My Ovary-Free Life
I was 48 hours away from surgery, obsessed with wondering how my life and my body would change, when I was crudely reminded of why having my ovaries removed could be a really good thing. I got my period with the works—bloating, pimples, and cramps. As usual, I subsisted on ibuprofen every three hours. It was strange thinking this would be the last time Id feel this way.
Then the profound moment evaporated, and the inevitable complications popped up. Some tests turned up a little blood in my urine—and the two days til I was eggless in Manhattan turned into six weeks. Fortunately, the follow-ups on my blood were negative, but another life-changing event came along. My beloved dad died of brain cancer, and I needed time to grieve before I rebooked my surgery. Then, finally, the date was set: I was about to give away a huge part of me in hopes of outsmarting the breast cancer (BRCA) genes—passed down from mom and her sister—that greatly increase my risks of ovarian and breast cancer. I was sure I was ready.
Next Page: The prep aint pretty
[ pagebreak ]The prep aint pretty
The day before, the calls from the hospital start coming in at 11 a.m. Im asked things like: Whats your primary language? Are you planning on bringing any valuables? And then: Theres a chance you may stay overnight. You know—if they find something (like cancer). Oh, and no sex or baths or straining for a month afterward. Help! This is before Ive even begun … the bowel prep.
All I have to say is that anyone who says a bowel prep is easy has never done one. But once youve done it, its like youre in a secret club. Before any of this business even started, I did ask a dear friend (and colonoscopy veteran) to detail it for me. “Is it like you read a novel on the toilet? I asked naively. “Um,” she replied, “you kind of dont really feel like reading.” Enough said—but saying just isnt the same as doing.
At the stroke of 4 p.m., I start sipping magnesium citrate “tonic” (diluted with ginger ale) through a straw before quickly realizing that the only way to get through this 10-ounce treat is to chug. I think its going to be an explosive evening, but that turns out to be the understatement of the year. Its the nastiest evening Ive spent in a long time.
When my alarm rings at 5:45 a.m., its not that much of a shock since Id only catnapped. In the cab with my mom by my side, I silently pray my stomach will cooperate during the pitch-black half-hour ride to the hospital. Soon we check in, and there are more questions, including, when was your last period? Odd that this is going to be the last time Im asked this. Im parched and manage to get the nurse to smuggle me four ice chips. Ive never tasted anything more delicious. I then change into a gown and wrap myself in the chenille throw my mom was smart enough to pack. We cry softly as we imagine how my dad would have taken charge. That pain dulls the pain of being an hour away from a voluntary—but necessary—laparoscopic surgery. My ovaries are about to be removed through my navel and two small incisions at my bikini line. Lets go.
Going under...and going home
A few minutes before I head into the operating room, colleagues of my doctor, New York University (NYU) cancer expert David A. Fishman, MD, arrive with a stack of CDs and a release form listing all the unpleasant things that could happen during surgery. I sign and pick Sheryl Crow over Creed, figuring thats better karma. Soon I hear the sweet sounds of the music and someone saying: “She has chubby hands. Getting an IV line in will be easy.” I lift my hand, as if to say, “Watch it, Im still awake,” and thats all I remember.
I wake up a few hours later, and all is fuzzy. A nurse is offering me cranberry juice, asking how much pain Im in on a scale of one to ten. I say six. My husband runs off to fill my prescriptions—Im getting Percocet, stool softeners, and an estrogen pack to go. I summon up the energy to leave the recovery unit and walk—slowly, like an old woman—out and back into the world again. Once I get home, I snuggle under my sheets, kiss my sons head, take my first estrogen tab, and pass out.
Next Page: Why am I so sad?
[ pagebreak ]Why am I so sad?
I have a dull headache when I wake up, and my stomach feels like a painful balloon. (Im told itll take six weeks for my stomach to deflate—nice!) I peek under my bandages, and its not too scary. Plus, the ibuprofen seems strong enough to control my pain … but then the crying jags start.
Lying in bed, my thoughts race. Ive lost a part of myself thats so personal. Im over the fact that I wont bear another child; its more that from this moment on Im staying young synthetically. Thats disturbing. And the cruelest trick of all: My period starts. I realize Im 24 days into my cycle. Its worlds colliding: Im taking estrogen from what looks like a birth control pack, I have my period, and Ive lost my ovaries. I cant even put what Im feeling into words.
In a few days Im moving sluggishly, not a bad thing. I observe more, I appreciate more. Im tired but happy the whole thing is behind me, especially since my pathology report came back all clear. And, though Im sad that I cant scoop up my son, Ill be tickling him in just a few weeks. I look at him, my one and only biological child, and the husband I love now more than ever, with pure wonder and joy.
Meet the new me
My breast-cancer risk has now dropped 50 percent since I had my ovaries removed before I turned 40 (my birthday is in August), but my breasts remain a constant worry since my mom and aunt are breast-cancer survivors and Im BRCA positive. That means vigilant monitoring, and I get the red-carpet treatment. Women who have found something suspicious and dont have my genetic legacy often have to wait weeks to get a mammogram. I make just one call, and Im squeezed in on even the busiest of days. This special treatment seems unfair. So the new me—the one who can now worry a little less about getting cancer—decides to use my BRCA status to tell the world my story.
A week after surgery Im due back at NYU, but nothings wrong. Im going to be the “real woman” in a video news story featuring my surgeon and his studies on early detection of ovarian cancer. I feel grateful as I head up to the familiar fourth floor. The waiting room is packed. I gaze at the faces, the scarves, the women of all backgrounds gathered for the fight of their lives. I realize that for the past two years, I avoided looking at the other faces in this room. Now I really look and see unbridled bravery. I am this brave woman, too. I got rid of a body part before it had the power to kill. Sure, this was a huge ordeal, and there will always be a hole in my center, where my fertility, my innocence, once lay nestled somewhere within. But Im not a gambler. Not when it comes to my life, anyway. I have too much to share with the world. And now I can.