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.
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 ponytail...is 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.