A Missed Call From Cervical Cancer
I remember glancing at the pre-op paperwork as I shuffled away from the registration desk. With my purse on one shoulder, hugging my marathon jacket to my chest, I read it more than once.
Diagnosis: CARCINOMA IN SITU.
I hadn’t heard anyone call my condition “carcinoma” before, and I knew what the word “carcinoma” meant. It means early stage cancer, or — as it is sometimes referred to, “stage 0 cancer.”
Let me be clear: My condition was and is NOT cancer, but it was about to become cancer. I want to be certain that everyone knows I didn’t have cancer, do not define myself as a cancer survivor, and will not undergo any type of invasive and miserable treatment to get rid of any type of cancer. Stage 0 is the stage just before it’s stage 1 cancer. I was close. I was towing the line. I missed the call from cervical cancer.
And as a result of carcinoma in situ, I had part of my cervix burned off to make sure these severely pre-cancerous abnormalities didn’t spread (and if they did, the result would be a total hysterectomy, which I do not want ate age 32 when we are still considering another child).
I gotta tell ya — seeing “carcinoma” anywhere near your name will weigh on your mind and make you think very hard.
This is my story.It was 2012. I was newly married. Up until this point, any exam or test from my lady-doctor came back normal. I went in yearly, had the exam, and came back the next year. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Except in August of 2012. I was in Dollar General buying Mr. Bubble for my stepson because I was a real stepmom now and wanted to do all the mommy things I said I would never want to do, like buying bubble bath and those annoying vacuum-sealed towels that fall into a corner and collected dust.
When I saw my doctor was calling me, I didn’t think much of it. I didn’t know abnormal cells were even a thing. Never heard of it; knew nothing about it.
They told me they found some “mildly abnormal cells” on my cervix and didn’t know the cause, but that I’d have to come in for a biopsy.
A biopsy. It all sounded so serious and crazy. I showed up to that appointment and insisted my husband come into the procedure room with me. They were all a bunch of damn there liars for saying it wouldn’t hurt, by the way.
It. Hurt. Bad.
Ah, oh well. It’s over. One time isn’t anything, and it’s done.
Except one biopsy turned into five more due to low grade, moderate, and high grade abnormal cell changes. I yoyo’d between CIN1 and CIN2. The abnormalities always seemed to go *almost* completely back to normal, but not entirely.
In 2019, shit got real. My doctor called me to tell me that my last biopsy came back as severe pre-cancer (CIN3). She told me that at this point, since this had been happening since 2012, the odds of the cells becoming normal were worse than the odds that the cells would turn into full-blown cervical cancer.
She suggested a LEEP, and because cervical cancer is slow to develop, she told me I could finish training and completing my first marathon before I had the LEEP surgery. Note: It’s slow developing, yes — but keep in mind I had these abnormalities since 2012. Cervical cancer can develop after 10 years of progressively worsening abnormal cells. I was in year seven. I knew it was time to get this taken care of.
I must have sounded like a raging, crazy person on the phone that day.
“It’s light anesthesia,” my doctor said, noting that there was no breathing tube.
“I have to be awake. I have to know what’s happening. I really can’t be asleep,” I said.
Control freak Courtney ruins the day! See, a LEEP is often done in an office, not in a hospital, and not under anesthetics. A brief synopsis of the procedure is as follows: An electric, loop-shaped tool is used to burn/cut cells from the cervix. Doctors seem to like this tool because it cauterizes as the surgery is done. In an office setting, doctors numb the cervix with local anesthetic, go to work, and then you leave. The entire procedure takes about fifteen minutes or so. Being awake didn’t seem to bad, eh?
Except when people said they could smell their own skin burning off and see the smoke from said burning skin.
I weighed my options for days. I put up a fight with my doctor and insisted I would not have the procedure in the hospital. I wasn’t making an informed decision; I was cowering behind my long-time obsession with having to monitor everything and control what was happening.
I took a deep breath and made my pre-op appointment with my doctor’s colleague, and I planned to have the procedure in the hospital after all. “This is stupid,” I said to myself as I brushed my teeth and stroked toothpaste out of my long, sleep-roused hair. “There’s no fucking reason to be awake and learn what my own skin smells like as it’s burned off.” I plopped my toothbrush back in the moldy holder as though I slammed a gavel. I was obviously serious about this now.
I suddenly felt empowered. For the first time since 2012, I felt empowered about my female and reproductive health. I made a decision, and I knew it was the right one. I was tired. Whatever was happening to me apparently didn’t have any side-effects that would cause fatigue, so we can just say I was stressed about the cells since 2012…but whatever the reason, I was fucking tired.
Tired of walking around wondering what would happen during my next exam and tests.
Tired of waiting to hear if I would have to have yet another miserable biopsy in the office.
Tired of thinking every damn day about if the cells turned into cancer.
Tired of putting up a fight against a battle I finally realized I wouldn’t win if I kept being stubborn: The battle against future cancer, because that is the path I was on.
It was then that I began to feel disconnected from so many people. I wish I was able to explain this, but it’s tough. I’ll try.
When I made the decision to get this surgery, I felt like I made the decision to save my own life. I just saved myself from drowning. From the burning building. I made an informed decision before it was too late.
And for some reason, although I felt so powerful and validated, I felt so helpless. The decision was dependent upon me; the removal of increasingly abnormal cells was at the hands of a woman I met one time during a pre-op appointment. I felt like some rendition of Jekyll and Hyde: I was in control, yet…I was not in control at all.
I closed my eyes often in the days leading up to my surgery. I imagined watching myself as people rescued me from freezing waters. I was suffering, shivering, and victim to hypothermia. They wrapped me in warm blankets. Someone stroked my head, and someone held my hand. A different person looked in my eyes and I could feel that I was their focus. There was a handful of people who stopped to look at me, to help me, to rescue me, to keep me alive.
And coincidently, none of them were any of my 9500 Instagram followers or 2000+ Facebook friends.
I saw bits of memories to be made in the years to come:
Two years from now, I am standing in my bathroom in my husband’s tattered, navy blue NPR shirt. The bathroom window is cracked; the smell of fresh, humid air tickles the shower curtain. Small wafts of cheap, dollar-store body wash ride on the air that thickens the tiny bathroom. My husband walks in and stands behind me with one hand on each of my shoulders. We have our whole lives ahead of us, and we are enjoying deciding what to do next in our lives. All the choices are ours. There are so many paths to take in your thirties, and we are having trouble choosing just one.
Those. More of those! I wanted more of those moments. And I knew I made the right decision to get the surgery done because it was the key to experiencing them.
The rest of the days leading up to my surgery weren’t filled with worry or regret. In fact, I didn’t think much about it at all. The day before my appointment, I enjoyed a nice dinner and slept for 8 hours that night.
When the day came, I walked into the hospital to find out that my surgeon was running AHEAD of schedule. They hurried to get my bloodwork and vitals. I cried because it was so noisy. I guess I pictured hospital pre-op as a place where there were people thinking, not talking so much and so loudly. I was shocked at the noise level, and honestly, somewhat offended. It’s tough to forget that while surgery is such a big deal to us, this is just another day at work for medical professionals. They’re going to talk at work like the rest of us talk at work.
They pushed me down to the OR in my sexy surgery cap and hospital gown. My IV tree trailed behind me. The last thing I remember is the anesthetist saying she was going to give me some Versed.
In what felt like five seconds later, I woke up in recovery doing epic Michael Jackson impressions and insisting someone bring me one glove + iced coffee. I ate a cookie, and I apparently insisted that a cracker was actually the Eiffel Tower.
I left thirty minutes after I woke up.
It was…a weird feeling. My life was kind of changed now, and I remembered none of it. I didn’t process the changes as they happened.
The results came back that the cells were, indeed, severely abnormal — but that the margins were clear (this means the abnormalities did not spread) and everything they sampled on the inside was negative for abnormalities.
I did it. They caught it. They removed it. It was done.
And after seven straight days of bleeding, I physically recovered. But mentally and emotionally? I didn’t feel like the same person.
I wanted to close my open-book life. Not like I wanted to END my life, but I suddenly felt ruffled and anxious about everyone seeing everything I do and say. I wanted to travel to that future moment standing in the bathroom with my husband, and I wanted that to be our moment — not something I dictated or transcribed on social media.
I wanted to run just to run and not tell anyone about it.
I wanted to look at my children and not feel obligated to take photos of them and show everyone I know.
I guess…hmmm. I guess I just became more engulfed in actually experiencing moments, and experiencing and feeling was not something I was doing nearly enough.
Bare with me – I know that I am only 32. But at any age, it’s really easy to see death in the distance no matter how far off it is. There were so many days when I told myself that the time was “just passing.” That before I knew it, I would be 40, and then 50, and then well after 50 it’s 60, and those can be some good years, but then there’s 70s where toward the end of the decade, a respiratory infection becomes more concerning…and the good years are done.
Man, what a waste of thoughts. What a lack of enjoyment of life.
Since this surgery — and since I have decided to dedicate more time to real life — sure, the time is passing. But when you enjoy your life and the people in it, and when you enjoy the moments, the time passes more at the speed of when you first turn a nearly-empty honey bottle upside down. It goes slower when you’re not measuring decades and years and putting yourself in a grave somewhere in the far distance. I don’t agree that “time flies when you’re having fun,” but I do agree that time stands a bit more still when you’re intentional in every moment.
My doctors couldn’t have predicted that a simple procedure would help me take parts of my life back. It must be fascinating to be a doctor and, you know, give people a chance to feel like their lives are starting fresh in whatever small or large respect.
Those moments – the ones where peace and contenment fall around us like glitter in slow motion – those don’t have to be few and far between. They’re everywhere. In the room that’s been a mess for a week and in the flooded basement and in the midst of screaming kids. In the renewed joy of life. In the missed calls from more severe health problems and grief. Those moments are there, and they’ve been there all along – and I am happy to say I’ve regained the ability to see them.