It’s June (1999) and for me that meant my annual Pap smear test. I know, that’s not the topic of discussion you expected…
At 21-years-old a Pap smear is nothing new for me. Having had major issues, hormonally and with regulation, since the onset of menses I’ve had multiple Pap smears since the age of 15.
But this was the first Pap smear that ever came back abnormal. My doctor assured me “Nothing to worry about, cells are continually changing
and we see this all the time. We’ll do another Pap in 3 months. I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
I was completely reassured. You see. My mother had not been very diligent about her yearly exams. Doctor’s were someone you went to only when you had to, after something was wrong. Not for prevention, but for remedy. This backfired on her at the age of 34 when she was diagnosed with uterine cancer and underwent a bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy (total hysterectomy). My reassurance came from the fact that the doctor who saved her life was the same doctor I sat in front of and told me “there’s nothing to worry about.”
September rolls around and I repeat the test. The results: low-grade SIL (squamous intraepithelial lesions)…more easily understood as stage 2 dysplasia. “Still, nothing to worry about. We’ll continue to monitor it. We usually repeat a Pap every 3 months, but let’s see you back in a month for a repeat.”
October Pap: results high-grade SIL. “I usually don’t see an abnormal Pap go from slight dysplasia to high-grade SIL in a 5 month period. This is a bit concerning, but it’s good that we detected this so early and have been monitoring it. Let’s set you up for a colposcopy next month to get a better look at what’s going on.”
Ummm….what? Dysplasia, low-grade, high-grade SIL, colposcopy! What is all this? I just went in for an annual exam, not for months of testing and to major in female reproductive medicine & terminology.
At this point in life, I’ve been married for 3 years. Life is good. We’ve both got jobs we like. We spend a great deal of our time at our camp or taking random and spontaneous weekend trips through the Adirondacks, Vermont, & occasionally to “The City” (NYC), or longer scheduled weekends to “The Cape” (Cape Cod). We are enjoying each other and our family; we had 23 nieces and nephews by 1999 who we loved spending time with (the 2014 total is up to 37, soon to be 38, including the greats).
Other than rent our biggest responsibility is our 2 cats, Sadie & Amber. There’s been some talk of children… but because of my long history of ‘female issues’, and mention by more than one gynecologist and endocrinologist that conceiving doesn’t seem likely with my ‘condition’. We pretended that “it wasn’t time yet”…we won’t mention that no birth control had been used in over 2 years.
So we schedule for November, my birth month. The nurse is very casual and states “It’s noninvasive and requires you just take an OTC pain reliever for any discomfort. He might take a biopsy of the cells should he see anything questionable.” My reply “Really? A biopsy, will this hurt? ” very casually again “It’s usually no different than a Pap using a small brush, but a solution is used to help distinguish your cells so he can see them more clearly. Possibly he might take a section with a punch. You’ll just feel a pinch.” Okay…I can handle a little pinch.
November 14th, 1999 (the birthday of the younger of my two brothers): I’ve been prepped and I’m laying there during the procedure. The doctor states “This looks good.” “Phew, cells are back to normal, as he said might happen.” I thought quietly. “We’re just going to biopsy a few areas” he stated next. “Whoa, what? If things look good why the need for a biopsy?” was my next thought. But obviously his “this looks good” statement was referring to the solution highlighting the cells for him to determine where the abnormal cells were.
Oh, and to the nurse who said “you’ll just feel a pinch.” You’re a liar! I think maybe like in the police force where you have to be tasered before you are issued a taser gun (not that I agree with that, but it perfectly demonstrates my thought) you should have a punch biopsy before telling people “you’ll just feel a pinch.” I have a pretty good pain tolerance and this brought tears to my eyes instantly and aching that lasted more than 24 hours (I believe he did 3 punches).
December: Decorating, shopping, baking, wrapping, parties every weekend with co-workers, family & friends. Such a busy and happy time. But for me, on December 5th (my sister-in-laws birthday) it all seemed like time was standing still. “Mrs. H, the doctor would like for you to come in to discuss your results.” “It’d be much easier to do a phone consult like we’ve done previously” was my response. “Mrs. H we have an opening this afternoon, it’s best to come in.” Noting the seriousness and sensing her urgency “okay, I’ll be there.”
“Good afternoon, staying warm enough?” I’m sure is how the conversation began. But all I remember is the phrase; Squamous cell carcinoma. Squamous cell carcinoma. Squamous cell carcinoma. Squamous cell carcinoma. Squamous cell carcinoma. I was repeating it over and over in my head. As he started going over results that’s the phrase he used. I caught glimpses of the rest of the conversation; “we’re sure it’s contained to the cervix”, “you’re young”, “we’re going to attempt the least invasive treatment”, “LEEP”, “it’s a wire with an electrical current”, “cervical regrowth”, “Hormone surge”, “recovery time”, “pregnancy related issues”.
I was by myself, this was to much. I just started to cry. He was so calm and so comforting. “Everything will be okay. This was monitored from the start. These cells moved quickly, but I’m certain we can remove them using the LEEP procedure. It typically isn’t used at this stage, but we want to preserve whatever chances you have of conceiving children and I believe that with removing 1/2 – 2/3 of your cervix with the LEEP procedure (he’d already explained, that like your liver, the cervix is one of a few organs that had the ability to regenerate itself after partial removal) we’ll remove all of the cancer and the regeneration of new cells with the surge of hormones it’ll bring will increase your chance of conceiving”.
At this point I stopped repeating “squamous cell carcinoma”and heard “congratulations, you’re pregnant!” Okay a bit extreme, but my focus was now different. He gave me something no other doctor had ever given me ~ hope. Most doctor’s I had seen prior to this had resigned to the fact that there were few answers and unfortunately that’s reality for a select few. Except they didn’t realize when you’re one of those select few it wasn’t just a small percentage or a marginal statistic it was everything and that statistic was 100% for you.
So all I had left to do was to schedule my “surgery”. It was an out-patient, in-office procedure. I needed to have someone to pick me up and I’d be out of work for 3 days. I couldn’t do it before the holidays because I had to much else going on. I’d call after the New Year….January came and went. Work was busy, life was busy…I was I ignoring things. February came and I still hadn’t scheduled. Near the end of the month, Feb 24th to be exact (our engagement anniversary), the scheduler at the doctors office called me. “Mrs. H, I know it’s not easy, but it’s best to just get it over with.” “I completely agree. I’m sorry I haven’t called, could we do this on a Friday so I can use the weekend as part of my 3 days and not raise questions at work as to why I’m taking time off (this wasn’t something I was discussing with many people)?” “Sure, the next available Friday is March 17th. I’ll put you on the schedule for 9 am.”
At this point I spoke very little of this with my family and friends. I didn’t want them to worry, I didn’t want attention on me, and it made it so I didn’t have to talk or think about it constantly. Even with my husband the conversation was minimal. I’m not sure if he truly grasped what was going on (that would’ve been my fault), or if he was just scared. Maybe it was both.
03/17/2000 – St. Patrick’s Day: I drove to the doctor’s office myself. A word from the-now-much-wiser: when a doctor’s office tells you that someone needs to drive you home after a procedure, LISTEN! The procedure was completed in about 40 minutes. With the pain medication I took prior and the local injection no pain was felt yet, so I drove myself home (without the doctors knowledge). I was tired and my emotions were all over the place.
I had isolated myself in this situation, something I regret now. I understand why I did it, I just wish I didn’t. I’m so thankful I’ve come so far from that point in life. We are made to be in relationship with people for a reason, something I wasn’t taught growing up. I was taught that you need to be strong, independent, emotionless, and not direct attention towards yourself. Most of those can be great attributes, but not if used to isolate yourself. I’ve learned that I can rely on and accept help from others without it being a negative reflection of myself or seen as a weakness.
Results: “Mrs. H, I ended up removing 1/2 of your cervix, and I’m positive all the cancerous cells were removed. I would prefer you to wait 6 months before trying to conceive. We want to give your cervix time to regenerate and heal. We’ll see you in the office in 2 weeks for follow-up and then every 3 months for monitoring and retesting.”
February 8th 2001: “Honey, we’re going to have a baby!”
I’m not actually Irish… but St. Patrick’s Day certainly is my lucky day ♥