Sunday, April 11, 2010

VII - Happily Ever After The End Part, or LUCKY

When my doctor told me I had cervical cancer he told me that I was very lucky. He said that he knew I wasn't feeling lucky at that moment -- I really wasn't -- but someday, he promised me, "you will."

Well now. I do and I don't.

My cancer was caught at the earliest possible stage. And so it was treated before I ever even knew it was there. It didn't have a chance to make me sick. That's lucky. Women in many countries without access to pap tests are never so lucky.

It didn't harm my reproductive life. This is very lucky -- I have a whole heap of babies.

My treatment was paid for in entirety by the Canadian Health Care system. If I didn't visit American forums for women with cervical cancer and hear first-hand how financially stressed so very many women with the same diagnosis as mine are (trust me, a cancer diagnosis is stressful enough without having to mortgage your home to pay for treatment) I probably wouldn't stop to think how lucky we are up here in the cold. Man, we're lucky.

And I'm cured. It's all over. I will die of something else entirely, much, much later with oodles of grandchildren to cry about it. I can't think of anything luckier than that.

But I am missing an organ that I was kind of fond of, at least theoretically. And I'm just now recovering from the painful surgery that is a hysterectomy. And that seems unlucky except that if you're gonna get cancer, you don't want the "inoperable" kind, right? -- you want the kind that is, in fact, operable. So I can't complain too much about the operation.

But then there's the fact that just now my mojo resembles a raisin that a toddler partially gummed and chewed before spitting onto the floor of the minivan. That little sticky, brown mess got stepped on several times since and has been melted and compressed into the carpet fibers as it was slept on by a warm dog. There are bits of wiry dog hair sticking out of it every which way and it is full of grit. And that seems unlucky, that.
I'm sure I don't have to explain to you why there really is no MINDF*$K quite like being told your lady bits are diseased and that if your uterus isn't removed at your earliest convenience, the intraepithelial lining on your cervix may try to one day kill you.

Four months ago I had my third baby.

Three weeks ago I had a hysterectomy.

In three more weeks I will visit my doctor and surely he will tell me that I've healed spectacularly and that I may now resume my daily activities including vacuuming and also sexual intercourse. I have some pamphlets on this -- about when you can "resume" vacuuming and sexual intercourse.
And it's precisely the thought of "RESUMING" that has me freaked out just now. I don't mean I'm afraid of vaccuming. I'm not even sure what that is. But I'm a little afraid of having sex. I'm not afraid I'll have to -- my husband isn't an asshole or anything.

It's that I'm afraid I might not want to, like ever again. Or that I might want to but then halfway through I'll realize I can't without thinking about lab coats and scalpels and what's missing from my body and it will be wierd. I'm afraid that when I invariably do want to I'll find that everything will be different. Because I'm different. Because this experience has changed me. Because it is a trauma -- a sexual trauma. Kind of like having a baby is, although having a baby is also wonderful. And oh right, I just had a baby. And, well, you know, resuming can be kinda hard.

Big sigh.

There's the physical healing a girl has gotta do. And then there's other kinds of healing. After this ordeal I need me some sexual healing.

Mojo. Sexual Healing. Oh baby.... mmmmmm... gotta get down tonight. Dammit! How come there's no vocabulary to talk about all this that doesn't come with its own disco soundtrack?

About fifteen years ago I had a tonsillectomy. And now a hysterectomy as well.

Both surgeries required full anesthetic, a couple of overnighters in the hospital, and lots of painkillers during recovery.

The hysterectomy is different, though. It's a more major surgery with a longer recovery, yup, but I'm talking about the fact that there's a different emotional quality to the hysterectomy. A uterus is, after all, a sexual organ. Its removal means an abrupt end to my fertility. It requires me to redefine myself image -- my sexual self image.

I am now a woman without a womb.

Being a woman without tonsils posed no identity problems for me to solve. There was no stigma. There was very little anxiety, apprehension, or angst. The tonsillectomy did not affect my sexuality or my sexual partner. I didn't need to talk about it or to not talk about it.

This is so much more. This is at the very centre of me.

But I can do this.

I know because I've done things like this before.

I've reinvented my sexual self many times. Not in a Madonna way (um...let's try these metallic cone tits with a blonde it too much?). I mean on a personal level, with few, if any, external markers.

Women must re-invent ourselves many times throughout our lives. We have bodily events that change us and that require self redefinition. When we have our first period we move from girl to girl/woman. When we become sexually active we become something else again -- I remember thinking of myself as a "not-a-virgin" and it was a really big deal. I was transformed and marveled that other people couldn't just look at me and you know, just know.

We may become wives (huge!) and mothers (gianormous!) or any of the diverse things from auntie to widow that also mean we are sexed female. And when we do, we are not like we were before. We are changed, if not outwardly, certainly on the inside we are changed.

I do so vividly recall, nigh about five years ago, gazing at a positive pregnancy test and thinking, "Holy freaking crapsnot! There's a PERSON IN ME. That person will come out of MY VAGINA! Then MILK will come out of my boobs! I will be responsible for that person's POOP! Man alive, things are gonna get SO WIERD!!!!"

Long story short, things totally did.

And, of course, I adjusted. A lot.

Prior to having kids, I thought the opposite of the word "sexy" was certainly "motherhood."

Pregnancy was something I'd loosely have defined as "a scary bad thing that I don't want to happen." And any possible combination of the words "pregnancy" and "sex" could, in my mind, only result in either an "Oh no!" or possibly an "Eeeeew!"

If you would have told me that pregnant women had sex or even that they thought about having sex -- like when they were already pregnant (gasp!) -- I may have swooned and required smelling salts and a lacy handkerchief.

When my sister-in-law was about to have her firstborn she called our house frequently suspecting (rightly) that her husband was hiding out in our garage, afraid to go home. When she explained to me that we needed to send him over ASAP because she wanted him to have sex with her humungously pregnant self to "get things moving along," I suddenly thought of him as less of a douchebag and more of a political refugee, certainly deserving of asylum.

I would have described myself more as a libertine than a prude then, but the fact is I was very ignorant about human sexuality in anything other than a very mainstream way -- I had at some point gotten an A+ (I am an A+ getter) by correctly labeling various anatomical bits on a line-drawing of human sexual anatomy in cross-section and by answering multiple choice questions about STDs. And I combined this knowledge from what one would invariably glean from the media, which is that sex is the recreational domain of cute college co-eds. I considered my parents' opinions on the matter (there's no such thing as sex and if there was it would only be for married people and only when they wanted to have babies) as pretty much irrelevant. And I took all those old jokes about how your sex-life ends soon after marriage to heart.

The youngest of my family and extended family, I'd simply spent no time whatsoever around babies or pregnant women. None of it was on my radar. I didn't seem to me that I was naive about the reproductive aspects of human sexuality. I simply thought that babies were things that boring and old (like, thirty-something!) people had when they were done being hot. And I wasn't done being hot yet. Maybe when I was like, thirty-something.

I remember a conversation with a buddy of mine over pints. I was in my late twenties and my husband and I were still a few years away from being ready to start having kids. My buddy and his wife had just had a preemie and the mom and babe were both still in the hospital. None of it went well. He was very shell-shocked and he wanted to talk about it but my inexperience meant that I had to ask him to clarify a few details.

The lady troubles she was having had something to do with her cervix.

"What exactly," I had to ask him, "is a cervix?"

I knew it was some more or less essential part of female anatomy and that I had one located somewhere inside my body, but it's precise location and function was unclear.


Five years, three babies, one cervical cancer diagnosis, and a hysterectomy later, I sure do know a lot about cervixes.

What an education.

These past five years of child-bearing have been TRANSFORMATIVE to say the least. My home, my body, my relationships, my roles, my responsibilities, my priorities, and certainly my sex-life and my sexuality have been utterly transformed. I'm not at all the same creature as I was in my twenties, before I started having babies. And while I could do without the stretch marks and the fact that jumping-jacks make me pee my pants now, I wouldn't go back to that fool person I was before.

While I was technically "hotter" (in a conventional sense) then, I certainly spent far too much time thinking things like "I hate my body" and having a vague sense of failure as a sexual creature because I didn't look more like a porn star or someone on Friends. Youth is so wasted on the young.

Now that my fertility is decisively kaput (no uterus and all) I realize how very much my identity, over this half-decade of child-bearing, has come to embrace all the reproductive aspects of sexuality. I realize how fond I've become of thinking of myself as fecund, nurturing, luscious, round-bellied, plentiful, juicy, fertile, prolific and milky-bosomed. Pregnancy and childbirth has made me love and respect my body on a whole new level. I've never felt so beautiful or so sexually fulfilled. Not in a porny way. In a real way. In a profound way. In a way that goes all the way to the center of myself and back out again.
So now what?

Now I am a woman without a womb.

Now there's nowhere to go but forwards. There's nothing to do but get on with it.

As women, the absence of our fertility is something we all have to reckon with at some point, whether we have zero kids or fifteen. At some point our periods will come and go. We might be relieved or it might be the most terrible of sorrows. The only sure thing is we will experience it.

This is quite simply the part where I've just got to integrate all this into my psycho-sexual self, into my Venusimo, and live happily ever after in my castle with prince charming. And that is simply done one step at a time on a daily basis forever more.

There's something about making love for the first time after having a baby that is TERRIFYING. It's not really the physicality of it. I think it's the realization that there is just no going back to the people you were. If you haven't been utterly changed by the process of childbirth, you've done something terribly wrong. Quite suddenly there are two strangers in your bedroom -- one is your husband and the other is YOU! And there's just no getting back at it in the bedroom, because we aren't the same people. And so there's no RESUMING SEXUAL INTERCOURSE after these events, there is only starting again.

I don't think simply "resuming" is wise. I think it would be quite a disastrous thing.

And now that I've said all this out loud (sort of) it doesn't seem all that bad.
I'm reminding of what I love so much about my husband and the fact that we're married. Since we stuck those rings on each other's fingers he has just been so damn willing to be on this journey with me. All of it. The thick parts and the thin parts. Even the parts that have been ground into the carpet fibers of our van floor and have dog hair in them. He's just so willing to make it work and to start again. And when we approach that old dance, we'll do it together and it will be okay. How lucky can a girl get?
I guess what I'm saying is that even though I'm 35 years old (gasp!) and I have three children (wtf? who put me in charge?) and I'm recovering from a hysterectomy (guh!) and I am a cervical cancer survivor (holy shit!) I'm still not done being hot.

There are times in our lives when it comes so easy. And there are times when we have to fight for it. And I'm gonna fight. Because it’s so so so precious and it’s totally worth it. It's a good fight.

Down the Rabbit Hole: An HPV Story
by Betsy B. Honest

This post is participating in the Body Image Carnival being hosted by Melodie at Breastfeeding Moms Unite! and MamanADroit who will be posting articles on themes pertaining to body image all week! Make sure you check out their blogs everyday between April 12-18 for links to other participants' posts as well as product reviews, a giveaway, and some links to research, information and resources pertaining to body image.


  1. You're so right about how, after the baby, it's like starting over. It's not about resuming at all.

    Keep fighting the fight, I say!

  2. I love this for all the stages you go through in this post. Such a journey you've been on. Thank you for making this a part of our body image carnival. We are honoured to have you aboard.

  3. Okay, you are so a rockstar woman (and a damn awesome writer)! Go you!

  4. So glad you wrote this series to the end. It was very enlightening and very suspenseful. I'm with you on how having a hysterectomy is definitely more than having tonsils removed. Thank you for sharing your story.

    And I loved your thoughts on how it's not resuming sex, it's starting over. I have a whole long draft of a post on postpartum sex, because it is just so much more complicated than just, "Ok, you're physically in the clear! Go get it on!"

    I appreciate your sympathy for Americans under our horrible health care system, particularly today when my back has given out and the thought of possibly having to seek medical attention leaves me chilled, because I have a $6,000 deductible and will have to pay for anything out of pocket. I've also been thinking about how I don't know if/when we can afford another baby, because the health insurance plan that would cover maternity care is $6,000 more a year than our current one — so do I not upgrade and try again for midwifery care and a home birth (~$2,000) and hope for the best? But then if we transfer for any reason or have an emergency, I'm potentially 10s of thousands of dollars in debt. I chose to transfer last time based on many factors, none of which included whether I could afford it. Why should I have to make a financial decision about whether to give birth?! Why is a healthy birth outcome dependent on an insurance company's whims? How is it legal to even create insurance policies that don't cover maternity care? How sexist is that! What if they refused to cover testicular cancer, too? Sorry to ramble off topic; it's just making me sad today. And I do feel bad for the women you mentioned who have cervical cancer and have to decide between health and debt. That sucks a duck.

  5. I think you did and do great with all this. Thank you for writing this down.

    (and thank you for reminding me that my PAP test is really, really important.)

  6. Amber Strocel recommended your blog to me. I'll have to thank her. That series of posts was intense and enlightening.

    I can see how "resuming" might be fraught with weirdness but I hope that after awhile you'll enjoy your new sex life. Hopefully the mojo comes back. I found life in the bedroom was a little freer after my tubal ligation (which I am not comparing in any way to the journey you've been on). I'm just saying that it was nice to enjoy intimacy without the baby-making possibility in the back of my mind. You can just enjoy the moment.

  7. oh Betsy! I've laughed and I've cried and your story held my teary eyes right the way through. I know you've only told your family about it, but have you thought about selling the rights to make it into a movie?

    I'm only half kidding, because I think it's so important that you've published your story for us. I'm currently overdue for a pap smear and you've inspired me to schedule one. I'm going to print out your story and save it for my daughter when she's older. I'm going to schedule my email account to send me your story every two years! I can only imagine how heartening your story will be for women who are going through the same experience.

    Thank you.

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  9. Thank you for writing this. In 2006 they told me I had abnormal cells. When I went to get out of the navy in 07 they said nothing about it (the Navy is supposed to "take care" of everything before you get out). I wasn't worried. Like you have said, A Uterus is just for carrying babies- and I wanted nothing to do with that.

    In 09 my amazing son was born. He wasn't planned but dear Lord, I couldn't live without him. Everything was fine. In '11 my daughter was born. Again, she wasn't planned, but the sun doesn't shine without her. My Doctor informed me that the midwife I had with Owen told him she had found the cells (she didn't tell me) and that I should be checked after Camryn was born. She was born in July and I still haven't gone in.

    I never cared for having kids. We still don't know if we want more... but the thought of not being able to is devastating. The two I have are God sends and sometimes the idea of another one in the future...

    This gives me hope. Maybe it is something silly. It scares me. They found it in '06 and it is now '12? What is I am a dead woman walking lol. Life. You summed it up well.

  10. Thank you so much for your profound story and experience. Just 2 months after my 29th birthday I was diagnosed with a rare but thankfully low-grade form of ovarian cancer. I still have my left ovary and uterus, but I am approaching readiness for a complete hysterectomy. I had my first child at 22, and my second at 24. I'm looking at 10 years of HRT. It just feels so final, and it seems as if it ruins the lives of some women, and for others that have chronic pain it renews them. I just don't know which post-hysterectomy woman I will be or become. It could turn out good or it could turn out bad, but there is paranoia with keeping the organs in, as it is a form of cancer that kills 1 in 3 women. Yet I'm afraid of loss of intimacy with my husband. We have an amazing marriage, and he is one good looking man. The hysterectomy is not something I want to do, but your posts give me a lot of hope. I will have to muck through menopause and I have never ever been on any HRT, so I will also have to play that by ear. The unknown is a scary place to be. Thank you for sharing your experience!

  11. I love your story! It has inspired me to start a blog of my own. To read that I am not alone in this really helps me. Right now, I am pregnant with my second child and just the mere thought, that I have an abnormal pap that needs to be retested, and that possibly, I could have no more children is hard to bear. Let alone telling my husband that I really have no idea where I got HPV from being that we have been married for 3.5 years and I have tested negative since we have been married. Explaining to him that the person he married, may have captured an STI before we even got married was hard and although he says he is not holding any grudges and doesnt view me differently, Its scary and hard to convince myself that he loves me just the same. Thank you for your story!

  12. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I'm living in the middle of your "book" at the moment. I have been with my husband for 9.5 years. Found out I asymptomatic herpes and high risk HPV shortly before having my 3 year old son. Best thing I have learned from my experiences is EMPATHY. Also, make everyday an adventure. Your blog is so helpful to people NEEDING to know more. I would love for you to follow up. It's been a few years. (: Best wishes!


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