The Impetus of Fear

One of the most destructive emotions in my life is regret. Thankfully, I don’t have many decisions in my life that I would change if I had the chance. But there is one big medical one that I question daily: my decision to have my ovaries removed 18 months ago to put me into menopause and remove/significantly decrease some major hormones from being produced in my body.

In consultation with my oncologist, after chemotherapy was over I decided to take ovarian suppression injections. My period had come back within a few months of chemo ending even though I was in my late 30s. I was not going to have any more children. The tamoxifen I was taking had already started giving me ovarian cysts and I needed numerous ultrasounds to monitor them. Ovarian cancer was always in the back of my mind.

After one year of the injections (in which a thick needle is plunged under the skin of your belly and a small pellet of medication is placed which dissolves slowly over the course of one month) I decided I wasn’t going back; I couldn’t tolerate the questions every month with a menstrual cycle and hormone fluctuations. With my kind of breast cancer (estrogen and progesterone receptor positive), any remaning cancer cells in my body would be “fueled” by these hormones. I wanted to minimize them, and hopefully reduce my chance of cancer recurrence.

And so, after the year of injections I consulted with some surgeons. They felt that the ovary removal (oophorectomy) would be no harder on my body than the injections I’d already been taking. I had laparoscopic surgery in December of 2008 and felt good about the aggressive stance I was taking.

Then my world caved in. Within weeks of the surgery I was depressed. My hormones were bottoming out. Not just the estrogen and progesterone, but other ones the ovaries produce. I was plunged into menopause and all of its agony overnight. My hormone levels went not to the point of a menopausal woman (there are still some hormones present) but as my oncologist told me “of a prepubescent girl.”

I was depressed. I cried constantly. I was still getting over the surgery itself (not exactly the “walk in the park” that had been described to me) and had to miss the family Christmas vacation that year. Clarke and the 2 older kids went to Wyoming while I stayed with Tristan and tried to heal and regroup.

The joint pains started, the bone loss continued, the depression loomed. I had to watch my cholesterol numbers and must take osteoporosis medication after breaking ribs in a fall. I have sexual side effects that can’t be remedied with estrogen creams or pills. In the future I worry about the increased risks of dementia, heart disease and lung cancer without the protective benefits of estrogen.

But worse than any of them, the migraines began. I’d never had them before, but the overnight hormone drop brought them on fast and furious. Up to 15 a month.

It really is “always something.” Each decision is not isolated; everything I do to my body has ramifications and risks. I don’t know if I would have made the same decision if I knew what pain I was bringing on myself. All I know is that fear is a motivator. At the time all I could think about was the cancer. I felt that anything I could do to decrease the chance of my cancer recurring was worth it.

Some days I’m not so sure about that. I believe the doctors I consulted vastly underestimated the effect that this surgery can have. Perhaps as more women electively remove their ovaries if they test positive for the BRCA-1 and 2 genes we will learn more about the effect it has on our bodies (I have tested negative for both of those genes but it is a main reason women opt to have oophorectomies).

There’s no way to know if I made the right decision.

If my cancer stays in remission I will feel better about my decision. But as side effects mount and long-term health issues occur throughout my life because of this surgery and its repercussions, I can’t help but question if my fear may have pushed me too far.

These things are not tied with a pink ribbon (Breast Cancer Awareness Month)

I wish I had the energy of my youth.
I wish I had the body.
I wish I had the fearlessness, the spunk, the drive.

I wish I could have a conversation with that young girl,
bright-eyed and full of wonder.
I wish I could tell her what lay ahead.

I wish I could tell her to gather strength, and wisdom, and patience like a squirrel gathering acorns for the winter.
“Save those things up,” I’d say, “you are going to need them… every last bit.”
I wish I could share the perspective I’ve gained along with all of the love.

But I can’t go back to that time,
I can’t go back to that place.
I can’t rewrite what’s happened,
I can’t do it all again.

I guess I must have done something right along the way for when it came time to fight I did,
and I did it well.
But that struggle took its toll on me and I am quite sure I will never, ever be the same.

You tell yourself “they’re only breasts.”
You say, “I don’t need ovaries, I’m done having children.”
But that obscures the truth.
The truth is that it does matter,
they do matter.
They say my uterus is atrophied.
It almost sounds funny when you say it.

“Who cares? What does that matter?”
It does. It does. It does.
To get rid of all hormones gives me a better chance at avoiding a recurrence, but there is a price to be paid.
No estrogen matters more than I ever thought it could.

It feels worse than taking injections to suppress my ovaries, worse than taking Tamoxifen. Those were easy. I had no clue what was ahead.

I wear the skirt, I put the makeup on, I walk the walk.
But I do not feel like a woman anymore.
I’m proud of what this body has done for me:
3 beautiful children,
surviving cancer,
healing the broken bones, the infections, the autoimmune diseases.

There is no week without migraines,
no cold winter day without icy implants.

Beneath the pretty lies ugly,
the ugly truth of cancer
and what it has taken from me.

While some may be able to go on,
move on,
forget,
I cannot.
My body will not let me.

These things are not tied with a pink ribbon.

These things last longer than a month.
This is part of awareness.

This is part of what breast cancer can do.
This is what it has done to me.1

  1. October 20, 2010 []