When I was 12, I, like my other middle school friends, wondered about my first period. I read Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, identifying with the main character as my school chums got their periods first, and I listened with other pre-menstruators in hushed, sleepover silence to stories of tampon tragedies and pad problems.
I finally got it at school on a rainy afternoon. I remember thinking to myself, “Now I’m am a woman!” When I washed my hands before leaving, I thought my reflection showed someone older, wiser somehow.
Little did I know that this day would mark a beginning of a journey I never imagined.
From the very first day, my bleeding was severe. This was common in my family, and as the months passed, I never knew that my bleeding was unusual or that my cramping was different from my friends. I thought it was normal to become so nauseous from pain that vomiting was my common monthly three-day occurrence. Or that blowing through a box of 30 super tampons in two days was normal. Deep down, I was scared, but I was too embarrassed to talk to anyone about it.
Once I reached high school, I moved to Arizona to live with my father. My father worked 70-80 hours a week, and for him to miss work was a rarity. I was held to the same standard, so my monthly period problems became an issue fast. After telling me to “deal with” my pain and later being sent home by the school nurse, he finally made me a doctor’s appointment.
I was nervous to talk to the doctor about my periods, let alone have my first pelvic exam. But when my doctor told me that my periods were different from most girls, I felt a sense of relief and fear at the same time. I wasn’t crazy, but what would happen now?
For the next few years, I was on suspended birth control pills, giving me only 3-4 periods a year. Though I was relieved from my monthly horrors, I dreaded the period months, sexual activity was a painful joke, and the pain and bleeding wasn’t any better.
I switched to a specialist in gynecology that I didn’t really like but who came highly recommended. He was the first to diagnose me with endometriosis, an odd phenomenon where not all the fluid from menstruation leaves the body. It creates tumor-like growths that create all sorts of problems, including pulling at organs and scarring. The only way to remove it was through a procedure called a laparoscopy, an out-patient surgery where the offending tissue is removed via a tube through the belly-button.
In 5 years, I had four laparoscopies, gained and lost 30-40 pounds from hormone therapies, and went to countless doctor’s visits, including 4 ER adventures from hemorrhaging. My doctor told me that I should have children, as that was a sure-fire way to calm down the endometriosis. But I was in college, working through a rigorous program, and it wasn’t the right time for me. I wanted children, but I wanted them when I handle them, and I already felt so overwhelmed.
When I was 27 and started experiencing unusual pain in my lower abdomen, I went back to see my gynecologist. He performed an ultrasound, and, with a huff, told me, “This is your life. This is how you have to live it, with this pain. There is nothing more I can do.” When I asked him about a hysterectomy, he flatly refused, saying, “You are too young to make that decision. I will not be responsible.” I went looking for another doctor right after that appointment, and I found a wonderful gynecologist, a woman, who listened while I cried in her office, explaining the past 13 years of pain and suffering. When I finished, she ushered me to an evaluation room and scheduled immediate tests.
All of my tests came back horrible. There was so much going on my uterus and surrounding organs that it all looked like a jumble on the ultrasound. My blood work was off; the white blood cell count was unusual and my hormone levels were all over the place. I was booked in for surgery immediately.
The day before my surgery, my doctor met with me in her office, explaining the procedures. After a long discussion, I gave her free will to do as she saw fit once she could really see the problems. Late that evening, I cried with my mother and her friends over the loss of childbirth and my fear of the obvious scarring results. In an act solidarity, three of these wonderful women dropped their pants to show me their hysterectomy scars, and they told me that above all, a pain-free life was worth more than anything else.
Upon waking up after surgery, I remember hearing someone say, “It was a mess. I don’t know how she took it all these years.” When I was able to focus, my doctor told me that I had a complete hysterectomy: cervix, uterus, and both ovaries removed. Both of my ovaries were polycystic. I had copious amounts of scarring, including cotton-candy-like “fuzzy” scars that had pulled my uterus over to one side while attaching itself to my intestines. My cervix was cystic and was being “grabbed” by old laparoscopic surgery scars. I had pelvic congestion syndrome, a disease where varicose like veins ring the uterus, and, as the coup de gras, I had a small uterine tumor which tested positive for cancer.
Through my recovery, I had regular blood tests and two biopsies. My blood work became completely normal, and the surrounding tissue was cancer-free. I don’t have children, which has been a difficult process, but, as my doctor told after the surgery, it was unlikely I would’ve carried to full term. I have to take hormone supplements, but with the money I save on tampons and pads and my pain-free sex-life, my medication is welcome expense.
My journey was a bumpy, hard road, but I am cancer-free.