This series highlights experiences from my time as a patient and cancer thriver with the intention of creating a complete archive of stories.
Grappling with the fact that I no longer possess female reproductive organs is something that simultaneously haunts me and remains utterly surreal.
The debulking surgery I had this past February included a full hysterectomy, which plunged me into an early menopause. The only remaining organs in my abdomen are now the most vital ones. I often forget just how drastically my body has been forever altered, but the subtle reminders are all around. There is a box of tampons that sit idly in a drawer in my bathroom, which I will never again find necessary. I no longer have use for my period tracking app, which holds over 5 years of data. I can’t quite bring myself to delete it from my phone just yet. And there’s not even a 1% chance that I will ever find myself pregnant. It is all a lot more than I bargained for.
More reminders include the daily (sometimes hourly) onslaught of hot flashes, changes in sexual function, restless bouts of insomnia, night sweats, mood swings, and more. Hot flashes lead the charge, and I’m far too bitter to find any mid-life-menopause related jokes on the subject the least bit amusing. “I’m still hot, only now it comes in flashes!” GTFO, please. The flashes bloom within me day and night, seemingly caused and cured by nothing at all. They begin as tiny balls of fire, igniting within my core, which grow and spread throughout my limbs and eventually to my face, which visibly reddens. If I’m wearing any clothing that’s tightly hugging my skin it becomes immediately uncomfortable and I have to shed a layer or two. Any hair that’s touching my neck needs tying up atop my head when I’m flashing. They disrupt my sleep and general flow of life, constantly reminding me that life is different now.
The average age of menopause is 50, which means I’ve lost 20 years of having a “normally” functioning woman’s body. I must acknowledge that this sacrifice most likely means I’ve added years to my life, of which I’m very grateful, but I must also be honest and say that I’m pretty pissed about it too. My anger is further fueled by the utter lack of ability to determine just how long this phase of life will last, and exactly how it will continue to affect me. If I’m to live a normal lifespan, that means decades upon decades of life within a body that I feel has betrayed me quite extensively. Cancer has required me to give up so much, but I never imagined that my womanhood would be part of the collateral damage. I often think I would handle menopause better if I still had my organs. Knowing there’s nothing distinctly feminine left within me is an added source of sadness and sense of loss. (Note: I do not, nor am I able to, take any hormones or medications to alleviate my symptoms due to possible complications related to my disease.)
Treatment-induced menopause has made me feel incredibly isolated from other women my age. I watch fellow 30-something’s announcing pregnancies, raising their beautiful children, and moving through life full of fertility and youthfulness. It feels like a ridiculous joke to be stuck with a body that is aging on the inside, as my outward appearance matches everyone else’s (for the most part). Too much caffeine, sugar or alcohol seems to fuel the fires of my various symptoms, so I try to keep those to a minimum. While a new way of eating seems to help in the management of symptoms, it’s additionally isolating to feel like I have to alter so much of my life. I just want my body to be normal, the way it was before cancer, but I know that’s not possible. The permanence of everything is just so, permanent. My voice within conversations amongst women my age is now unique and removed. But I can’t avoid conversations and reality for the next two decades, as I wait for everyone to catch up with my stage of life. I have to figure out where I fit in, absent of menstrual cycles, childbearing abilities, and youthful, sexual vitality.
As a woman, menopause is an inevitable part of life. I know that I would have to face it sooner or later, but unfortunately that doesn’t help much with my pursuit of peace regarding the whole situation. I am nowhere near being okay with it all, but I am trying my best. Sometimes I completely break down and try to figure out how to mourn what I’ve lost so I can move on. I usually wind up empty of tears and unsure of how to proceed. And regarding the children I will never be able to have – how can I mourn something that never even existed? I am haunted by the ghost of who I used to be and the ghosts of what will never, ever be. It is unfair, devastating, and there’s no guide or manual on how to deal with it.
Despite the struggles I go through regarding my hysterectomy and menopause, they do not rule my life. I won’t allow it. There is much life to be lived, and much to be happy about. As more time passes, I find the moments of despair becoming fewer and farther apart. Because of what I’ve sacrificed, I am able to be healthy yet again. And I have been granted the freedom to pursue my goals and dreams. That focus tends to outshine the negative, although I cannot ignore the bad parts. They are, and will always be, there. What I hope, however, is to achieve some sort of equilibrium and peace amongst what I’ve sacrificed and the opportunities I have been given in spite of it. It is all part of the mess that cancer patients are left to reassemble. If only treatment was as simple as going to a mechanic, getting tuned up, and being set free on the road again, good as new. All parts of me have been scrambled and reassembled, from my body to my mind. I endure a daily pursuit of figuring out the new me, and laying to rest the girl I used to know and see in the mirror. Although I am technically less of a female today (strictly anatomically speaking), I am optimistic that I am on my way to becoming the best woman I have ever been, hot flashes and all.