I just thought it would eventually stop.
Ten months ago, in the early morning hours on a cold Friday in January, I walked into Mass General Hospital to have my ovaries and fallopian tubes removed in an effort to reduce my risk of cancer. After the 15-minute surgery, I immediately went into surgical menopause. This surgery meant that I would no longer have monthly periods, that I would need to increase my calcium intake to slow down any menopause-related osteoporosis, and that I would be on daily hormone pills to keep symptoms such as as hot flashes, mood swings and … (wait, what was the last one?), oh, memory loss at bay. I remember buying my last pack of pantyliners, thin pads that barely protect my underwear from tiny amounts of blood.
For nearly ten months, the top of the pantyliner box remained glued shut and was slowly collecting dust on the top-most shelf of the linen closet. “I’ll buy these just in case,” I remember saying as I grabbed the store-brand pantyliners, “but I’ll never need these ever again! Hallelujah!” Whenever gal friends of mine complained about menstrual cramps, getting their periods, or even talking about pre-menstrual cravings, I smiled politely and replied, “Yeah, I don’t get my period anymore.”
Though I had years of experiences relating to their 28-day cycles, I often felt alone in these good old menstrual talks. But, hell, I wasn’t complaining!
Mid-way through the summer, I needed to adjust my hormone levels to a slightly higher dose. Because of the switch, I did bleed a little bit. Not enough to crack open the box, but just enough to think, “Hmmm… okay.” A quick Google search told me this was called breakthrough bleeding. No biggie.
In the beginning of October, I started to notice spots of blood again. “No big deal,” I told myself. Maybe it was the increase in exercise. Maybe it was stress. Maybe it was the cycle of pills I was taking. “I’m sure it’ll go away soon.”
Soon became days. Soon became weeks. Soon became unbearable.
“You should call your doctor,” Jorge nudged me.
“Yeah, yeah. I’ll call her,” I assured him.
Two more weeks passed.
The bleeding never stopped.
And then, yesterday, I woke up to so much blood that even I was startled.
I drove to work, facilitated a workshop, and then made the call. Keeping busy has always been my defense mechanism.
“You need to come in right away,” said the nurse practitioner at the gynecological-oncology clinic. I guess that’s the benefit of having a lengthy medical history at one of the country’s leading hospitals.
I ended the call and went into the bathroom knowing that I may be stuck in traffic. And, as I pulled down my pants, I started to cry. I had bled, again. This time, I had bled enough that I needed to go home before heading to the hospital.
“G*ddamnit, I just bought these pants!” I said aloud, hearing my voice echo against the rectangular metal doors.
I was angry.
Angry at my body. Angry at the bleeding. Angry at the pants I had just put on that morning.
But most of all, I was angry I was alone.
“I f*cking hate this!” I yelled. And then I felt guilty that I was actually in a bathroom right outside of the chapel at my work. Part of me wanted to yell, “Oops, sorry, God.” But all I could feel was anger. I wasn’t sorry. I wasn’t sorry that I was mad. I wasn’t sorry that I was angry. I wasn’t sorry that, maybe, God had heard me. (Okay, I was a little sorry when I realized there was a student trying to study just outside of the chapel lobby and only a few feet from the bathroom doors).
I grabbed my bag, walked to my car, started the engine, and began to cry. “This isn’t fair! This isn’t FAIR!” I banged on the steering wheel.
The 30-minute drive in to the city helped me collect my thoughts. In a very twisted way, I couldn’t wait to get to the oncology clinic. I couldn’t wait to see the brave women who were facing battles, and who could remind me that the worst part of my day so far was having a pair of stained underwear. I knew, as selfish as it was, that their pain would set my own pain free. The women who were not as fortunate to know about cancer ahead of its grip would remind me of how little I suffer. I needed to see them.
“Lobby.. 2… 3 … 4 …..9, doors opening.”
The sunlight beamed in through the glass hallway. I already felt myself breathing easier, feeling more relaxed. Even the anticipation that their warrior stares would shake the panic from my mind made me feel better.
Except, as I entered into the office, it was overflowing with emptiness. Space was suffocating with rows of upholstered chairs.
I was alone.
“Good to see you, Liza. It’s the lunch hour, so no one’s here. You’ll just have to wait a minute or two. Have a seat.”
There were too many seats to choose from.
I backed away from the desk and I began to cry. I felt my fear rising up from my damaged pelvis into my twisting stomach. Soon, I could taste my frustration. My anger. I was angry I was alone. I was angry there was no one else here. I was angry that I needed these women so badly. I was angry about my selfishness that their pain could make me feel better.
I felt like a horrible person and shifted in my seat. And, g*ddamnit, I was pretty sure I had bled into my underwear. Again.
I was angry I was crying. I was angry I was being weak. I felt stupid, pitiful, pathetic for being so selfish.
The emotional pain I felt in that waiting room made the physical pain of the exam room and a 2-position biopsy even worse. “This might hurt, Liza,” the nurse warned me. It couldn’t possibly hurt more than I do right now, I thought through the smile. I was wrong. It hurt like hell.
After a few hours of cramping and pain and exhaustion from crying, I’m finally home. Surrounded by three kids who have dumped out buckets of candy (from two days of pre-Trick-or-Treating events), a husband who lovingly bought me my favorite steak-and-cheese sub, and a dog who seems to think that the curve between my butt and my knees is Nirvana, I am home. And, every time my left wrist turns as I type, I see the glimmer of my pink-and-teal ribbon tattoo. I see the words I had etched into my skin.
I realize that this whole “bleed through” might actually have been my pathway to a “break through.” I had to stop relying on the women in the cancer clinic to get me through this. I had to stop being so brave. I had to stop being fierce. I had to stop being so grateful for being BRCA, for knowing and stopping cancer. I had to stop asking warriors to take away my pain.
I had to just let it happen.
For me, today, brave was about sobbing in a cancer clinic waiting room. It was about watching my blood pressure reading rise above normal when the nurse took my vitals. It was about seeing my heart rate blinking on the screen and knowing I could feel the thumping of my heart all the way in my throat. It was about crying when the nurse took, not one, but two tissue samples. Brave was about me getting back into my car. Brave was about letting the emotional and physical pain break through.
Peace, love, and patiently waiting for lab results,