In a packed radiologist’s waiting room in midtown NYC, a 70-something woman sits next to me, scribbling in a stack of forms and muttering loudly in Yiddish-English.
The woman says this roughly every 10 minutes. I want to whisper to her, “My feelings exactly.”
I’m here to get a precautionary mammogram to rule out any additional cancer. Four days prior, I learned that I had — well, what looked like — ovarian cancer and, because my mother and grandmother had breast cancer, my gynecologist thought we should rule out B.C. Hopefully, I wasn’t a cancer factory.
This brown-carpeted clinic smells like sanitizer and sadness. I fumble with my keys in my jacket pocket. I’m still zipped up in my puffy orange coat, ready to get in and get out because this isn’t me. This isn’t me.
Allow me to back up and start from the beginning of this C craze.
Back in September of 2015, I’d bled for five days. Hey, we ladies bleed; not weird, right? Well it was weird because it had been a full year since I’d bled. And, per my iPhone note “Period,” it had been a full year before that since the previous appearance. Which isn’t exactly regular. Based on a borderline FSH level (do you know what your FSH level is?), I knew I was at the beginnings of menopause, so I figured this was the last gasp of youth. That a chance remained in these brief glimpses of red to get busy and make a baby in my late 40s. That was another story.
Rather than guess at it, I decided to make a very belated gyno appointment. I returned to an old gruff gyno I’d left two insurance cards ago. While she wasn’t my favorite doctor of all time (she was the kind that spends a brief time rummaging around with a speculum and then tells you to lose weight before walking out of the room), she was in-network and I’d spent too long trying to find the perfect mix of in-network, brilliant and bedside-y. So I made an appointment with her for October 1. Let’s start the month off with a bang.
“I don’t think you had a period,” said my gyno in her classic monotone. “Ask them at the front desk for a sonogram appointment.”
And with that, the mean doc pretty much saved my life.
My sonogram showed a tennis-ball sized endometrial cyst. A fuzzy-looking black mass. Was that the cause of my bleeding? Maybe, maybe not. It was an endometrial cyst… “90% sure it’s not cancerous” said the doctors.
But the cyst needed to be excised before it ruptured. Really? Is it that bad? Can I just live with it?
“If it ruptures, people describe that pain as a 9-10.”
I couldn’t imagine what a 9-10 amount of pain would be except for someone stabbing me in the eye with a #2 pencil. Yes, yes, it had to come out. See ya.
This alone was tough to digest. I’d never had surgery in my life. At 48, this would be my very first. None of the chief doctors at the practice appeared to do surgery anymore, so another younger doctor would be removing my cyst. She and I had several conversations about what else could come out, as a precautionary measure, given my age and since we were already going in there. Heck why not…. Tubes? Ovaries?
Angelina Jolie’s name was dropped a few times by way of giving me pop cultural context and maybe making it more palatable. Yeah, that didn’t work.
Hold on there, doc. I wanted to preserve as much as I could. While I no longer needed my ovaries for the eggs they produce, my acupuncturist had only a few weeks ago reminded me that the ovaries function on a few levels. She guided me to a book by Dr. Christiane Northrup who talks about things like “ovarian wisdom” and says, “from an energy medicine standpoint, ovaries are the equivalent of testicles… or ‘female balls.’”
Do not remove my female balls.
“Ok,” said this new gynecologist, with a smile and a nod to my architect husband sitting next to me. “We’ll do a mid-century modern cystectomy. Minimalist. I hear you.”
And so, that’s just what we did. Now the whole debate of “to remove or not to remove” seems kind of ridiculous.
In the minimally invasive wing of NYU — which sounds so gentle and lovely but is really a long bland corridor with a few mysterious doors that open into other doors that open into surgery rooms — they outfitted me in a warming paper gown and socks, a lovely bonnet for my head and introduced me to scads of doctors and nurses. I was most worried about the anesthesia because I’d never been under before, but the anesthesiologist seemed enthused when she saw “Gary” (not his real name — I couldn’t tell you his real name if you paid me) was her assistant that day. “Oh we have Gary putting you under; he’s great.”
Well, turns out Gary gave me a lot of the juicy juice and I didn’t wake up from surgery for nearly six hours. My husband watched me wake and ask him, “So, how did surgery go?” and then fall asleep seconds later — I did that about 10 times.
The gynecologist did an amazing job — she made three tiny laparoscopic incisions to somehow slide out a giant cyst and only the cyst. She kept true to my wishes for a simple surgery, but also because the entire left side of me was a locked-up mess of endometrial scar tissue. To dig in there would have meant major surgery, and she knew I didn’t want that. I’m still in awe of the technology and her patience and skill. She also noted that some of the cyst fluid spilled into me, but it was nothing to worry about and she vacuumed me all up…or something like that. Nothing to see here. All good; go home and watch Netflix.
But then a week after surgery, I got a phone call.
On a Tuesday. A fucking Tuesday.*
I heard my gynecologist’s words like a grocery list.
I have tough news. The pathology came back. It’s not good. I’m shocked because I didn’t see anything. Nothing looked bad. We think we caught it early. Ovaries. Cancer.
She explained that there were microscopic cancer cells on the lining of the cyst, not the cyst itself, which is why everything appeared normal when she opened me up. So yes, the cyst wasn’t cancerous, but it was a message that there was more to look for. Thank god for that cyst.
About 15 minutes into our discussion, I said, “I have what now?” And I finally started to cry.
So here we are. One day you’re this way, the next day you’re that.
My mother had cancer, so it was always in my mind that it was coming. Given my familial history, I’ve had mammograms since I was 30. But this recent boob smush took on a new gravitas. A few days after my mammogram, I got the note that I was all clear, no evidence of malignancies.
One small relief in a mix of mysterious new diagnoses. But, hey, at least the results of that boob smush came back negative.
* See name of this website
Read more of Margit’s column, Ovarian Rhapsody: