It started the week after Christmas. I thought it was a UTI (urinary tract infection). I ate Craisins and chugged water and patted myself on the back for recognizing the symptoms early this time. I had my annual well woman exam that Monday. I’d try to make it until then. And I did.
The doctor performed all the regular tests and said she didn’t see any evidence of UTI, but they’d culture it just in case, and to keep on eating Craisins and chugging water until then. She ordered some blood tests, too, since I couldn’t tell her the last time I’d had a basic workup done. They’d mail the results of the tests to me if everything was fine. If not, they’d give me a call.
The symptoms seemed to get worse, so I called back to see if the urine culture showed anything. The nurse called me back to say that the culture was clean, but my pap smear was abnormal, and I would need to come in for a colposcopy, which is a procedure in which the doctor dyes my cervix with iodine and looks at the abnormal cells with a camera. They were going to check with my insurance first, since the procedure can be costly. “Should I be freaked out?” I asked her. “No, no, just be sure and schedule the appointment as soon as the front desk calls you.”
I did some internet research and decided the abnormal cells must be due to a yeast infection, since it wasn’t a UTI. I bought the one-day over-the-counter treatment on my way home from work.
It felt better at first, maybe it was just the placebo effect, and then, after a day, it felt the same again. I called the nurse back and told her my theory about the abnormality being due to yeast and maybe I could just get away with another pap smear when it all clears up instead of this expensive thing. She said no, it wasn’t; it was probably HPV. And I needed that colposcopy. And probably also a biopsy. She seemed to say the word “biopsy” several times. I’m not how she fit it so many times into so few sentences. It kept ringing in my ears. “Biopsy, biopsy, biopsy.” For the first time, I got scared.
I yelled at my pharmacist Friday night. The automated refill system made a mistake and told me I had more refills on my birth control, and I made the mistake of not only believing it but waiting until thirty minutes before the pharmacy closed and leaving my new prescription at home when I went to pick it up. After making me wait for twenty minutes while he consulted with a customer, he told me he was sorry, but I was actually out of refills and he could not fill my prescription, and they were closing, but there was a 24-hour Walgreens right across the street. So I yelled, and then I went home. I asked myself why I was so angry and burst into tears when I got the answer: I’m angry that I’m sick. I finally let the truth settle in.
Boyfriend arrived and made me feel instantly better.
Over the weekend, I got angry at the messenger. Who does this nurse think she is, diagnosing me with HPV before we even know for sure? How does she know it’s not just a really bad yeast infection?
I received some literature they sent in the mail and read it as Boyfriend and I drank our morning coffee. Abnormal results are broken up into different categories, and I hadn’t been told mine. I got mad about that too. I studied carefully the categories and hoped mine was ASCUS (atypical squamous cells-unknown significance), which can result from the simple irritation of the cervical cells, which could mean my yeast theory was still true. The worst one is HSIL (high-grade squamous intraepithelial lesion), the type most likely to be severe precancer or cancer. That’s the one I didn’t want.
I scheduled an appointment so the doctor could swab for yeast and also check for bacterial infection, since my symptoms still hadn’t gone away. When I was there, the medical assistant pulled me aside and showed me my chart. It was HSIL.
She said we needed to do the colposcopy because I was already there. My eyes were wild. I couldn’t focus on anything; my pupils were probably enormous. A nurse came and asked me if they’d talked to me about taking a mild pain reliever such as Tylenol or Advil beforehand. I told her I didn’t know I was having this done today and began to cry.
She shepherded me away from all the other patients, presumably because I was scaring the pregnant women, and sat me down in the doctor’s actual office, the door open behind me. She left to go get me some water. I heard a nurse say “congratulations” to a woman I presumed was a new mother-to-be. She whispered “thank you” back, and I sat there and twisted my tissue and sobbed and worried that I will never get to receive the same “congratulations,” whisper the same breathless “thank you.”
The doctor took me to a back room and told me everything I already knew about how bad the situation was. She wrote out the complicated words she was saying and drew arrows and underlined things, and, as the tears dripped from my chin, I thought about how she must be a visual learner like me. I asked her if these weird symptoms are related to what’s going on with my cervix, and she said no, and that she’s seen women with enormous growths on their cervixes with no symptoms at all. I asked if she saw a growth on mine, and she touched my arm and said that if she had, she would’ve biopsied it when she did the pap smear. That was my only good news of the day. It could be worse, I kept thinking. It could be worse.
The colposcopy wasn’t too different from a regular pap smear, just longer and more uncomfortable. The doctor had said they’re usually able to tell how bad it is when they look, so I asked how bad it was. She said “I would guess moderate to severe.” So really bad.
She took samples, several, for biopsy and told me that I should hear in a week. “A week is a long time,” I whined. She said, “If it’s bad, you’ll know sooner. You WANT to wait a week.”
That night Sarahthe came over and took me to a sushi dinner. As I sat there and made conversation over the delicious fish, I felt as though I was just stewing in cancer, like I could actually feel it growing and multiplying. By the second.
I woke up with the paralyzing fear that my symptoms were actually symptoms of something much more sinister than a urinalysis could detect. Something like cervical cancer that’s spread to my bladder. The nurse called back with the results from the yeast/bacterial labs. Both were negative. She acted like this was good news. I tried to explain to her that this was terrible news, but then I realized I wasn’t making much sense and hung up and scheduled an appointment with the urologist for that afternoon.
The urologist seemed to think I was overreacting. He said we’ll wait until we get the results from the biopsy to start talking cancer, much less cancer that has spread. After a couple of simple tests and a urine sample, he said that he didn’t see evidence of an infection, and my symptoms are probably related to the cervical issues I’m having, since the nerves in that area are all jumbled up. This news was damning. According to my internet research, cervical cancer usually doesn’t show symptoms until it’s very advanced.
As soon as I got home, I filled up the bathtub and got in. Rufus seemed alarmed that I was taking a bath at 6 p.m., before I’d even eaten dinner. I wasn’t anything near hungry. He stood with his front paws on the edge of the tub, looking down at me, for a very long time. I asked him if he was worried and then said he probably should be, for once. He seemed satisfied with this and left to go sleep in my bed.
I soaked and read Cold Sassy Tree, a book Boyfriend’s mom lent me a few months ago. I came across this quote and texted it to her: “Livin’ is like pourin’ water out of a tumbler into a dang Coca-Cola bottle. If’n you skeered you cain’t do it, you cain’t. If’n you say to yorself, ‘By dang, I can do it!’ then, by dang, you won’t slosh a drop.” She texted back to ask if there’s anything she can do.
I ate a bowl of cereal when I got out of the bath and took a pill the urologist gave me, samples of those blue pain pills they prescribe for UTIs. It helped.
When I woke up the pain was back. I’ve come to accept that it is, in fact, resulting from whatever the hell’s going on inside of my body. On the way to work, when I felt the twinging pain, I yelled at my cervix, “Alright! I get it already! Something’s wrong!”
I just don’t know how wrong yet.
I go back and forth between convincing myself it’s the worst possible thing and convincing myself it’s the best possible thing. The best possible thing still being pretty bad, but not nearly as bad as the worst possible thing. Not that convincing myself does anything at all to help the situation. Just makes me exhausted.
My resting pulse is through the roof. I got a large project at work, a PowerPoint presentation on recent advances in non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and as I worked on it, editing and formatting, I felt my heart thump away. I’m hardly eating anything. I hardly feel alive.
I go ahead and start calling it cancer with those close to me. I think I just want to get used to saying it aloud. Then I apologize for saying it aloud. They’re worried, and I’m making it worse.
Everything I feel is now a symptom. Everything. I’m dizzy. I’m exhausted. I ache–my back, my legs, my hips. I’m nauseated.
Being melodramatic helps, but it makes me feel dumb. Writing this post makes me feel dumb.
It could be nothing. It could be everything. If it’s nothing, I’d feel dumb. If it’s everything…