I didn't find this out by someone specifically telling me. The doctor told me when he was taking the biopsy, "if, God forbid, this is cancer, I'm going to call you in and refer you to an oncologist. If it's not, we'll call you." I had called for my results on Thursday, and the receptionist told me "I would never tell you that you had cancer over the phone." I called again on Friday, and the same woman told me that the doctor needed to see me, and that he would be referring me to another doctor. I was able to connect the dots from those conversations.
We have an appointment on Monday, and in the meantime I'm taking the advice of my grandma and my friend Klara, both of whom advised me to have as much fun as possible before treatment. Amir asked me what I wanted to do when we woke up, and since we had been meaning to go to Point Reyes for a few weeks, this seemed like a good time to do it. The drive is beautiful, the weather is gorgeous and surprisingly warm for mid-September, and I feel like the whole scene is bittersweet.
I have been going back and forth about whether it's appropriate to share this information. On Monday, Lena Dunham said on Fresh Air that she thinks the terms "over-sharing" and "TMI" are very gendered. I have to agree, if America can wear bright yellow LIVESTRONG bracelets in honor of Lance Armstrong's testicles, then friends and family can deal with the fact that I have a cervix, and a virus that 80% of the adult population has. That can't be much of a surprise to anyone. For modesty reasons, it would be lovely to have liver cancer instead, but no one offered me a choice.
When I'm crying in the car, it's mostly quiet tears running quickly down my face, occasionally interrupted by loud, singular sobs. The things that are making me cry are 1. my aunt died of cervical cancer, and I don't want to die, and 2. I'm worried what people will think.
When I google "cervical cancer," the risk factors are early sexual activity, multiple sexual partners, smoking, oral contraceptives, and not eating healthily. While no one who knows me would accuse me of an unhealthy diet, they might wonder about my habits in these other categories. I did smoke the errant cigarette early in college, had a few boyfriends, and took birth control for ten years. For what it's worth, I also did a lot of things right: I only smoked socially for about 3 years (less than a pack a month) before giving it up, I eat organic almost exclusively, I said 'no' much more often than 'yes' to sex, my number of sexual partners is below the national average, and I got the HPV vaccine. But I'm not in that lucky 20% who never caught HPV.
I'm looking out of the car window down onto these valleys that are crowded with trees and houses, and I'm thinking about what people would say about me. This would be a great story for an Evangelical Sunday school class. A woman and a man got married, they wanted to have a baby, but their sin caught up to them. Now the woman can't have a child, instead of a baby she has a tumor inside of her, and she's going to go through some excruciating vaginal pain to make up for the fun that she and her husband had before marriage. Which she deserves.
It's weird to explain this idea, I only told two people. The first person got it completely, and the second one didn't at all. 'But God isn't like that! God is loving.' I'm not saying that I think God is like that. I'm saying that some people think He is, and now my life fits into their narrative perfectly, which terrifies me. I don't want to become a story I don't believe in. But technically, they're right. If my husband and I hadn't independently had premarital sex, this wouldn't have happened. So this writing is my attempt to get my narrative back.
The question other than 'why did I get HPV?' is 'why did it turn into cancer?' For most men and women, it never does. I do nearly everything possible to stay healthy. I got into the habit when I thought I might have a hereditary illness, and when a DNA test came back negative for the disease, I joked with the staff that "now I can start worrying about cancer!" I did start worrying about cancer, because I've seen two people that I loved die from it, and because it runs in my family. I buy organics for all of our groceries except almonds, because the price differential is too steep. I cook regularly, without any meat or dairy, and with very limited oil, sugar, and salt. I exercise 5-6 times a week, and I'm very conscientious about stress management and sleep. Why did my immune system fail me? Other than genetics, I don't have an answer.
I wasn't due for a pap smear until 2015, but I had gone in a year early because Amir and I had wanted to start trying for a baby. When I heard the news on NPR that the APA or whoever had changed the guidelines for getting a pap from annual to every three years, I think I literally celebrated a little bit in my car. I hate and fear going to the gynecologist in the way that many people feel about dentists. I knew that part of responsibly having a baby was to get a pelvic exam, and I was very motivated to book the appointment by the idea that I was doing the right thing for our future baby.
Amir and I have been wanting to have kids, but we waited first for the wedding, and then for his spinal injury to improve. It had been a long wait for both of us, and as soon as he found a job that could accommodate his disability we immediately started planning for a child.
I had gained a little weight this summer, so I went on a cleanse to get out of my bad habits. I quit eating sugar, drinking alcohol and caffeine, and taking antidepressants. I started taking prenatal vitamins to make sure that enough folic acid was built up in my system. I went to the library and took half a notebook's worth of notes on all of the prenatal care books that they had on the shelf. Doing all of these things wasn't a hassle, it was one of the most exciting times of my life. I felt like I was doing what I was meant to do. I even started putting my hand on my stomach at times as if a baby was already in there. I was a little nuts about it all, but not in a hysterical way, it was more like that kind of over-happiness that really religious people or yoga instructors tend to give off.
When I got a call that my pap was abnormal, I was relatively unconcerned. I thought it was a fluke that would have to be straightened out, and I hoped it wouldn't push back the time that we could start trying to conceive. I went in for a follow-up visit completely unprepared for my doctor's presentation on the difference between cervical cancer and pre-cancerous cells, and the biopsy that I had to get. Between the colposcopy/biopsy and that Friday when I heard the news, I had been thinking mostly about what a relief it would be to find out that I didn't have cancer. At the same time, though, the stress of not telling anyone what was happening was leading to some strange behaviors, like leaving my keys in the ignition of the car with my door unlocked before going to the library for an hour, completely unaware.
At every step of this, I have been unprepared for the worst. People often give out the advice 'think positive', which I have been doing, but the downside to thinking positive is that when the negative happens you don't know what to say to your doctor, or what the smart questions to ask might be. Literally the only thing I could think of to say during the biopsy visit was 'but I got the HPV vaccine!' Helpful. And I kept staring at a bulletin board of healthy baby pictures that this doctor had delivered while trying not to focus on the fact that the instruments being used on me looked like something from Game of Thrones.
After a long drive, we arrived at Point Reyes, and went on a short hike. Because of Amir's nerve problem, people in their seventies were breezing past us. The trail led through a grove to a beach, where we sat and talked for a little while. I felt so lucky to live in such a beautiful place, with such a loving and attentive husband. We walked back to the car, holding hands. We ate fish and I drank sangria at a little hotel's restaurant before driving back as the day grew dark. I didn't want to go home to my internet connection. I didn't want to exchange baby websites for cervical cancer forums.
On that following Monday, I got the official news that the cancer is a mix of adenocarcinoma and carcinoma. I posted on Facebook, and I was really touched by the outpouring of support that I received. Friends, family, co-workers, my fellow students, and synagogue members have been really great, and all of them (all of you! whoever reads this blog, maybe just Ven? Hi, Ven!) have made me feel much stronger.
Writing helps me process my thoughts, and it has the additional benefit of allowing me to communicate to whoever may want to hear it, so I'll be blogging about this experience, wherever it may lead me. I think this will give me some peace of mind, and hopefully it won't get too boring for anyone who chooses to read it!
We made it! The Point Reyes Beach.