The first week.
I was sitting in my car outside Lambton Swimming Centre with my family. Our daughter was learning to swim, so we were all at the pool for the morning. I made a quick phone call; I’d found a message the previous afternoon requesting I ring my doctor for test results. And so I was patiently waiting with the ‘phone to my ear, wondering how long they were going to take, wishing they’d hurry up so we could join the line to get into the pool. And then finally, this: “Doctor wants you to come in please. Urgently. We can fit you in this afternoon. Today would be best.”
I should note here that the test results in question were pap smear results, that I normally get results over the phone no problem, and that the urgency in the receptionist’s voice scared the bejesus out of me.
So I found myself at the doctors that afternoon, sitting in the waiting room feeling more than a little trepidation. My doctor called me in and after some small talk about her holiday (my doctor is my age, female, has kids and is great to talk to – we could easily monopolise 3 or 4 appointments with our chats) she cut to the chase. “You’ve had an abnormal pap smear result. They detected grade 3 squamous cell abnormalities, cervical intraepithelial neoplasia or CIN 3. I’d like to refer you to a gynaecological oncologist for further treatment.”
I think it was the word ‘oncologist’ that sent me over the edge. I cried a bit, then managed to ask some relevant questions. Abnormal squamous cells? Pre-cancerous? Grade 3? On a scale of 1 to 3, 3 is the worst. Is it cervical cancer? No, it’s ‘intraepithelial’ so the cells are contained and can be treated. Left untreated however, they will develop into cervical cancer.
OK. Upset but accepting, I leave the doctors with a handful of tissues and referrals.
The second week.
I couldn’t help it. I consulted Dr. Google. In the end, it was kind of reassuring, reiterating everything my doctor had told me. I had cancerous cells in my cervix, not cervical cancer – there’s a difference. The chances of arresting their nasty development via removal was very high. The chances of any sexually active woman having the same diagnosis was roughly 20% – 1 in 5 women. So…good to know…not dying just yet and not alone. I wasn’t experiencing something that no-one else had. I felt a little better.
My doctor had organised an appointment with a gynaecological oncologist for me – I said I’d take the first appointment available – so I found myself in Dr. O’s waiting room within the week. I’d been steeling myself for this visit; I was to have a colposcopy but didn’t really know what to expect, how it would roll or how it would feel. Lucky for me Dr. O was lovely. He patiently explained what would happen. A colposcopy involves an examination of your cervix after it’s been sprayed with an acetic acid and iodine mix. Squamous cells appear as spots, making it easier to determine how many there are and take biopsy/ies of the nasty little buggers.
The nurse held my hand, made small talk and then it was over. No biopsies for me; there was more than enough visual evidence of the squamous cells to warrant their removal. Dr. O spared me the discomfort, time and cost. I probably should have been grateful but instead was slightly terrified that he didn’t need to. Just in case there was any doubt, we examined a digital photograph of the offending cells on a large flatscreen TV in his office. I can now say I’ve seen my cervix. I should’ve been intrigued but instead I wept at the image of light pink flesh measled with squamous spots.
I drove home, explained it all to my partner and spent the rest of the day feeling sorry for myself.
The third week.
Dr. O had an opening for surgery. Last on the list, late in the afternoon, but I’d still said ‘yes’ of course. And I gained some perspective in the intervening days; what I had was nothing, really, not cancer, just “pre-cancer”. Like threatening clouds without the storm. I wondered how people who had cancer coped with the waiting – for treatment, for appointments, for results. I developed a new level of respect and sympathy for the people who wait. And in a not-unexpected development, I started thinking about my daughter and my partner. Because it’s in my nature to plan and roll out scenarios, to plot 5 courses of action at a time, I did just that. I thought about my daughter growing up without a Mum, what I could leave her by way of advice, what mechanisms I could put in place to support her. I wondered how she would get along with my partner when she hit her teenage years, how I could possibly ensure they remained close and loved each other. I couldn’t turn my brain off.
The day of surgery arrived. LLETZ (Large Loop Excision of the Transformation Zone) procedure. Under a general anaesthetic, the lovely Dr. O would use a loop of electrified wire to slice out the offending area of my cervix. The plan was this: cut out all the nasties, get the all-clear from pathology in a week, be happy. I wouldn’t need to see Dr. O for 6 months then, for another colposcopy and pap smear. If that was clear, then I had another 6 months reprieve, same tests again. Then, finally…I could pretty much breathe easy and return to the normal odds we all face. This was my best case scenario. Anything else would mean reassessing my options, my choices, my treatment.
I was admitted, operated on, released – all in a day. I don’t remember anything beyond the pre-op needle; I was asleep for it all. I was told to rest, take it easy, give things time to heal. I should expect bleeding from a few days to a couple of weeks. For one month use pads, no tampons, no exercise, no sex, no over-exertion. Fun times.
The fourth week.
And so we come to now. I’ve been waiting for the results of the LLETZ procedure, waiting to hear if they got all the cells, if the margins are clear, waiting to see if the discomfort and worry is almost over. I’ve been feeling OK, tired and a bit achy but generally…good. I went to the beach on the weekend and it was great; I felt alive and happy. We went to a 5-year-old birthday party last Sunday. My daughter started pre-school last Monday. I had a skin cancer removed from my arm on Tuesday, a not-unusual occurrence in my fair-skinned family. My daughter had a tummy bug and vomited all Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. My partner worked on the Central Coast on Wednesday. We had home-made Nachos for dinner on Wednesday night (well, my daughter had a recovery dinner of Vegemite toast, but the rest of us did). I worked from home, spoke with a bunch of consultants, organised some account payments. Life rolls on.
This morning, just before lunch, I rang Dr. O’s offices. Yes, they had my results. Yes, they were CIN 3 cells, yes they’d gotten all the cells, yes I wouldn’t need to see Dr. O for 6 months. Yes, yes, yes!
So my story ends well. I’m back in the pool of everyday women just going about their business, albeit with a little less cervix than others.
I thought long and hard about whether to write any of this down. I’ve composed elements of this blogpost in my head every day over the last few weeks. There are people reading this who will no doubt find it uncomfortable and others who won’t know how to acknowledge it when they next see me. There’ll be some who think I’ve overreacted, and others who’ll be worried and sympathetic. There’ll be some who are very familiar with this story, whilst some will think me indelicate, an over-sharer.
The only reason I decided to write this blogpost is because it would have helped me to read this 4 weeks ago. It would have helped reassure me that I wasn’t concerned without cause, that it’s not great but it’s not the worst. That it shouldn’t be isolating. That it happens everyday to all sorts of women. That it’s OK to be stoic sometimes and a mess at others. That just because it’s more common-place than you think, it doesn’t diminish the fact that it’s officially a Big F#@king Deal when it happens to you. That when you have no other benchmark, nothing to measure against, it can be terrifying. It just would have….helped.
If you’re reading this and you’re a woman, I have the following advice: make sure you have regular pap smears. I do and despite this, in the space of 12 months I went from being in the all-clear with no abnormalities to a cervix peppered with CIN 3 squamous cells. I’m lucky it was picked up. I’m lucky it was removed. Amazing and frightening and for now, over. I couldn’t be happier.