It’s been one year since my big surgery–the one where they removed every non-essential organ from my abdomen (and bits and pieces of some essential ones). I can’t say I really miss my gallbladder or my appendix. My body seems fine with how much omentum and peritoneum was removed. I’m not even sure what a falciform ligament is or what it does, but I’m happy to report I’m just fine without it. My liver is either content with its missing chunk or happily regenerating itself. The 18-inches of colon and 8 inches of small intestine they took have made digestion, um, interesting, but short bowel is better than no bowel!
That just leaves my lady bits.
As some of you loyal readers might remember, I was in the beginning stages of a second surrogate pregnancy when I was diagnosed in March 2017. The loss of that potential pregnancy was just one of the devastating effects of my diagnosis. I had little time to mourn that loss, however, as I got swept up into the whirlwind of appointments, chemo, surgeries, and recoveries (rinse and repeat). I watched from afar as the intended parents chose a new surrogate. I was thrilled when they told me she was pregnant. I reveled in the pictures they sent me of the baby’s beautiful nursery. And I was so, so happy when the baby was born, healthy and whole and so very loved.
I was also so very sad.
During my HIPEC surgery, the surgeon noticed something suspicious about one of my ovaries. She called in a gynecological surgeon to take a look, and he decided it would be best to remove everything–ovaries, tubes, uterus, and some cervix (or, for those who love medical terms, a salpingo-oophorectomy and hystorectomy). I am grateful he made this game-day decision, as both ovaries were filled with cancer. I was not prepared, however, for the medically induced menopause that followed.
Menopause, much like colon cancer itself, is one of those topics talked about in hushed tones, never in polite company. It’s mysterious and scary, and for many it’s fraught with the reality of aging. For me and many others thrown into menopause head first due to surgical removal of our gonads (yes, ovaries are gonads, too!), the sudden symptoms like hot flashes, insomnia, and memory loss can be shocking. The long-term effects, namely osteoporosis due to a long-term lack of estrogen, can be devastating. But at least my doctors talked to me about these and fully prepared me for what medically induced menopause entails, right? Right?! Um, no. I got no conversation, no explanation, no idea of what to expect. My surgeon (whom I adore, don’t get me wrong), a week after my surgery said, quite flippantly, “Oh, you have no ovaries anymore; you should probably be on some sort of estrogen.” Then she slapped a patch on my butt and that was it.
In the year since, I have had time to process the loss of my reproductive organs and, more importantly, grieve. I needed time to understand that the parts of my body that created 4 other beautiful human being (50% redheaded), the parts of my body that grew and nurtured my babies, were gone. I have always felt that my power as a woman came from my uterus, that my ability to create life and give birth is the sum total of my superpowers. Without my uterus, without my ovaries and tubes, without my superpower, who am I?
Turns out I was super, super wrong. I am just as much a woman as I was before. A uterus, while a neat little organ, is not magical. Ovaries produce helpful hormones, for sure, but being sans ovaries does not affect who I am. No person is the sum total of his or her or their reproductive bits. I knew this intellectually, of course, but it took me a minute to get there emotionally.
Grieving this loss was an unanticipated stepping stone on this cancer journey. Many people, including cancer patients and survivors themselves, do not realize how varied and winding the path of a cancer journey is. One is never done having cancer. It is the proverbial gift that keeps on giving, the shittiest of all shitty white elephant presents. My wish for cancer survivors everywhere is for the dialogue to open up. I wish that everyone knew that the story does not begin and end with chemo. My other wish is for anyone who has had any part of their body removed: your story is important, not icky; you are still you; you are still powerful; you are still whole.
Silver lining roll call:
- I was able to put all of my unused feminine hygiene products in my classroom for students and colleagues to take as needed. I am a provider.
- Turns out having cancer makes you really good at writing Cards Against Humanity cards. Jamie and I may or may not have a new side-job. Stay tuned.
- New school year? New cancer couch! It’s orange and pretty and comfy and I love it. Also, it’s magical: when people sit on it, they tell me all their problems.