This is a bit overdue, but 2020 has been a bit extra, hasn’t it? I survived though; it would seem that facing possible cancer and definite surgery as a single mum isn’t an unbearable weight after all, but just one that is hard to bear. And the people who love you and care for you and hold you up take a fair amount of the weight. So this is dedicated to them.
A few days before Christmas; a few days after that Friday 13th phone call telling me to sit my ass down, stop running away, and accept I may have ovarian cancer, I went to see a consultant. My Mum came and looked weak; I held her hand in the waiting room as she stared at the wall ashen faced, looking smaller than she ever had before. I looked after her feelings and worried about how she would cope as I spoke gently to her.
The nurse poked and prodded internally; vaginally and through my veins. The consultant gave me the facts and the figures, hand hovering over the mouse and one eye on the clock. They asked me if sex was painful; ‘I never, ever have sex, obviously. But no. It was not painful’ was my answer. Did you even realise that even at 43 you still can’t EVER talk about sex in front of your Mum?.
The weird things attached to my ovaries, the same ovaries that miraculously and beautifully made my babies’ personalities and big brown eyes, were too unusual for my consultant to unpick and unravel, and I was being sent elsewhere to be seen in the new year; luckily one of the UK’s best teams for identifying and extracting such intruders with precise incisions is based in my little city.
My HCG levels were low so I was unlikely to have cancer, so Christmas was happy. How else was I to make it so for my children, with no-one else to fill in for Santa and to be chief merry-maker whilst I cried over cancer in my bedroom, in the kitchen, wherever they weren’t? But a fast-track operation would still be necessary, time was of the essence to avoid potential cell disaster, and all I knew is that it would be within 8 weeks. The klaxon call was ‘Be prepared; but for what, you still cannot know’.
Going to the hospital one Tuesday in early January – I didn’t know it was the oncology clinic until I walked in and saw the MacMillan Cancer Care worker welcoming people at the door with her leaflets. I looked around and scanned the room, taking in the busy room of sighs and impatience and winter sun, and felt safe and secure in the knowledge that I was not one of them. These women with headscarves or still with full heads of hair, looking no different from any other group of randomly selected women of all backgrounds and ages, paired with friends, sisters, uncomfortable looking husbands, subdued or jovial and gossiping; how unfortunate it was that they could only fit me in on this day.
I just had a book for company, because nothing bad was going to happen to me, it hadn’t even crossed my mind to take anyone with me, but maybe that is my stubborn-ass problem. I got up to use the vending machine and had a glimpse into the next room; women on drips sat in the big upholstered chairs you find only in nursing homes (and chemotherapy rooms I now know), having poison pumped into their veins, flicking through magazines just like in any waiting room up and down the country on an early January afternoon.
My consultant immediately made me feel at ease. She was clever, interested and interesting. She asked me what I understood as an equal. ‘I have a large growth on my ovary, it is growing fast and no-one can identify it so it needs to be removed along with said ovary, but it isn’t cancerous’.
Here we go again. Another turn of the screw.
‘Erm, it probably isn’t cancerous, but it may be’. Well, the fact that that question is still hovering over my fucking head and scrawled across my notes is news to me. ‘We will take more bloods today to test for a rare form of cancer your symptoms fit with, and send them to Sheffield; it will take four or five weeks to get the results’. I had been in Sheffield for new year’s eve the week before, I should have just popped some blood in on my way to the pub to save time. I imagined my blood pounding it back up the motorway in a little black bag.
‘In the meantime, you will come back to the hospital and I will perform your open surgery’ (the biggest fucker of a tumour is too big for faffing around with keyhole surgery it would seem), ‘and looking at your ‘history’, I would like to take everything out whilst I have you open. It may save on future operations and distress. There is no time for a biopsy before we schedule you in for a full, complete hysterectomy, time is of the essence, it will happen afterwards. Is that okay?’ She looks at me; she expects an immediate answer, and an affirmative one.
Is that okay? To remove my womb, my cervix, my fallopian tubes, my ovaries, all the organs that define my ‘woman-ness’, made my babies, that shield me from instant old age, ‘haggery’ and menopause? Forcing a fall in sex drive and decreasing my hip to waist ratio in one fell swoop, saying goodbye to any of society’s proof of my attractiveness? Losing the inner factories that toil away producing the hormones that make me the person I am? The ones that keep my skin plump and my hair shining, all of the things society has told me all of my fucking life give me worth as a woman?
Yes, in the face of a rare cancer, and future operations and distress; I suppose that is okay, so I do not hesitate for more than the second it takes for all of the above thoughts to go through my head, in replying that she may as well whip the lot out whilst she is in there. It struck me then as weird to think that this pleasant, educated, middle aged woman in front of me will soon stand in front of my gaping abdomen and hold my blood red, breathing reproductive organs in her hands.
But I also feel strangely calm, clear and in control; elevated above the banality of this situation. I am a woman making the best decision for my future, without a doubt. I am a mother being strong so I can be around to see my children turn into adolescent assholes and beyond. I am a woman with a future. I don’t need a hand to hold or to take time to discuss this with anyone or think it through. There is no choice.
My singularity in this whole business means no-one to bounce off in a conspiratorial huddle of two bowed, touching heads and hands squeezing each other with tears and fears and regrets about unborn children and sagging breasts and a scarred, lumpen future, whilst she impatiently taps her pen on the table awaiting our decision. The future is clear and precise and I don’t mind facing this alone. I am glad I had just brought my book this time. It is less messy, and I know I am done with mess and tears and would rather face this weight alone, if I have to be singular at all.
I was sent off with a vial, for blood to be taken (just to double-check for that rare form of cancer to be absolutely clear). The nurse was gentle, saying they like to look after their ‘Tuesday Girls’ . My hackles rise, my fists bunch involuntarily and I shout silently behind a tight smile ‘YOU HAVE IT WRONG, I AM NOT ONE OF YOUR TUESDAY GIRLS’.
I am handed a leaflet, delivered with a sympathetic and efficient smile, introducing me to the gynaecological cancer team; ‘phone anytime with any questions, someone will always get back to you straight away’. Just another leaflet to hide so as not to scare the children or anyone who pops in for a coffee.
Because I am not a Tuesday Girl. No-one will ever run awkwardly, slowly and triumphantly with her friends around a wet field in a pink feather boa and number tag for the memory of me. And due to the fact I am about to be neutered, I will never be seen as a girl again. Unless it is as a member of the group of ‘girls’ which women of a certain age often are referred to in a condescending, jovial way (a gaggle of post-menopausal gigglers) by people who don’t recognise we deserve to be elevated; not downsized and dumbed down, who don’t see the ridiculousness and hurtfulness in their choice of words. I am not even a girl, let alone a Tuesday Girl, and never will be again, from hereon in.
I leave to rush to pick up my daughter from school. I have stuff to tell my kids tonight. I also decide this whole shitshow deserves one last blowout; one big night away, before my hospital date. My womb deserves one last party, as does my ‘girl’hood; they have served me well.