Make Your Face Look Ready For Precancerous Surgery On Your Cervix
Content warning: sexual violence
I’m pretty sure the overwhelming urge to embrace the silence when it comes to this topic stems directly from the sway of societal forces that would rather we pretend none of this ever happens, that we keep it politely to ourselves, that we decline from sharing information about our individual experiences with one another.
I had surprise surgery this week! The surgery *itself* wasn’t really a surprise. When I first saw it looming, I waited months to take any action at all, weeks following consultation to learn whether my insurance would cover it, more weeks waiting for staff and circumstance to finally squeeze me into my surgeon’s hectic schedule. But it felt sudden when I got the call on Monday: there’s an opening! Thursday morning. Have you taken any over-the-counter NSAIDs this week? Good. Don’t.
I actually got the word from my husband, first. When the phone first rang in my hand displaying an unknown number from the medical center, I sat and watched it ring through to voicemail. I listened to the message from the kind blonde nurse I’d met at the consultation, breathing carefully through my nose, physically lifting my chest in effort to prevent my throat from closing. Then I set the phone down on the table, walked away from the work I was doing, and turned on the Xbox. I played Mass Effect: Andromeda through the rest of the morning into the afternoon, determinedly invested in the sweeping, but strangely trivial efforts of a determined group of sentient misfits to terraform an inhospitable galaxy.
I don’t know how I’d ever have made the appointment at all without Justin. A rare millennial who suffers no form of phone anxiety, he offered to make the call when he noticed that the prospect literally threatened to choke me. My therapist assured me this was nothing to be ashamed of, that he and his spouse advocate for one another in medical scenarios as a matter of course. My surgeon said the same when I burbled my embarrassment up at her from my back, naked under a blanket on the table. “No! No, I don’t think you’re a weirdo. This stuff is really hard, and you have to do whatever you need to get through it. Don’t worry!”
That comment made me feel a little better through the slight nausea that accompanied the I.V., as did her confident gait when she strode off to secure me a replacement “donated” IUD. I thought that meant I was going to adopt another woman’s partially used Mirena, disinfected. That notion made my bearded surgery nurse belly laugh. “No, it’s a brand new one,” he explained.
“And no, you can’t keep the old one to wear as a pendant; I believe that would be classified as a biohazard.” It makes me a little sad to think about Mirena the First languishing unmemorialized in the waste, but there was nothing left for her in the end. Her strings would have been amputated by the electrified wire the surgeon used to carve abnormal tissue delicately from my body, cauterizing the healthy cervix left behind. When it first became apparent this procedure was necessary, I’d tried to think of it as “resurfacing.” That made me laugh, though it still wasn’t enough to help me make the damn scheduling calls myself.
“No, you can’t keep the old IUD to wear as a pendant; I believe that would be classified as a biohazard.”
I remember a golden afternoon drinking margaritas with my friend Lauren on the patio of our favorite Kroger-adjacent Mexican restaurant, laughing our fucking heads off.
“But, I mean,” she’d drawled, blasé as a person could possibly be, stirring her drink with her straw, “everybody’s been raped like that.” Then we busted up loudly enough to startle the party sitting on the other side of the porch, cackled helplessly until we could breathe again, not because what she’d said was funny, but because it was so horribly, undeniably true.
The “like that” we were discussing encompassed the various experiences of waking from sleep to find a man doing things to your body, being impaired and ill-equipped to resist when a man decides to penetrate your body, freezing up in that bizarre moment of realization that an act you have verbally refused and physically resisted is going to be perpetrated upon you regardless and if you don’t roll with it you’re going to be raped and you don’t want to be “raped,” so you just pull up away as far out of your own body as mentally possible.
You know, all those types of things that don’t “count” ’cause they happen to everybody and if they do count then you’re forced to acknowledge what a barbarous society we actually live in and that’s just too terrifying to contemplate—“things like that.”
Later you assure yourself you’ve altered reality by manipulating semantics.
I’ve only learned fairly recently that, like it or not, “like that” experiences, no matter the amount of semantic manipulations one engages in, do indeed cause serious trauma and that, even more unfortunately, that trauma doesn’t just mystically evanesce into non-being if you ignore it for long enough.
And so, I very much doubt I am the only woman who experiences what feels like overdramatic, unwarranted resistance to the medically necessary experience of allowing relative strangers to insert potentially dangerous objects in her vagina following some unnecessary unwanted shit that her body remembers. I had the option to undergo my particular procedure in-office sans anesthesia, but was warned that the numbing injection is known to be quite painful and afterward, the patient has to be capable of holding perfectly still in order to prevent accidentally obtaining serious electrical burns in the vagina. Yeeeah, I’ve done enough pulling up away out of my body in attempts to ignore what’s being done to it, thanks; just sign me up to get knocked the fuck out for electro-wands up the cooch.
Trauma doesn’t just mystically evanesce into non-being if you ignore it for long enough.
But moreso, I was terrified to face even the mildest, most common gynecological surgery because of my mother—my beautiful, brilliant little mother—and the way her entire life has been shaped by cervical dysplasia (precancerous cells in the cervix) and subsequent ill-executed medical intervention. She woke from the “cure” enacted upon her to rectify the problem facing me today to find herself reborn into a new existence of constant, debilitating pain, an ever-present agony that tethers her to her own household and effectively imprisons her within her own body.
I was a pre-teen when she had her first surgery, and spent the better part of my adolescence witnessing her cry helplessly on one couch or another, unable to climb into bed, unable to enjoy any respite even in her own thoughts because the pain was too demanding.
Out of the house, amongst other able-bodied people, I saw my mother’s desperate situation disbelieved and dismissed by strangers, by medical professionals, by church “family,” by supposed friends. “She looks too good to be sick!” said a truly mind-blowing number of people who apparently intended the remark as a compliment. “She just wants to be sick,” sniffed less charitable individuals, who I truly hope have managed to grow even the tiniest sense of empathy at some point in the 25 years she’s (so far) suffered.
My greatest fear is the stereotypical-sounding “turning into my mother,” NOT because of who she is, but because of the nightmare reality of much of her adult existence — mutilated and then castigated for her own suffering, informed repeatedly and smugly that somehow she is to blame for catastrophic pain that, frankly, I’m amazed she’s endured.
My mom is a goddamn warrior, but I hate that I have to compliment her strength this way. I truly wish it had just never happened to her and that instead I knew her today as a regular person who doesn’t have to undertake superhuman effort to live a semblance of a normal life. I don’t want to have to be strong like that. I don’t want to be forced to endure, rather than flourish. Merely considering the possibility sees me immediately teetering on a thin, pointed wedge poised on the precipice that is the abyss of anxiety. Do I flee like the Fellowship of the damn Ring hauling ass away from the Balrog, do I flee to the safety of avoidance?! Or do I let go, fall in, panic. Which do you think I fucking choose?
I wish I knew my mother as a regular person who doesn’t have to undertake superhuman effort to live a semblance of a normal life.
So my husband made the calls. And an extra, even — he scheduled me a massage appointment at the fanciest hotel spa in our city for the morning preceding the surgery! It was good practice, in a way. Though I felt prickly and skittish over the idea of a stranger laying hands on my body, all I had to do was show up. When I did, I ended up being low-key delighted. The spa’s oddly morbid motto of “Embrace the Silence” disarmed me entirely, it struck my sense of probably-getting-murdered-on-a-massage-table-the-day-prior-to-surgery sense of humor so precisely, and the massage itself had an incredibly soporific effect on my anxious brain that sailed me right through an hour of scrubbing tortoise poop out of a tub of decorative rocks in a vaguely blissful calm upon arriving home from the spa.
I spent the rest of the day shuttling laundry, washing dogs, and breeding several new generations of Vault Babies in the 2015 mobile game Fallout Shelter on my TV screen via Xbox. The Vault Dwellers’ placid, painless pregnancies were soothing, and it was harder to feel nauseated with fright while I concentrated on choosing appropriate baby names such as “Hellcat Swift” and “Nailwrench Hammer.”
Everything that happens at 5:30 AM is surreal, though the notes Justin kept say we actually arrived at 5:36 for my check-in time. (“No one noticed” our tardiness). Check-in and prep was very fluid, if bizarre. I was surprised by the number of people involved in my surgery.
Here is the first nurse, to give me an antacid and swab my nose with unpleasant sneeze-inducing brown stuff and insert my I.V. Here is the head nurse, who’s been doing these procedures since 1978; he clearly felt that Justin’s and my conversational stylings were a little weird, but brightened on mention of Pokémon GO: “My son has lost 15 pounds playing that!”
I am convinced that anesthesiologists are required to take a single-semester stand-up comedy course before earning their certification—think about it; it explains a lot. Everyone was friendly, but I still felt safer and more relaxed when my surgeon arrived. I met her when I interviewed her for a profile in a local medical publication a few years back, and her capable demeanor and genuine passion for women’s wellbeing convinced me that she would never hurt me, that any ill that might befall me while under her care would only ever occur from something wildly unexpected and entirely out of her control.
“Jenn politely declined pain management again by accident,” read Justin’s notes. “She’s very polite to doctors and it makes me smirk.”
Going into surgery was EXACTLY like going-into-surgery scenes in movies and TV, except way blurrier because I wasn’t wearing my glasses.
Then I was out of it and a cheerful woman was exclaiming about my age, zipping me along on a cart-thingy through a hallway. “Thirty-one? You look TWENTY-one!!”
“Sunscreen,” I said without a hitch, because I have learned and automated that phrase as the response-most-people-most-like-to-hear in answer to age-oriented intended compliments like that. Then, as I started to come into awareness a bit more, “I need to pee.”
I am so glad that Justin was there, aware of my ways, and able to capably advocate for adequate pain management for me, after. My hips and lower abdominal organs throbbed, and my thighs started shaking uncontrollably like during a really good orgasm, but BAD. I noticed him taking this picture of me eating a saltine to take with my pill and felt compelled to ham it up; it was easy because I was in a very altered state. Hell, I was in an altered state from the instant I arrived at the hospital, full-on people-pleasing giggletown USA. I am so. glad. that Justin was there. I don’t know how I would have done it without him.
Now, thanks most particularly to the 12-hour anti-cramp and swelling ‘script, I feel oddly fine so long as I lie or recline still. I’ve spent the time sleeping, typing this draft out on my phone, scrolling through Instagram, and thinking. I didn’t intend to write about this at all—not for public consumption, anyhow.
Then on Wednesday morning, when I was embracing the silence in the relaxation reclining area of a spa I could never afford to regularly frequent, I knew—*insert mental chiming noises* — that I would. I’m lucky, I’m SO lucky, I have insurance (thanks, genuinely, Obama!), I have a flexible schedule to accommodate the procedure and recovery, I have access to excellent medical care, I have a partner willing and determined to advocate for my wellbeing, a man who loves me so goddamn much he took my phone on a quick drive to the park to make sure I didn’t lose my five-day PokéStop streak once I was safely settled and sleeping post-surgery.
I have a man who loves me so goddamn much he took my phone on a quick drive to the park to make sure I didn’t lose my five-day PokéStop streak.
All of that adds up to give me a strong sense that I have no “right” to “complain,” when by “complain” I mean simply acknowledge these past few days of my life and the way they made me feel in a broadly accessible arena because that’s distasteful or attention-seeking or “oversharing” somehow, or because writing about personal topics is somehow cheaper, tawdrier, more feminine than writing about stuff that doesn’t originate with my own body.
Then I wondered… why in the fuck hell do I feel that way? What powers that be actually benefit from my discretion? It’s sure as shit not other women, who have already gone through this stuff — violation, trauma, disease, surgical intervention, pain, dysfunction, you know, that kind of stuff—in droves. It’s mind-boggling how common this particular surgery is, how many women out of the (admittedly limited) number in whom I confided chimed up with their own experiences of the same procedure or even more drastic interventions. Like the astounding population of women who have been raped “like that,” so has almost every adult woman I know undergone a genital surgery like *this.*
It’s not other women who have yet to encounter this kind of shit—it was other women’s direct accounts of colposcopies and LEEPs that gave me some idea of what to expect, and I’m so grateful to others who have shared their stories with me.
What powers that be actually benefit from my discretion? It’s sure as shit not other women.
And the silence certainly isn’t benefiting other women who have lived through worse, nor those who are currently facing much greater difficulties than my own: women who are uninsured or otherwise unable to access healthcare, women who have lived through unthinkable traumas, who face far more threatening reproductive health problems. If anything, we need to be talking about the reality of and necessity for women’s sexual and reproductive healthcare more! More, more, more stories.
Lying here feeling my uterus balanced heavy and delicate inside me, I’m appalled at reigning cultural attitudes toward women’s sexual and reproductive health, and ashamed that I’ve done so little to support Planned Parenthood in the past several years. No, I’m pretty sure the overwhelming urge to embrace the silence when it comes to writing about the excision of my abnormal cervical cells stems directly from the sway of societal forces that would rather we pretend none of this ever happens, that we keep it politely to ourselves, that we decline from sharing information about our individual experiences with one another.
So perhaps it would do an even greater disservice to actively minimize my reality in retelling, to reduce my surgery and the days surrounding it to just a “no big thing!”—to discount it as a worthy topic for contemplation because it’s not bad *enough.* To embrace the silence regarding my own sexual health closely in shame, rather than temporarily in pre-surgery contemplation in a spa.
I used to tear up at those Gardasil “One Less!” ads that came out back in 2006. At the time there was a bristling of resistance from uncomfortable parents in my area, a significant bit of “My daughter won’t need that, she’s not going to have premarital sex” chatter. I can’t help but chuckle at such an extraordinary attitude, bitterly astounded. As if denying your daughter preventative care protects her from anything but your own discomfort at the thought of her potential existence as a sexual being. I thought that attitudes had changed, people had become more enlightened in the intervening decade. Now…well, I’m not so sure.
And I’m not so sure how to end this essay, either. Perhaps because I’m still a little looped on lingering generic Norco 5/325. HPV vaccinations could eliminate so much minor indignity and major suffering for kids growing up today.
Physically, I feel better than I’d expected today, but mentally…well, I still haven’t called my mom yet. I’m afraid I might cry, and I want to wait ’til my abdomen feels a little less sensitive before I risk it.