All the Women I Can Still Be

I wrote a few weeks ago about my struggles with finding my identity again, feeling like myself and existing as a woman following. Tomorrow is International Women’s Day, and I spent the weekend trying to work out where I fit in. What came out is a list of everything I am, would want to be, may be, could one day be.

A friend.

A daughter.

A fighter.

A knitter.

A writer.

A career woman.

A patient.

A partner.

A winner.

A loser.

A manager.

A baker.

A business woman.

A bridesmaid.

A mother.

An advisor.

A reader.

An author.

A crafter.

A protester.

A supporter.

A defender.

A cousin.

A younger sister.

An older sister.

A rock to lean on.

A drama queen.

A hustler.

A traveller.

A dreamer.

A cancer survivor.

A gossip.

A listener.

A boss.

An artist.

A girlfriend.

A wife.

A seamstress.

A feminist.

An ally.

A leader.

An activist.

A lover.

A protector.

A flatmate.

A nightmare.

A dream.

A mess.

A blogger.

A champion.

A girl.

A lady.

A cat-lady.

A risk taker.

A fixer.

A teacher.

A carer.

A student.

A translator.

A decent cook.

A music lover.

A theatre geek.

A niece.

A grand-daughter.

A mother.

A creator.

A queen.

An entertainer.

An advocate.

A performer.

That is my list. It may evolve, it may grow, it may be missing a few items, and that is the strength of it.

Erasing the Stigma of PTSD

I must have been about 16 when I first heard about PTSD. It was on an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, one of the very few storylines I still remember more than 10 years later.

Like so many other people, at first I was convinced that PTSD was something that happened to people in the armed forces, something that veterans suffered from. A mental health condition which, unlike depression or anxiety, would have very little chance of one day affecting me.

It took a few years for me to encounter it in another context. I remember reading that someone famous had suffered from it, and thinking ‘they haven’t been to war, that’s not it. They’re exaggerating’. As I got older, I realised how wrong I had been.

PTSD Can Affect Anyone

Post-traumatic stress disorder can affect anyone who has had a traumatic experience. And any situation that someone finds traumatic, even if it would not necessarily have been considered traumatic by someone else, can trigger post-traumatic stress disorder. An accident, childbirth, the loss of a loved one, assault, those are just a few examples of events that can lead to PTSD.

PTSD can happen at any time after a traumatic event. It usually starts within a few months, but it can sometimes take years to develop, even decades if memories have been buried deep.

The first time someone told me it sounded like I was suffering from PTSD, I shrugged it off. They were the words of a friend, in early summer 2020. I was only a few months out of surgery. Surely it was normal to feel anxious, to replay conversations in my mind, to see the same scenes over and over again, to be easily triggered, to have excessive emotions, to feel numb, to refuse to talk about my situation, to avoid places and people that reminded me of cancer. Surely, it would pass.

It did not pass.

In August, a psychologist told me they believed I could be suffering from PTSD. All the symptoms I described to them, my daily struggles, were consistent with an anxiety disorder, low mood, and trauma-related mental health conditions. Post-traumatic stress disorder was a likely culprit.

The Stuff of Nightmares

I will not get into the details of all the possible symptoms of PTSD – I am not medically trained, and there are so many resources online that can offer help and advice (I will link a couple of them at the end of this post). All I can talk about it my experience of trauma, the symptoms I have that are consistent with a diagnosis of PTSD, and how it affects me at the moment.

I have had regular flashbacks for months. Moments when I lose track of where I am, and find myself reliving parts of my cancer journey. I am irritable. For months, I felt completely numb. Now, I have all of the emotions, all of the time. I have insomnia. I live in fear that something bad is about to happen. I startle easily. I avoid places that remind me of cancer. I feel sick talking about my diagnosis. I get triggered by the smallest thing – a picture of an ultrasound or a letter from the GP in my letterbox. Smells, noises. Lights.

For the last few weeks, I have been dealing with one of the nastier symptoms of PTSD: nightmares. They happen every single night, at least once, sometimes three or four times.

I will wake up feeling panicky, exhausted, sweaty, terrified. Some of the nightmares are very clear – they are memories of the worst moments of the last few years that will play in my head, over and over again. So much that I feel lost. I feel like I am back in those horrendous months before surgery. I will be reliving hospital appointments, tests, results. Sometimes they are painfully close to reality, sometimes I get told my cancer is terminal. Sometimes I do not make it out of surgery. Sometimes I learn that someone I love is going through what I did, not me.

Some of the nightmares are only vaguely related to cancer, but feature hospitals, bad news and people getting hurt. They are disturbing, sometimes violent, they often end with me walking around aimlessly. I get lost in hospitals. I wait for hours in a waiting room that gets darker and darker.

Have you ever been terrified of closing your eyes? Have you ever cried of exhaustion, knowing at the same time that you would get no relief when sleep would take you? Have you ever been afraid of what your brain would make you go through when you needed a nap?

I fear sleep. Every night, I push back the time when I will actually go to bed, because I do not feel ready. I do not want to face the nightmares again. I do not want to wake up after a couple of hours, even more tired than when I went to bed, craving the thing I also want to avoid.

Each night, the cycles repeats. Fight sleep. Push back my bedtime to 10pm, 11pm, 12pm, 1am. Fall asleep, sometimes despite myself, sometimes with the lights on. And wake up, after a couple of hours, feeling absolutely spent, frustrated, heart racing and tears all over my face.

I think the most I have slept on a single night, in the last three weeks, has been about five hours. These days, it is closer to two or three hours a night.

And as a result, my symptoms during the day get worse. I am even more prone to tears, even more irritable, even more disconnected from reality. Even more likely to have an anxiety attack for the smallest thing.

I am tired.

We Are Not Alone

I know so many people with PTSD. Friends, family members, slight acquaintances. I have read about so many more people having it, living with it, trying to overcome it.

Our experiences are all so different, but they are all valid. Do not let anyone tell you you cannot have PTSD because your situation was not traumatic enough in their eyes. Do not let yourself think you cannot have PTSD because your trauma was somehow less than someone else’s.

Trauma is personal. Trauma is subjective. Trauma is welcome to pack its bags and go away.

Useful links:

https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/symptoms/

https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd-and-complex-ptsd/about-ptsd/

https://www.ptsduk.org/

Family – Breaking Traditions, Crushing Expectations

This marks the start of a new series of posts. After spending time with my family over Christmas, a full twelve months since last seeing them, I suddenly had a clearer idea of what my diagnosis meant to them and how, in some ways, it affected them as much as it did me.

I am the middle child. The only girl in between two brothers. One close to my age, one a lot younger.

I only really know my mother’s side of the family. Amongst my cousins on my that side, I am ranked fourth out of nine. The first girl after three boys, amongst a group of six cousins all born within five years of each other. Three boys, three girls close together and then, years later, another three boys.

I never knew the pressures of being the eldest, of paving the way for the ones that would come after me. I never had the attention that comes with being the youngest child, the baby of the family.

What I have had to live with though, were the hopes and dreams of parents and grandparents who had different visions for the future of their boys and girls.

It is very prevalent in my family, more so than it probably should be. There is a sense of tradition, passed down from generation to generation. Boys and girls are not the same, and they should be raised differently. It is the relationship we have with our grandparents, the goals they have set for us since the beginning. Boys are pushed and encouraged to follow their dreams, get a good job, be successful. Girls are praised for having good grades, being quiet and amiable, and they are constantly asked about their relationships, and when they will have children.

Oh, I am sure I exaggerate. There were times when my parents and grandparents were proud of me for achievements of my own. When I finished school, then uni. When I won prizes for best poem and best calligraphy at the tender age of nine. When I found a job and became financially independent. When I started knitting, and proved to my nan that her lessons twenty years prior had not been in vain.

But there was always a sense that I was not following the path that they had wished for me. The fact that every time I went to visit my grandparents, they asked if I had a boyfriend, how serious it was. Whether I wanted children. When I was going to have them. When I moved to the UK, my family were more scared than encouraging. ‘But are you really going to raise your children in another country?’

My family laugh when they hear my brother’s tales of joining this or that political demonstration in Paris. They shake their head when he mentions his political engagement, but still they debate with him and take him seriously. When I told my nan about taking a feminist writing class, she told me to be careful, and not become ‘one of those feminists who scare men away’. After all, political engagement and strong feminists beliefs were not, in her mind, synonymous with a happy, fulfilled life. It is dangerous. I never told her about the many demonstrations and women’s marches I took part in.

My nan used to be a feminist. She used to be out on the street, marching for women’s rights and choice to own their bodies. But as she started having a family, raising her own (many) sons and daughters, she fell back into age-old patterns that imprison women in a role I did not wish for myself. My mum often tells me how differently she and her sisters were treated from her brothers. She does not see that she has repeated the same pattern.

For years, I pretended to go along with it. Shook my head when they asked me when I was finally going to get married and have children. Laughed when my nan kept mentioning how her sisters were already great-grandmothers. How my cousin had had a child – how it would be my turn next. I ignored my mum when she told me that she would love to be a grandmother, when she said she was not getting any younger.

It was always expected that, once my rebel years were over, I would settle down, marry and have children. I still have trinkets that were given to me to ‘pass on to my children’. By refusing to conform to the family pattern, in their eyes, I was only delaying the inevitable. It would happen, and they would finally be proud of the woman I had become.

When my mum and my nan, in turn, learnt of my diagnosis, in addition to the pain, they had to face the disappointment of hopes they had clung onto for years. My mum mentioned how she would never see her only daughter pregnant. My nan sent me a teary, extremely violent email, about how unfair it was that my ability to have a family was being ripped away from me. How sad she was that my life was being torn apart, even if I would be physically fine. How she could not even begin to imagine how it felt, for me never being able to experience the biggest joy of being a woman. In her eyes, I had lost everything I should have lived for. That realisation hurts.

I am more at peace with my future than they are. They had built a world of hopes on something that I had not signed up for. But today, these disappointed dreams and expectations weigh on me. I hear it when my nan barely knows what to say to me anymore. Her whole idea of me as a person, as a woman, has shifted. She does not know me anymore, as the life she had built for me in her head has come crumbling down. What do you talk about with someone you cannot understand, someone who you had imagined a whole life for, and who no longer meets your expectations?

Every time I speak to her, I feel the weight of her disappointment, of her shame. She has voiced this disappointment every time she has written me an email or given me a call, telling me how tough it must be for me, how sad I must be. How she wished we could have traded places, so I could live a proper woman’s life. But the disappointed dreams are not mine, no matter how many times she tries to convince me of it. They are hers.

I will never be able to give her what she thought would be my future. I was the eldest granddaughter. I know she wanted to see me pregnant, because she had told me so. I know she wished to see me happy in the only way she could imagine a woman ever being happy. I know she worries about what my life will look like now that I am no longer able to repeat the old family tradition of having children.

It is taxing, feeling like you have disappointed someone you care so much about, someone whose dreams you crushed without having any say in it. I feel responsible, even though I never wanted these things for myself.

I will never achieve the ideal life of a woman, as defined by the matriarchs of my family. I will break tradition. I will go against their expectations. But I will be the woman I decide to be, my own idea of a woman, and I will grow from their experiences, even if I do not claim them for myself.

The Womb of Shame

Or how it is still taboo to speak about endometrial cancer, when almost half of the world population has, or has had, a womb at some point in their lives.

After my cancer diagnosis, I only shared the news with a few people I trusted. I did not post anything on social media for over three months, I avoided any mention of my health or anything that could suggest something was wrong. And then, one day,  more than a month after surgery, I decided to take the plunge. It was late in January 2020, I had just registered for the Shine Night Walk, a charity walk through London that was supposed to take place this September. I had set up a fundraising page to collect donations for Cancer Research, and I decided that I would share my story on it – it felt like a safe place.

For the first time that night, I posted on social media about my cancer – sharing the link to my fundraising page and a long text about my own personal battle with cancer. I wrote in English, and I wrote in French too, fighting against myself to find the right words. 

It was a very private post. I wrote that I had had womb cancer, and that I had been lucky enough to only have needed surgery to get rid of it (fingers crossed). There was no mention of a hysterectomy, no mention of my reproductive organs, no mention of how it would affect my hormones or my body going forward.

I received a lot of support. So many messages started pouring in, so many well-wishers and concerned friends. When people messaged me separately, sharing their concern and checking up on me, I gave them more details about what had happened, but only if they asked.

It was very early in my grieving process. I had not really come to terms with what had happened yet, so I was not able to put it into words like I can today (not that I claim to have fully come to terms with it, not yet, not quite). However, I now realise that was only part of the reason why I did not give more details at the time.

There are some cancers that are widely understood. The ones that are often represented in mainstream media. There are visible cancers, there are the scary ones, there are the ones you cannot hide. And then there are the ones like mine, that people cannot see. The ones where you have no obvious physical proof that you have cancer – at least not at first glance. And then there are also the cancers that make people uncomfortable, because they feel they should stay private.

When I first shared the link to this blog, I received a message from a friend, who had only learnt about my cancer right there and then. That person was shocked and supportive. We spoke, and they asked why I had decided to share such private details about my body with the world, and whether I had considered that talking about my womb might make some people uncomfortable. The person who asked that question was a man.

The question was not meant in a rude way at all, he was not trying to be malicious. It was simple curiosity, and I answered it as honestly as I could. It did not come out of the blue, it was one of many questions he asked, because he was a bit taken aback by my decision to share details about something that is usually kept quiet. He wanted to understand why. It did not feel great to be questioned like that, but I understand where he was coming from.

There is an element of shame attached to talking about your health, about how you are not doing as well as people were expecting. Speaking out about parts of your body that are diseased, parts of you that you do not show to the world. Cancer comes with its own element of shame. It should not, but it does.

It is definitely exacerbated by the fact that there are some cancers you talk about openly, and there are some you do not hear about much. Had you ever heard about endometrial cancer before? Did you know it is the fourth most common cancer in women in the UK? I did not.

There is a particular stigma attached to cancers which affect your reproductive organs, because we do not talk about them much in public. Because the cancer was in my womb, some people may feel like I should maybe not talk about it as openly as I have, maybe the details should be kept private.

Would describing what happened to my womb and my ovaries really bother people that much? Should I maybe hide those details? Should I not post on Facebook about my hysterectomy, with the view of sparing anyone who might feel uncomfortable reading about my reproductive organs?

It is not just because of cancer. It is because I am discussing female organs, female issues that a lot of people normally avoid talking about. Take menopause for example. It is something perfectly natural that happens to so many of us. But people keep it quiet. Women themselves do not discuss it amongst themselves, they censure themselves out of habit. The effects of the hormonal changes to your body, to your mind, they are almost taboo. There should be no shame in talking about a natural process happening to a person’s body. But there is.

So many women have hysterectomies these days, not all due to cancer. And yet, I did not know anyone who had had one – or so I thought. When I started sharing my story, people started coming to me, telling me about how they, their friends, their sisters, their mothers had gone through something similar. But it had been kept private, hidden from view.

I realised that I had censured myself when I posted, back in January, about the ‘surgery’, with no further details. Whether consciously or unconsciously, I had refused to share the details with a wider audience. I had been afraid of offering a detailed description of what happened to an intimate part of myself. I was ashamed. And I am now ashamed of having been ashamed.

Who was going to see my posts, who would read my blog? Friends, family, colleagues, old acquaintances. People of all genders, people roughly around my age, for the most part. Out of those people, how many would feel uncomfortable? How many would stop reading because the words ‘womb’, ‘ovaries’ and ‘periods’ bothered them?

Would I have felt the need to censure myself if I had had a different type of cancer, one that did not affect my reproductive organs, like a brain tumour, leukaemia, pancreatic cancer? I know people who have had those cancers, and they talk about them openly, and do not worry about offending anyone. So why should I?

When I started this blog, it was with the purpose of sharing my story, of unveiling what had happened and not holding back the truth. I am going to talk about my ovaries, I am going to post about the loss of my fertility, about being a woman without a womb. I am going to tackle issues that women have been refraining from mentioning out loud for generations.

Men, women, non-binary people might read this, and might feel different levels of discomfort, for innumerable reasons. Family, friends, strangers, people who are related to me, people who know me and people who do not. They do not have to carry on reading, but I hope they do.

Cancer can affect pretty much every organ in your body. It does not discriminate, and we should not either. Let us discuss every form of cancer, let us discuss how it affects our bodies, whoever we are. Let us get rid of the stigma that some cancers are more shameful than others, just because they affect a part of us that has been deemed private for centuries.

I Am A Woman

When I first heard the word ‘cancer’, when I was in that cold, cluttered room with a doctor I had met less than a minute earlier, I did not think for one second about how it would affect my identity. I did not imagine it would ever change the way I thought about myself, the words I had used to describe myself for years, decades. But it did, and I am constantly fighting to reprise an identity that was taken from me the minute I became another case on the surgeon’s schedule.

I have always been a feminist. I cannot remember when I first realised it. Maybe it was during discussions with my mum, with my gran, with these women who helped shape my life, sometimes despite themselves. Maybe it was because of arguments with friends, with my brothers, with teachers. I remember trying to deny it, pretending that I did not care, saying that I was not a feminist, no, I was in favour of equality between all genders, not just promoting women’s rights. I was a feminist then, and I am a feminist now.

I have always been proud of being a woman. There have been times where I found it hard, but I have always wanted to stand up for women, celebrate how strong we were, I have always admired women and everything they represent. My idols are strong, passionate women who support each other. I love being a woman, and though I might not love everything that comes with it, I would not wish to change that for anything in the world.

If there was ever one thing I was sure of, one truth that I could always go back to when in doubt, it was my identity as a woman. I used to be a girl, then I became an insufferable teenager, and finally I made my way into womanhood. I have always felt like a woman, even when I considered myself a tomboy, wearing ripped jeans, riding my bike, insisting on buying boy’s hoodies (and then went through an absolutely contradictory phase, where I did not wear anything but dresses and skirts for over five years – I am an all or nothing kind of person). I never even considered the possibility of feeling differently. I never felt the need to justify my feeling like a woman – it was so obvious to me, it was engrained into every single part of my being. It took me a while to realise I was coming from a place of privilege, being so sure of myself, fitting into one of these pre-defined categories. I consider myself a very open-minded individual, especially as regards gender and sexual identity. I never truly believed that a person’s gender was defined by their sexual organs (or lack thereof). As I grew up, I became more aware of gender identity and gender studies, and I find it absolutely fascinating (and I don’t just mean that I am obsessed with RuPaul’s Drag Race and cry every single time someone struggles with their gender identity on there. Even though that’s true too). I just never thought, privileged as I was, that I would ever not feel like a woman.

When the doctor told me that the only ‘reliable’ treatment option for my cancer would be a total hysterectomy, I did not imagine for one second that it would affect how I thought of myself. I remember sitting on that sofa, in a quiet room, calling my mum, messaging my closest friends, breaking the news to them less than an hour after having heard them myself, and I remember thinking that it was alright. It would just mean never being able to get pregnant, and no more periods. The latter, I could do without. The former was more complicated.

My life goal had never been to have children. I am terrified of pregnancy. I took more pregnancy tests ‘just in case’ in my early twenties than most people who are trying to get pregnant will ever take, just because of how much the possibility that I might be pregnant scared me, and I needed to be sure. Really, really sure. I am afraid of babies, I am not good with children (do not tell that to the families I used to babysit for). But at the same time, looking down the line, looking at how I saw my life in 10, 15 years – could I really say I never imagined having children, having a family? I could not. As I told my dad, a mere few weeks before the diagnosis, when no-one had any idea of what was happening in my body, I could ‘see myself one day considering thinking that I might not not want to have children.’ It was a very remote possibility, and I took my decision there and then. I would have the hysterectomy, and I would never carry children.

Further down the line (I will write a post about it, or maybe several), before the operation, I had to consider whether I wanted to freeze my eggs. Or, as the experts call it, ‘explore fertility-preservation options’. I had decided from the very moment they mentioned it that it was not something I wanted to do, not something I felt comfortable with. So this was it, then. I would lose my ability to have children that were biologically mine, and I was perfectly fine with it.

I know and admire plenty of women who are unable to have children, for one reason or another. I also know and support many who do not wish to have them. It does not make anyone less of a woman in my eyes.

And despite all this, I have struggled. I have struggled with my identity as a woman. There are days where that thought haunts me, and I do not know why. Is it the loss of my reproductive organs, even though I never believed they were what made me a woman? Is it the loss of my ability to have children, even though I did not particularly want them? Is it the loss of hormones caused by the surgical menopause, despite the fact that in my eyes, older women are still women?

I am always harder on myself than I am on others. I judge myself a lot more harshly than I do other people. Maybe that is it. But deep down, I think it is also the thought that other people might not see me as a true woman. I know who I am, but how can you predict how other people will react? How do you know what someone will think? And I am not naïve. I know very well that plenty of people consider that your gender identity lies with your reproductive organs. Well, in that case, mine burned down ten months ago.

The first time I felt like this was mere days after the surgery. I had just gone home after two nights in the hospital, and my family had come over to spend Christmas with me. They were staying at an AirBnB a few streets down from where I lived, and I was spending the night on my own. It was maybe the first or second night I was on my own. It woke me up in the middle of the night, and the pain was worse than any physical pain I had ever experienced. Who was I? Was I still a woman? It was the very first time I cried after the surgery.

It crops up regularly. Sometimes there are triggers. They are often silly, often extrapolations of my own imagination. I take things personally. I cry, and other times I get angry. One of my worst episodes was in the spring.

I have always been a huge Harry Potter fan. I know everything there is to know about it, they are the first books I read in English, just because I could not wait for the French version to be released. And that tweet from JK Rowling angered me like few things have angered me in the past. I was angry on behalf of the trans community, I was angry on behalf of some of my friends, I was angry on behalf of everyone who does not fit within the cisgender majority. I was angry on behalf of anyone who had been hurt by her words. And it took me a while to realise I was angry on behalf of myself as well. I do not menstruate, and I am a woman. I do not have a uterus, and I am a woman. My body does not produce oestrogen on its own, and I am a woman.

I say it to myself sometimes. I look at myself in the mirror, and I tell myself ‘I am a woman.’ It alleviates the doubts for a while. I am a woman.