Last summer, a cyst on my right ovary burst on the Fourth of July and sent me to the operating room.
It was the second time a problem with an ovary has required surgery. And a third time, a fibroid in my uterus threw a major temper tantrum, sending me back to the hospital less than a week after my daughter was born.
In between surgeries and hospital visits, I’ve had 15 years of anemia-inducing periods, chronic abdominal pain, intestinal symptoms that mirror the effects of IBS, painful sexual encounters, and inconvenient or anxiety-filled social situations as a result of these medical problems.
My condition – a combination of cysts, fibroids and endometriosis – is quite common.
More women than not will develop fibroids before they reach the age of 50 (though many will not realize it because the fibroids shrink or grow in un-troublesome spots). Ovarian cysts are less frequent but still common — about 8% of pre-menopausal women will develop cysts that require some sort of treatment. And nearly 30% of women in the United States will suffer from endometriosis, a condition in which endometrial tissue grows outside the uterus and sticks to other organs like the ovaries, bladder, intestines, and (in rarer cases) lungs, brain, and skin.
In addition to the symptoms I’ve experienced, many women also struggle with infertility as a result of endometriosis in particular, which is how they first become aware of the problem.
Yet despite the sizable population of women who can no doubt empathize with my situation, I’ve kept it mostly to myself, postponed fixing it, and struggled with anxiety around it for a number of reasons I think many will relate.
We don’t feel empowered by or in control of our bodies. This isn’t about sex or childbearing; it’s about health. But in too many instances, our culture still places more value on what a woman’s ovaries, uterus, and vagina can do for someone else than what they can do (or what they do to) her.
I have a wonderful female doctor who has been telling me for years that hysterectomy (removal of the uterus) coupled with oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries) is the most likely outcome of my prognosis. I am finally coming around to this, and have scheduled my surgery (hopefully my last of this nature) for the end of December. But I will reluctantly admit the fear of what happens as a result of these surgeries has held me back and keeps me up at night. I am afraid of the ensuing changes in my body (no longer able to bear children, changes in sexual function, changes in my physical appearance), and how that might affect how I’m perceived by others, particularly men.
Speaking of men… Men are calling the shots. After an experience in the hospital with a ruptured fibroid – the pain of which far transcended that of childbirth – I asked my gynecologist about treatment options, including tubal ligation. That may not have been a viable solution to my health issues, but rather than talk to me about options that might have worked (uterine ablation, hysterectomy), he cautioned me against any procedure that might limit my ability to have more children in the future. He advised me to “just hang in there”. I eventually found a new doctor.
Periods are still a taboo. Even in progressive cultures in 2016, we are conditioned not to speak of what is a normal, healthy, monthly biological function. Boys aren’t educated about girls’ bodies. Hygiene products are marketed for their discrete packaging. Every woman I know slips a tampon up her sleeve rather than carry it in her hand on the way to the office restroom. If we can’t talk about a functional menstrual cycle, we sure as heck can’t talk about one on its last legs.
We hate to age. The other taboo in this story is that of aging. Again, this is especially hard for women, I think. Men are sexy and powerful when their hair grays and their resume builds. Too often, aging women are perceived as less attractive sexually, and either more intimidating or (if they’ve taken a break to raise children) more obsolete professionally. A breakdown in health, particularly one that comes with the loss of childbearing capabilities, is bound to trigger anxieties around aging. Our culture is not gentle in this regard.
I don’t know what the solution to any of this is, but I do think it can’t hurt to put some of it in writing – to remove a bit of the mystery and chip away at the taboos. I want a healthy body in 2017, and for anyone else struggling with these issues, I hope she finds relief as quickly as possible. Open conversations in a healthy culture will help us all, surely.