Spring cleaning | How are you cleaning out your life and cleaning out your writing in preparation for a new season? Reflect. Photograph. Think.
Earlier this year, I was diagnosed with early-stage cervical cancer. The tests began late last year, and the surgery and the official word came in January. It was the kind they could take out in a morning of surgery with nothing more but close follow-up for a few years, but it was still the kind that was Capital-C Cancer.
After all was said and done, a few people tried to tell me that because some of the cells were just pre-cancerous, what I’d had wasn’t really cancer. Maybe they said it to make me feel better, but it was confusing to hear; made me feel like my experience was being minimised.
Was it serious or not? Am I overreacting? Should I just shut up?
Notwithstanding the status of some of my cells, I had still spent a morning in hospital with Bethany by my side; still spent all that time waiting for news. It had been the kind of surgery where there were a few complications, so the “quick recovery” I’d been promised was anything but. And it was the kind of situation where I bled helplessly for days, and had to wear humiliating underpants for longer than I’d like to admit. And there there were lots of…things…going on that probably happen to women after they give birth, but I wouldn’t know because the prize at the end of my hospital visit wasn’t the thrill of bringing new life into this world, it was merely preserving my own.
Cervical cancer is a difficult thing to discuss, for a variety of reasons. First, it’s a women’s cancer. There are few awareness campaigns, and no coloured-ribbons, and no 5k run/walks in Central Park. Like other pelvic cancers, cervical cancer is often not caught until it is far too late, and the available treatments tend to be messy; brutal. There are no poster gals for the disease either, unless maybe if you count Jade Goody — but most Americans don’t know who she is, and she wasn’t exactly the most popular person until she became a tragic darling in death.
Second, most cervical cancers are caused by the Human Papilloma Virus, something that nearly all sexually active people will contract at some stage of life. Though less common, it can also be contracted from non-intercourse contact, like being passed from mother-to-child during childbirth. Many strains don’t cause cancer — a few do. Most people’s bodies fight off the virus and they never ever know they came into contact with it. I take powerful immunosuppressants to keep my Rheumatoid Arthritis in check, and it’s likely that those inhibited my body’s ability to fight off this common bug.
Am I a bad or less worthwhile person because I got this in the first place?
There is a vaccine. It’s new-ish. By the time it came on the market, I was too old for my insurance to cover it (in America, insurances will consider you “low risk” after age 26 and will not cover you for the jab). I had no idea how common the virus was, or how the cancer worked. American doctors at the time were not having any kind of serious discussion with patients about why you should or could still have the vaccine after age 26, or what HPV and cervical cancer even WERE.
Most of my friends who live outside of the US were vaccinated early on. Living in the States, I was mortifyingly ignorant for far too long.
And because I knew so little from the start, I was too numb to flinch when I got the diagnosis and the doctor told me that my fertility might be compromised; when he said that, with the amount of tissue he took out, my cervix was likely to be incompetent, but there were things we could do if/when I wanted children. I nodded when he explained the mechanics; the stitches. I smiled dumbly when the nurses took my blood again and again and again and said, sympathetically, Oh my what good veins you have such good veins, we’ll see you in here next when you deliver healthy babies!
I would like to think I am a smart girl. But how could I have been so stupid about everything?
And I took it in stride when yet another friend posted something on Facebook or Twitter about how the cervical cancer vaccine turned young girls into sluts, or when someone else circulated a sensationalist lie that the drug had killed someone. And when I did tell people about my surgery, the response was generally not particularly supportive or positive, with the exception of my closest family and friends. Eventually, I stopped sharing what had happened altogether, because there were so many times that my disclosure was met with raised eyebrows.
I let other people blame me. I listened when it was suggested that I was worth less now that my ability to bring life into the world might be compromised.
So I blamed myself for this. But there was nothing to blame myself for. Truthfully, I got lucky — many women don’t have anywhere near as fantastic an outcome as I did with this disease.
This is all a very long-winded way of saying — sometimes, in the midst of slow-moving crisis, you find that your life has a lot more crumbly junk in it than you previously realised. You suddenly observe that you are carrying around a lot of detritus of the past, and not nearly as much useful stuff as you thought.
Of course, there were and are many, many supportive people, and those friends and family shouldn’t overlooked.
But what I am really saying (again) is that I am not to blame for what I experienced. It has taken me a long time, and a lot of shaking out the cobwebs, and clearing out the cupboards, and wringing out the guilt and the shame, but I think I am finally…Okay.