Let me give ya the roll call:
- My mother had stage 2 ovarian cancer in the early 1990s.
- My great aunt died from ovarian cancer in the early 1980s.
- Two of my paternal aunts had breast cancer in the last 10 years.
- My first cousin had breast cancer just a handful of years ago.
- My sister had severe endometriosis and benign tumors in her 30s prompting a complete hysterectomy.
- My paternal aunt essentially had the same thing happen to her decades before.
Thanks to this catalog of cancer plaguing my family, the docs now refer to me as “elevated risk.” I remember the stern warnings the oncologist gave my mother about the possibility of her disease invading her daughters’, grandaughters’, and nieces’ bodies. “Emily, if anything is ever slightly abnormal with your gynecological health, you tell your doctor,” she said over and over and over. In recent years, as we watched and waited as my aunts and cousin went through cancer surgeries and treatment, the disease seems to loom over our family like a cloud.
The surgeries. The recovery. The breathing into the tube. The scars. The pain. No lifting. Shuffling down the hall. And then treatment. The vomit. The burning sensation. The hair on the floor. The aching beyond words. Collapsing on the couch. The radiation. The contraption. The headaches. The scans. The side effects. All to do it again in three weeks.
I feel like I’m waiting on cancer. It’s hard with all this history not to carry the worry of “what if” with me.
But I’m not just sitting on the couch hoping Netflix will distract me. That is my message to you: Don’t wait. Don’t put it off. See your doctor.
Blood on the Couch
If you haven’t noticed already, the word couch is coming up quite a bit in this post. It’s the most vivid memory I have of my mother during her cancer ordeal. My mom spent a lot of time on the couch for a woman in her 40s (she gave birth to me at 37). She’d lay old, white bed linens on the couch — layers of them — and lay down because she was bleeding so heavy no pad or tampon could contain it. The sheets and her clothes would be stained with blood when she got up. When that particular bleeding “episode” eased, she’d get up and put everything in the washing machine. At that time, she thought this was the beginning stages of menopause.
Then there was the one time my uncle was visiting . . . he was talking about her health. She pressed her shirt around her stomach, telling him her belly felt so hard lately, almost like she was pregnant.
All of this happened when I was in third and fourth grade. I distinctly remember my brother picking me up from Brownies, whispering to the leader, and ushering me to his car. “Mom is in the hospital,” he said.
Mom was so weak from blood loss she could barely walk at the doctor’s office. One examination later, he checked her right in to the local hospital as he could feel the tumor in her abdomen. The surgeon later revealed significant endometrial adhesions throughout her abomden, a grapefruit-sized tumor, and stage 2 ovarian cancer.
She spent the next six months on the couch sleeping off chemo.
Cramping in the Bed
“Emily, can you come over right now? I’ve got to take your sister to the hospital. Can you stay with the kids?” This wasn’t the first time my sister’s gynecologic problems left her incapacitated in the bed, cramping in terrible pain. A trip to the ER followed by a visit to a general practitioner followed by a gynecologist who finally got the diagnosis right — and the treatment plan: surgery.
Her story reads a lot like my mother’s — extensive endometriosis and a tumor; except this time cancer was nowhere to be found.
The next several weeks found her in the bed recovering from her organs being cut out and the next several years dealing with the rocky road of menopause in your mid-30s.
What’s the moral of these stories? My mother and sister are not stupid women. They are not overtly skeptical of modern medicine. Yet, they did not maintain regular appointments with their OB/Gyns. They got caught up — just like so many other moms — in the grueling and gratifying work of motherhood all the while dealing with the yuck of life. My mother simply did not have the information she needed; she self diagnosed and swept her symptoms under the rug of “old age.” My sister became paralyzed by fear, by the “what if,” hoping she was wrong and it would just go away.
Hear me, friend: Please don’t let lack of understanding or fear or busyness or “oh, it’s nothing” prevent you from making and keeping regular appointments with your doctor. Don’t wait until there is blood on the couch or you’re cramping in the bed. Be bold and thorough in those appointments, explaining any changes and any medical history you know. It’s your best bet and mine too.