever receive one of those. I guess most of us would feel this way when hit with a diagnosis like that; I guess it’s called shock. It was uterine cancer.
This adventure started with a discharge that sent me to the doctor, where I was prescribed a suppository for a bacterial infection. I’m not sure why I am so uncomfortable when it comes to a doctor peering into my vagina. It just has this invasive feeling for me. I had been told a few years ago that, after 60, a woman doesn’t need a gynecologist. That sounded good to me, and I didn’t really question it. I always believe doctors. Kind of like state troopers, they have a godlike aura surrounding them. I don’t second-guess doctors; they know everything. I joke that they “practice” medicine, but subconsciously, I believe everything they say.
I Googled this discharge because I was too embarrassed to ask the internist how I could have gotten an infection “there,” and found a myriad of explanations that basically boiled down to no one knows. I know it’s not from same-sex relations, so that’s not it. After menopause, there’s vaginal dryness, to combat that issue, there’s spit. So, maybe that was it. I didn’t dare ask my doctor since he’s a man; what would he possibly know about vaginal dryness? Maybe he knows a lot, but I was uncomfortable talking about it. Maybe I didn’t clean my vibrator often enough? I couldn’t ask that question. These were the thoughts that went through my mind, but I couldn’t voice them to anyone. They were too embarrassing, too revealing. I felt, and still feel, some sort of stigma around the topic of sex at “my age.” As a matter of fact, I began to notice that even the word vagina generates a distinct energy around it.
I don’t know why there are so many negative messages in society about genitalia, particularly women’s genitalia. It’s as if there’s something ugly about the word vagina, something that needs to be cleaned. Where did this start and why? Is there shame and judgment around a woman experiencing pleasure? How many have taken a mirror to explore this body part and become familiar with it? I hope the younger generation has, because I sure hadn’t.
A month later, I was back at the doctor. “You should probably see a gynecologist,” he told me. I don’t know what happened to not needing to see a gynecologist after 60. It was then that I began to feel the first stirring of worry — an anticipation that something must be wrong. The terrifying “C” word began to creep into the back of my mind. I didn’t mention it to anyone for fear that in verbalizing it, I would manifest it. Somewhere in my body — I couldn’t sense where — worry lodged itself. I’m not particularly in tune with my body. I know when I have muscle soreness or a stomachache, but on a day-to-day basis, I pretty much take my body for granted. It gets me here and there. It’s the house for my soul, but I can’t say I treat it as a temple.
I couldn’t get an appointment with the gynecologist for a month because she was so busy. It struck me that if a doctor sees one patient an hour, that’s eight patients a day — or about 160 patients a month. I’m not sure why this surprises me, but this is just one doctor among many. Do the math. This is big business. I could feel the worry beginning to creep up on me through my abdomen, quickening my heartbeat, making each breath shallow. My sleep became disrupted, and fatigue began to take over.
The “C” word continued to lurk in the back of my mind. It had taken only one search on Google to come up with my worst nightmare, and I was grateful that I only had to wait a few more days until my gynecologist appointment. I wondered what the side effects of this worry would have on my body. I was surprised that there was no sense of urgency from the doctor. No follow-up. I wondered if this was just my doctor or the medical community in general, with their 1,920 patients a year.
And so, the day finally came, and I was back in the stirrups again. That chair was not invented by a woman; that’s for sure. Why is there nothing to support the thighs? We’re supposed to just lie there and let our legs “relax.” Seriously now. I’m just blown away that a woman has not appropriately designed a chair to be used for this. I wish I were an engineer. The stirrups would be padded. The bed would gently recline. There would be something to support my thighs. Instead of the table’s steel arms, there would be side extensions that support my legs.
The “pinch” for the biopsy was not a pinch. It downright hurt and left me bleeding for days. I was told by staff I would be called with the pathology results. I didn’t see the doctor again.
I was confused by this. Maybe the doctor was too uncomfortable to bring up the fact that I was being tested for cancer. Maybe she assumed I would know that, and I guess that somewhere in my body, I did. I would think, though, that protocol would involve, at a minimum, a sit-down to explain what they were testing for and how long it would take. But then, maybe she thought I knew, or that testing for cancer is so commonplace now that it’s like determining the cause of a sore throat.
Per Google, in 2018, an estimated 1,735,350 new cases of cancer were diagnosed. It’s estimated that 38.4% of men and women will be diagnosed with cancer at some point. How can it still be such a dirty, feared word? In my mind, this is an epidemic that requires those of us afflicted with it receive some sort of emotional support. But I digress.
After the biopsy, I was told to put on my clothes. I assumed I would be called with the results. Maybe it was shock I was feeling; maybe it was denial. I poured myself some wine that night.
Several days later, I received a phone call: “I’m calling with the news you don’t want to hear. Your results have come back showing uterine cancer. You need to make an appointment with a surgeon oncologist. We will call ahead so you can get an appointment.” I’m given one name and business card. That’s it. What was I supposed to say? “Thank you, Doctor. See ya later.” I mean, really.
I Googled the list of questions one should ask a surgeon. During this process, I learned that the appropriate course of action is a hysterectomy. I called friends, who gave me sympathy and a lot of unsolicited advice. But by this point, I was no longer worried; now I was scared. I didn’t share this fear with anyone because I wasn’t entirely clear I was actually experiencing it. What does fear feel like in the body? A faster heartbeat? A desire to run?
I couldn’t locate the hospital’s parking lot. I felt a lump in my throat as a sense of panic began to overcome me. It rose from my gut to my throat and became stuck there. It was the physical manifestation of fear. I didn’t cry though; I did my best to push it down and just march forward. I resolved to remain strong and stay present. I walked down the aisle labeled “Gynecological Oncology.” I was one of the 1.8 million people who would be diagnosed with cancer in 2019.
After more prodding and poking in “the chair” by a kind male doctor, I followed him to his office. There, we were met by his assistant who informed me that the course of action for a case like this is a hysterectomy, and since I wouldn’t need my ovaries any longer, those would be removed as well. I took out my list of questions, and she answered them all. It was a sterile meeting, but an informative one. I nodded even though I was thinking, Who says I don’t need my ovaries? Who says I don’t need those body parts even though I’m past childbearing age? What will happen to my other organs, which are used to my uterus and ovaries being there? What will happen to my vagina, which is connected to everything? What will happen to me? But I didn’t ask any of these questions. I had that lump in my throat. I was scared.
I went to see a female doctor for a second opinion. I was more aware of what was going on by that time. The shock had worn off. My questions were more detailed now, and I knew what was going to happen. I moved the surgery up — the sooner, the better.
I spent time in limbo, waiting for surgery, waiting for pathology, waiting for the diagnosis, waiting for treatment. I was caught up in the arms of the AMA. It was robotic, practical, routine, factory-like. There’s nothing comforting about having cancer in your body. I could see the fear and dismay in those around me, but we didn’t discuss it. I was as afraid of the emotions as I was of the disease.
I showed up for my surgery at 9:30 a.m. The hospital was futuristic, sterile, and bustling. I was hustled over here, hustled over there. There was one nurse for my IV, one for my drugs, one that was assisting the surgeon, and so on. At 11:30, another new face appeared to tell my caregivers that they should go wait on the fifth floor. I got up to walk to the operating room on the third floor. It was surreal. I was wearing a hospital gown, those socks with the nonstick tread on the bottom, and a hat that looked like a shower cap. The operating room was cold, and there were a lot of people milling about. I didn’t have time to feel my body. I was terrified and alone. I lay down on a narrow table and was covered with a warm blanket. I spotted someone who had introduced himself to me earlier as my anesthesiologist. He looked to be about 12 years old. I closed my eyes and prayed.
I never again saw the surgeon who was to invade my body or the anesthesiologist who was to hold my life in his hands. As a matter of fact, I never saw any of those people again. By the time I’d awakened, they’d finished their shifts.
I woke up in the recovery room, high. I was hallucinating, drifting in and out, but it was done, and I had lived. I was greeted by a slew of new faces, removing IVs, helping me get dressed, and on and on. Within an hour, I was sitting up, eating a cracker and getting up to go to the bathroom. Two hours later, I was able to take some steps down the hall. At 1 a.m., 14 hours after removing multiple organs from my body, I was in a wheelchair, and then in a car, driving home. I had a little bag that I could use to breathe into so I wouldn’t pass out — or that I could vomit into if necessary. I was relieved to make it back to my own bed so I could fall asleep and wake up at home.
I am writing about this experience because in retrospect, I am aghast. In 2017, the estimated national expenditures for cancer care in the United States were $147.3 billion. In future years, costs are likely to increase as the population ages and cancer prevalence increases. Costs are also likely to increase as new and often more expensive treatments are adopted as standards of care.
As the number of cases of cancer increase, the tools improve, and the surgeons become better trained. My surgery was robotic; as in robot hands actually removed my organs. Overall, there was limited invasiveness, which allowed for a quick recovery. I’m one of the lucky ones. I have been cured as a result of my having had my organs removed. These are amazing strides, ones that allow my surgeon to perform 250 hysterectomies a year. But even as these aspects progress, attention to the individual does not. I was told to make sure I hugged my surgeon so that an energetic connection could be made before surgery. And so I did. I wanted her to see me as a part of her. I had to entrust myself to her while I was asleep and unaware. Since one of the effects of anesthesia is amnesia, I have no memory of the surgical experience, but my body knows something happened; my body has a memory of it.
Despite all that technology and expertise (I even had an electronic tag that would allow my surgical team to locate me wherever I was), there was no connection to my heart, to my soul. There was no connection to my anxiety, my fear, my insecurity. Where do we go from here? Since the surgery, I’ve been logging into my account and posting updates on my recovery, but I don’t know if anyone actually looks at them.
And so, pre-surgery, I spoke to my body. I engaged with my uterus. I explained to her that because she could infect other parts body, it was no longer safe for me to keep her. I nurtured and cared for the rest of my organs, explaining the loss to them. Yes, it sounds a little crazy, I know, but those parts of me understood. I became present, very present. As my breath grew deeper, my fear lessened. I began to understand and respect my cancer and what its deeper meaning was for me.
Why does the medical community not prescribe mental and emotional well-being as readily as they prescribe oxycodone or chemotherapy? Isn’t our state of being going through this process as important as the process itself? It’s important that we recognize that there is an anxiety that permeates any trauma. The journey through a cancer diagnosis and treatment contains its own posttraumatic stress, not just for the patient, but also for everyone involved. And so, while the medical community tries to catch up, nurture yourself. Talk to your friends about what you are experiencing. Understand that they are afraid as well. Be brave with your emotions, and be a warrior with your disease. Most of all, have the utmost compassion for every single part of yourself.