Friday, January 9, 2015

Remember That Time I Thought I Had Cervical Cancer?

Remember that time I thought I had cervical cancer?

You probably don't because it was Tuesday. Like four days ago. But I haven't written about it, so of course you don't know about that time I thought I had cervical cancer. Let me bring you up to speed: On Tuesday, I thought I had cervical cancer.

Last week, I had gone to the gynecologist for my annual "lady check-up." She said she'd send me a text message with the results. That text is what triggered my small, fear storm on Tuesday night:

"Heather, atypical squamous cells, come back to see me."

I did what any intelligent human being in the twenty-first century does when they need answers:
I Googled it.

Now before you go lecturing me on the dangers of Googling your symptoms, let me tell you this: I live in Korea; a country that is medically advanced and chock-full of intelligent doctors and practicioners who speak Korean. And I speak English. This is not Korea's problem. This is my problem. No one is under any obligation to learn my language while I am in their country. So going to the doctor is always a little uncomfortable. Not because I don't trust the doctors, but because, more often than not, I can't communicate with them. And that's hard. So I'll often receive some kind of diagnosis and do my own research online.

The first hit on my Google journey was:
"Atypical Squamous Cells: Early Signs of Cervical Cancer."

I wanted to shrink. To pretend it wasn't happening. That I wasn't reading what I was reading. So, I kept digging. And no, atypical cells do not guarantee cancer, they are just red flags to a long list of other possible problems. And, oh yeah, cancer, too.

I had one of those moments sitting in front of the computer's late-night glow where my life flashed before my eyes. Not like an abrupt, car accident flash, but more of a slow and deliberate unfolding. A list of things I still wanted to do. A few regrets of "but I'm so young." And thinking of people I love. And how if myself--or anyone I knew--ever had cancer, how that would change...everything.

A few, little words in a text message had a tremendously intense effect on my head and my heart. It kind of shocked me how quickly I began jumping to conclusions and fearing the worst.

My sensible sister encouraged me to focus less on what I feared and more on what I knew to be true. When I thought about what I really knew, it was a short list. So I went back to the gynecologist the next day and did my best to take deep breaths, stay calm, and chant, "I can be brave" with each earnest pedal on my bike ride.

When I arrived, the doctor said, "Atypical cells."

"Yes," I said. "What does it mean? Is it bad? I'm nervous."

"No nervous."

"No, like I'm feeling scared."

"No scared," she said with the same matter-of-factness.

I listened as she described, as best as she could, the different outcomes. She didn't list cancer. So I asked, "Could it be cancer?"

"Yes, but don't worry. More tests." She smiled.

The nurse who I've only heard speak a nervous and hurried, "okay, okay, okay" lead me to the exam room. Through some awkward gestures and nudges, she got me in the right position on the table and in the stirrups.

The doctor came in. She looked around my insides, took a swab for the HPV test and then said, "Heather. Cut. Cervix. Blood. Okay?"

How does one respond to such a question? I just lifted my head off the table and looked down at her. "What?"

"Biopsy. Test. Seven cuts."

I put my head back down, put both hands on my face, took some deep breaths, and just waited for it to be over.

At this point, the normally wordless nurse surprised me and said, "Cry?"

I don't know if it was a question or an invitation, but I took it. Just a tear escaped my eye as I felt the weight of the scalpel pushing inside of me. I thought about the blood and this triggered the all-too-familiar dizziness starting to play tricks on my head.

I figured they might want to know, so I peeked out through my fingers and said, "I'm getting dizzy."

She stopped what she was doing, stood up to stand beside me, and put her hand on mine. Soothingly, she said, "Breathe." I did so in an exaggerated-please-don't-pass-out, please-don't-pass-out kind of way, and so she added: "Slowly."

Once I had gotten my breath and no longer felt dizzy, I opened my eyes to see her still standing there at my side. "I think you need to cry loudly." And so I did.

I cried because if "atypical squamous cells" are just abnormal cells they need a far friendlier name.
I cried because getting a positive Pap smear result is scary.
I cried because I didn't know I was being stripped down and probed that day.
I cried because seven parts of my cervix were being cut off.
I cried because it's hard to communicate your needs in another language.
I cried because never had home felt so far away.
I cried because I wanted a hand to hold.

And then, I realized, I had one. This stranger, who didn't know me from the other fifty patients she might see that day, was holding my hand to reassure me in her own way. And it mattered.

On my way out, the nurse doubled her speaking vocabulary, yet again, by saying, "Me too."

Simple words.
Small gestures.

I spent Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday feeling better. More calm. More at peace. I vowed not to Google search anything until I had more information. And I went back this afternoon to get my test results.

"Good news!" she said as I walked in. "Only inflammation cervix. No HPV. Finish."

"Whew!" I said, as I wiped my forehead in that physical gesture we use to communicate relief.

She looked at me a bit sideways, but handed me a tissue for good measure.

Now, I've just gotta take these meds (the Korean pharmacy-style always makes me feel like I just scored a lot of tickets at the arcade!) and supposedly my cervical issues should be cleared up relatively soon.

My wise sister told me this week that
"worry is basically praying for the thing you don't want to happen."

There's truth there. There will always be medical tests. There will always be symptomatic Google searches. There will always be times when we are confronted with fear we don't know how to carry. And yet, we can only focus on what we know to be true.

My body is working for me. Not against me.
Sometimes cells do funky things.
It's going to be all right.

MORAL OF THE STORY: Ladies, get annual Pap smear tests and pelvic exams. Cervical cancer often takes years to develop, so if you're checking every 1-2 years, your chances of avoiding it are high. Plus, I've been learning more about the HPV vaccine and am confused as to why I haven't learned about this sooner. Look into it.