Reclaiming My Body

Surgery took away some of my organs. I lost the hormones I had relied on for years. Cancer started, and spread inside of me for months, possibly even years, and I did not notice. How can I trust this body? How can it ever feel like mine again?

Womb cancer, or endometrial cancer, happens most often in older women who have been through menopause already. The most common sign that something is wrong is unexplained bleeding. Because I was only 27 when I was diagnosed, I attributed any bleeding to irregular periods, which I had had ever since I first went on the pill as a teenager. I had flagged this up to a gynaecologist before leaving Paris back in 2014, and I had been told it was no cause for concern, it was quite common actually. It would take years for me to bring it up again with a doctor, which prompted a series of tests which eventually led to my diagnosis. Along from bleeding, some women with endometrial cancer also experience pelvic pain, which helps them realise something is not quite right. I never felt anything.

I have always had a high pain threshold. And I mean, very high. I once knelt on push pins that had fallen to the floor (I was a messy kid), and only noticed something was wrong when blood started seeping through my jeans. I played tennis with damaged ligaments, and only went to A&E after my foot turned blue. I could put my hands over a hot plate and not feel any pain.

After my hysterectomy, I did not need any painkillers. In the hospital, I only asked for them once, in the hope that they would help me sleep when the constant beeping of the machines kept me awake. When I was discharged from the hospital, they gave me a large box of codeine tablets, to take whenever I was in pain. They are still in my bathroom cabinet as I write this post, ten months later.

Now, I cannot help but wonder if my resistance to pain prevented me from seeing something was wrong. Had I felt pain, maybe I would have gone to the doctor earlier. Maybe they would have recognised the signs, maybe I would have been diagnosed more quickly. It would not have changed much – luckily, my cancer was caught at a very early stage anyway. But you cannot help but wonder what if, and blame your body for betraying you.

When someone gives you the unexpected news, so many things go through your head as you try to process it. So many feelings, some of which you can describe, some of which you have no words for, as you have never felt them before. I had this thought though, this disturbing but unrelenting idea that I did not know my own body. After all, cancer had been developing inside of me for months, maybe longer, and I had had no idea. Something sinister had been happening inside my body, something was growing and spreading, and I had not been able to tell.

You cannot see your womb. There is something incredible about your existence being threatened by a part of you you cannot even see. It is a silent, unnoticeable threat. There is nothing you can do about it. You cannot locate the cancer in your body. You cannot pinpoint the exact spot where something is happening. For someone like me, who likes seeing and experiencing things first-hand in order to understand them, it was mind-boggling.

I have never had the best relationship with my body. I have put it through hell, I have gone from one extreme to another, I have hated it at times. But that was the last straw. I had no trust left for my body. I had been betrayed by a part of me, by cells and organs that made up who I was. For the very first time, I realised I truly had no control.

Treatment only made that worse. Surgery is hard on the body, in many different ways. For me, it was the only real option if I wanted to live. So I accepted it. I was peace with it. But still, it felt like it was being forced on me. My organs were going to be literally ripped out of my body, and I had no say in the matter. Was it even still my body, since I could not control what was happening to it?

After surgery, I struggled physically. So many things I used to take for granted, I could no longer do. Small things I was not allowed to do, like lifting a kettle or bending over to tie my shoes. Sitting up without using my arms, which my body now simply refused to do.

The loss of hormones which accompanied the removal of my ovaries did not help. Suddenly, I would find myself crying, and unable to explain why. I would feel weak, I would feel hot. I had headaches which lasted for days. I had strange pains in my muscles, my body was doing its own thing, I would wake up cold and drenched in sweat. I would feel hungry, and then could go days without eating.

To get through it, I detached myself from my body entirely. I convinced myself that my body was going through something, but my mind was on a different path. My body was weak, it was diseased, but my mind was going to be fine, it would stay strong.

It is freeing, but it is also terrifying. There are days where I look in the mirror and I do not recognise what I see. Where I cannot make the link between my body and the image I have of myself.

I am working on it. I am now aware of every single thing that happens in my body. A twinge here, a tremor there, I am conscious of everything, but I cannot tell what is causing it. There is a disconnect between my mind and my body. I overreact about every sensation in every part of my body. If I was not able to tell the signs the first time around, I should now try and listen to every signal it is giving me, should I not? I feel afraid of my own body, of how it could be letting me down at any second.

But it is my body, and I hope to have it for many years to come, so I have to reclaim it. I have to make it feel like mine again. I might not have been in control of what happened to it a year ago, but I now hold the reins of what is left of it. I keep experimenting with my hair, because I feel lucky I was able to keep it throughout the last year. I cut it, I shave it, I bleach it, I dye it. It is all mine. I got a new tattoo, I have plans for more. I did not choose the scars on my belly, but I get to choose these ones. From now on, the marks I make on my body will be all mine.

I barely flinched when getting my latest tattoo, but I felt it. It was a slight pain, a twitch in my arm, but I felt it, and it was amazing. I knew where the pain was coming from, what was causing it, and I was the one who had made that choice. I had control. I could have stopped it at any moment. My body and my brain were connected for a while, and it was my own doing.

It is both beautiful and terrible. You should not have to cause yourself pain in order to reconnect with your body. For months after getting that tattoo, I kept tracing the raised lines over my arms, the scars which were giving me comfort. When they disappeared, as the tattoo finished healing, I felt a deep sense of loss.

I have taken to wearing different clothes. I used to always be hot and wear short sleeves. Now I wear huge jumpers, just to feel warmth around my body, to surround it with something I can touch every time I move. I wear trousers, when I always wore dresses. You can feel trousers against your skin, you can feel your body moving with them, straining against them as you change positions. I wear rings every day, just to stay aware of my fingers.

It is not an easy road. I do not make these decisions on purpose, all the time. It would be exhausting. I think my brain found a way to tell me what my body needed, without me being aware of it.

I need to listen to it. To all the signs. I cannot understand them, not yet. Every feeling, every sensation that I do not control causes fear. But I have a support team. I have a nurse who I can call when I am worried about symptoms. There are doctors who can tell me what is happening, who can reassure me. It is normal. My feelings are normal, my reactions are normal, my body is normal again, as far as they can tell.

It will need some getting used to. I hope one day, I no longer need people to help me understand my own body. But in the meantime, I will keep on learning to take care of it, so that we can support each other, me and this body that I am reclaiming.

Getting Diagnosed

Most people in the UK get their diagnosis through the ‘Two-Week Wait’ referral. Mine took eight months.

  • FEBRUARY 2019

    I registered with a GP for the first time since moving house the year before. I had mentioned to friends I was not registered with a GP and they were appalled and convinced me to do it – just in case something happened.

  • MARCH 2019

    Once I was registered, I booked a routine check-up, just to see how things were. I mentioned my irregular periods to my GP – at that point, I had them every couple of months, sometimes they were even more spaced out. My GP was not concerned, and told me I showed signs of PCOS – Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, a very common condition that affects many women in a lot of different ways.

  • APRIL 2019

    A blood test confirmed my hormone levels were a bit all over the place. There are three main symptoms for PCOS: irregular periods (check), abnormal hormone levels and polycystic ovaries. You only need to have two of those three to be diagnosed with PCOS. A blood test confirmed my hormone levels were a bit all over the place. My GP had also referred me for an ultrasound, to check for symptom number three.

  • JUNE 2019

    I went for the ultrasound – I had always thought ultrasounds were for pregnant women only. The ultrasound technician was very friendly, and by the questions she asked me, I could tell the ultrasound was confirming the diagnosis. I had to wait a week or so for the results, which then came through a phone call from my GP: the ultrasound had confirmed the diagnosis, I officially had PCOS. However, the ultrasound had also picked up on a small abnormality in my womb, which seemed to suggest a blood clot (from irregular periods) or a small benign polyp. I was told to have another ultrasound after six weeks – if it was a blood clot, it was likely to have disappeared by then. If it was a polyp, then I could be referred to a gynaecologist to remove it – very common again, and not worth worrying about.

  • JULY 2019

    I went for my second ultrasound. The lady who did the examination was not as calm and reassuring as the first one. She mentioned she could see an abnormality, which she believed could be a polyp, or could be endometrial hyperplasia, which is a thickening of the lining of the womb. It is fairly common, especially in women with PCOS, and in some cases can lead to cancer after many years. In other cases, it is completely benign, and might resolve on its own without treatment.

  • AUGUST 2019

    I came back from a week of holiday to a couple of letters from my GP. One was a request to call back to arrange an appointment with the GP, the other one was a request to arrange a gynaecologist appointment at the local hospital. I went online immediately and booked the first available slot at the hospital, which was on the 15th of October. I rang the GP and made an appointment, she explained that she had referred me to the hospital as the abnormality they had spotted back in June was still there, and I should hear from them soon. Well, that had already happened and as usual, I had not done things in the correct order.

  • SEPTEMBER 2019

    What a month! Between an attempted burglary and a 10-day trip to New York, I received a letter from the hospital asking me to come in for a hysteroscopy ahead of my appointment in October. The appointment was scheduled for a Thursday in the middle of my trip to the US, so I called to rearrange it and pushed it back to the 30th of September, a couple of days after my return. The hospital was very arranging – it felt like there was no urgency at all.

    The hysteroscopy happened and all I can say is – not a pleasant experience at all. The doctor performing the procedure spoke to me, explaining what she was going to do and what the expected findings were. She mentioned the possibility of endometrial hyperplasia, which could be either benign or pre-cancerous. If it looked like the abnormality was a polyp, she would try and remove it – if it was too large, we would have to schedule another appointment. If it looked like endometrial hyperplasia, she would need to take a biopsy and send it for testing.

    She carried out the procedure and I would not wish it on my worst enemy. It is painful. She was showing me on a screen what was happening, and mentioned that it looked abnormal, like a lot of little polyps, too many for her to remove. She took a biopsy. She reassured me – if it was atypical endometrial hyperplasia, it would be at a very early stage and would take years to develop into cancer, and it could be monitored and treated to make sure that did not happen. It was easily reversed, either getting better on its own with lifestyle changes, or with treatment. She told me the results would come through in about two to three weeks.

  • 15TH OCTOBER 2019

    Because the biopsy had been taken only two weeks earlier, when I walked into the hospital that morning, I wondered whether they would have the results already or whether it would end up being a pointless appointment and I would be asked to come back in the following week. My appointment was at 9am. At 9.10, the doctor called my name. I stood up and shook his hand, he brought me into an exam room. I sat down, he sat opposite me at his desk. He asked if I knew what the appointment was about, I said I was a bit unsure, since I did not know whether the results from the biopsy would be back yet, and I had booked that appointment before being asked to come in for a hysteroscopy… I was babbling. He stopped me and told me that they had the results. He told me that unfortunately, the results were not good. They were not what anyone had expected. He told me that they had done tests to see whether the endometrial hyperplasia was ‘normal’ or atypical. And unfortunately, it had progressed further than just atypical. It had progressed further than anyone could have predicted. He told me he had to be blunt. We were talking about cancer.

    Whilst I was sitting there, in shock, he told me it should not have been him delivering the news. That he had no interest in gynaecology oncology. That because I already had this ‘routine’ appointment booked, it had fallen on him to give me the news. Normally, they would have arranged for me to see an oncology specialist, they would have made sure there was a Macmillan nurse with them, they would have asked me to bring someone in with me if I felt like I needed some support. I will write a full post about this appointment, as I think it moulded my perception of my diagnosis, and accounts for a lot of the anxiety and PTSD I have to this day. For now, I will just say that he asked me if I wanted him to arrange an appointment with the specialist team the following day. Obviously, I did.

  • 16TH OCTOBER 2019

    My appointment with the specialist team was in the afternoon. I went to work in the morning, and a friend drove me to the hospital and waited with me for the doctor to call my name. When we walked into her office, I sat down and she gave me the official diagnosis. The biopsy had revealed cancer cells. They believed it showed Grade 2 lesions. They were hopeful it would be very early-stage, probably Stage 1, where the majority of endometrial cancers are being diagnosed, but that would only be confirmed after the surgery. In the meantime, I would have to attend MRIs and X-Rays to make sure the cancer had not progressed locally or spread to the rest of my body.

    I was officially a cancer patient.

I will write a different post about the phase between the original diagnosis and the confirmed staging in January 2020, three and a half weeks after surgery. This timeline shows the time it took for me to first get diagnosed, after going through a number of tests and appointments where I was diagnosed with various conditions (which I did have, to be fair), and reassured it would not be cancer. Had it crossed my mind it could be? Of course it had. But I trusted the professional opinions of various health professionals with a lot of experience. Sometimes though, things do not go the way anyone expects them to.