Requiem for the ‘Lady Parts’

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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.

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Things Thought and Mostly Unsaid at the End of the Year

A dog went for a walk before the sidewalk set, and left his impression in the wet concrete. A little boy noticed this and etched his initials nearby.
The boy enjoyed the moment, but I wonder what the dog thought.
Among the things I think about on when walking alone at the end of 2013: It would suck to step barefoot into wet cement.

Also…

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Bicycling in Nashville: Stones River Greenway

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Yesterday’s early morning rains cancelled plans to ride with friends, and – long story short – this weekend I ended up riding alone for the first time in years. I chose the Stones River Greenway, via the Shelby Bottoms Greenway. This means:

  1. I rode my bike 32 miles from East Nashville to the Percy Priest dam and back without ever really venturing onto an actual trafficked road. (Nashville people: Do you realize how wonderful the city’s greenway system is? I know a lot of you do, because it required some skill and concentration not to run you over yesterday.)
  2. Because I was alone (and not constantly conversing, which is normally what I do when exercising, and thus one of the reasons my regular cycling partner and I are so close), I rode about 50% faster than I normally do.

Here are some things you will encounter if you ride the Stones River Greenway in Nashville.

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How could she possibly think she’s fat?

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For most of my adult life, excepting the nine months I was pregnant and the eight weeks or so that followed when I starved myself to fit into a bridesmaid dress for a friend’s wedding, I have wavered between a size 0 and a size 8.

That is a fairly wide but mostly healthy range, accounting for a roughly 30-pound variance across a relatively narrow, 5’6″ frame. There have been times when I have felt too soft, other times when I have felt too sharp, and other times when I have felt just right.

The problem is that the “just right” times are elusive. I almost don’t appreciate them until they’re gone, because when they’re here, I’m often so worried they’ll slip away that I’ll overdo an exercise routine or I’ll skip every meal but breakfast. Next thing I know, my daughter doesn’t want to cuddle with me because I’m “too pointy”. Then I’ll think, “She is right. I am too thin,” and I’ll inch back up another dress size. It’s when my size creeps up again that I start to panic – and yes, I mean panic – that I’m losing my figure.

It’s more accurate, of course, to say I am losing my perspective.

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Not first, not fast: A case for racing just to finish

By The Tennessean

My friend Andrew and I rode 62 miles Saturday in Nashville’s big annual group ride for cyclists, the Tour de Nash. We started in a parking lot at Vanderbilt, cycled north through Metro Center, east through Inglewood and Shelby Bottoms, took the Greenway all the way to the Percy Priest dam and back, then back across the Korean Vets bridge from East Nashville, north again to the Bicentennial Plaza to Charlotte, to Sylvan Park, to Belle Meade, up through Percy Warner, and back to Vanderbilt with many meandering, pretty excursions along the way.

That is a long ride.

Hilly.

Trafficked.

Scary at the end when a thunderstorm caught us on the last several miles.

Many friends cheered us on; others called us crazy. Why do we do things like this?

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When time is the healer

My freshman year in college I had a roommate who stayed out late, went to fraternity parties, flung clothes all over our tiny dorm room floor, and watched loud soap operas in the middle of the day.

Can you imagine.

We had a falling out that culminated with (me) screaming, (me) sobbing, (me) throwing things and (me) – god, this is so embarrassing – packing the television set up in my car and driving it back to my parents’ house several weeks before finals. I showed her, man. No more soaps for her (and no more X Files for me).

Poor thing. While she was busy being a normal college freshman, I was clinging to my goody two shoes. (I hate to say I also mean that literally. I only recently tossed out the pair of penny loafers I bought in junior high school and continued to wear through most of college.)

We were not two girls thrown together randomly by a campus housing computer program. We had grown up together. Our mothers were close friends who taught in the same elementary school. We spent countless nights at one another’s houses with my younger brother and her younger cousin. She was the first to know of my long-held secret crush on another teacher’s kid. I always knew of her myriad not-so-secret crushes, little childhood “relationships” she (unlike me) always had the courage to reveal. We drifted in and out of each others’ inner circles during junior high, growing closer again in high school. We thought we would be compatible roommates.

Close but not clingy. Complementary, but clashing.

But college freshmen are not so circumspect.

What I regret most about that year is how my exhausting self-riteousness not only prevented me from having any fun, it cost me a friendship and stopped who knows how many others from blossoming. Worst: it blinded me to how smart, giving and perceptive my roommate was.

Is.

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Endometriosis: Five Things I’ve Learned From A Minor Health Scare

I am writing this post from bed, on my phone, under the influence of painkillers, so there’s a fair chance it’s rather sloppy. I’m not concerned. I think it’s important to share what I’ve learned from a recent health situation that, to be honest, freaked me out more than a little.

So – five things I’ve learned from dealing with endometriosis, ovarian cysts, and a hastily scheduled surgery to deal with all that:

1. Try not to assume the worst before you have all the facts. I had to wait six weeks between the first ultrasound that confirmed I had ovarian cysts and the second that confirmed they had gotten bigger, then undergo surgery before I knew whether the cysts were endometriosis and benign or something else and not. It was hard to keep my mind from going straight to cancer, even though I don’t fit the profile and my doctor said the likelihood was slim. The worst part of this is that when you’re scared, that fear influences your behavior about many things beyond the topic at hand.

I learned that if you recognize this, you can fend it off a little. It also occurred to me that my daughter tends to “awfulize” like this, too, a habit I think we will work on together.

2. Talk to the women in your life, especially your family members. You will be surprised how many people have had similar experiences, and grateful for the perspective and advice they provide.

If nothing else, they will take you for coffee (then cocktails) in the middle of the day. Also, if a first-degree relative (mother, sister) has suffered endometriosis, you are more likely to as well.

3. I am tremendously grateful to have such loving friends and family. They have been there for me and for each other in all crises, great and small. This little health scare and surgery was no exception.

Reach out to your people when you are scared, hurting, or overwhelmed and you’ll see: They will do for you exactly as you would of course do for them.

Side note: A helpful little service I will definitely use the next time I have a friend in need of meal help: takethemameal.com. I didn’t know about this site until my friends Courtenay and Emmely used it to coordinate several other dear hearts who wanted to help Lily and me. When my mom and I got home from the hospital, there was a lovely dinner and sweet note waiting for us from my friends Jase and Chuck.

4. Listen to your body and find a doctor who will listen to you. I have known for years that something was not right with me, but I either dismissed it or was dismissed. In short: Ladies, your period should not knock you out of commission. You should be able to run, bike, do whatever you do to enjoy life without pain. Men, especially if you are doctor types, please take us seriously if we feel something may not be right “down there”. Our bodies are magic and complicated, and I suspect that even if you have an MD after your name, we know them better than you do. I have a doctor now who totally gets this.

5. We all need our mamas. Whether it’s a surgery on our lady parts, childbirth, a broken heart, career advice, or any other number of fast pitches from the universe, there is no better lady to help us knock the jacket off.