“My surgery is next month. I want my mom there afterwards — and you. If you could come. Can you?”
There’s no easy way to ask your boyfriend of less than a year to visit you in hospital after a hysterectomy. At 31 years old, I had never imagined that the removal of my uterus would become a relationship milestone. Eight months into our relationship, I worried he would not only hesitate to see me in my convalescence, but not see me after that — period.
“I can come.” He responds with some resoluteness, but not in a way that inspires comfort or reassurance. I get the sense that he’s steeling himself. It’s clear he doesn’t know what to expect. Neither do I, for that matter.
It was my second bout of cancer by the age of 30. “Bout” seems too light of a word. Second “ordeal” of cancer feels more accurate.
I survived my first ordeal when I was 18 — an extremely rare cancer which was removed surgically, along with a portion of my liver. The operation is particularly unpleasant when you’re a teenager. Months in bed, a semester off of university and fearing the cancer’s return dominated that year of my life.
The nice thing about livers, though, is that they grow back. I finished undergrad, a master’s degree, and went on to med school. Thirteen years later, I’m a doctor in Toronto working across the street from where I had the surgery. It all worked out, but for a long scar across my abdomen.
The scars from my second surgery will turn out much smaller, but my uterus will never grow back. My doctor had found a precancerous lesion, separate from my previous diagnosis. More appointments, more check-ups, more uncertainty.
How could this be happening to me again? I wondered.
“While I was comfortable with my choice, there was no guarantee that a future partner would be.”
I was lucky to have discovered my liver cancer early, and luckier still to have recovered from it. But it was close — too close — to becoming something much worse. I carried that fear with me all the time, an intimate knowledge of just how fallible one’s body can be, and an acknowledgement that illness doesn’t care about your age or your plans.
When the doctor reviewed my options, I favoured immediate action — the removal of my uterus. It is not an organ that I need to survive, I reasoned. It’s not even an organ that I need to have kids, with surrogacy and adoption both being viable routes to parenthood.
While I’m steadfast in making this decision, looking ahead, I knew life would become more complicated. I hadn’t expected to have to navigate the stigma of infertility in my early 30s, and what that might mean in my late 30s, and my 40s. With every passing year, would this experience become more of a trauma? The door to carrying a child had closed, and while I was comfortable with my choice, there was no guarantee that a future partner would be.
When I first told my boyfriend about the surgery, I found these worries creeping through my mind, even as I chastised myself for hinging my self-worth on a man’s judgment.
Are you just being a nice guy, or are you actually OK with this? I wondered. Am I damaged goods now?
Sure, we had discussed the idea of having kids in a broad sense, but not in-depth. Talking about kids that early in a relationship, even when you’re both over the age of 30, can feel like a dealbreaker. At the time, we would volley non-committal answers back and forth, feeling each other out.
With a surgical date looming, it seemed the choice was made for us. My boyfriend didn’t mention it again, and neither did I.
It was the afternoon after my surgery. I lay in a hospital bed and my mom put my siblings on speakerphone so we could check in. As the anesthesia wore off, clarity set in. I was told the surgery was successful.
As one whole person, minus one uterus, I reassured myself of the facts that hadn’t changed: The incisions will heal. I will continue paying my own bills, seeing my patients and maintaining my social life. I am a strong, resilient woman, financially independent with a job I adore. I am surrounded by loved ones. I love them, too. That is enough.
Even so, I felt a new fear, not unlike my fear of getting sick again. I worried about coping with the repercussions of this surgery, and then asking a partner to cope with me. It was such a huge thing to ask. Unexpected breakups happen for less significant reasons, so I prepared myself to be single again if my boyfriend didn’t walk through the door.
But he did come, straight after work. He talked softly, his mouth in a thin line. He sat quietly with me, avoiding small talk. He listened intently when I told him about the surgery. Moreover, it truly felt like he wanted to be there with me.
In the coming days, he visited me at home. I asked him about the expression he wore when he first walked in and saw me. His answer was touching and schmaltzy, in a good way.
“When I came to your hospital floor, I asked the nurse where I could find you. They thought that I was there to meet my new baby. Then they realized it was you. I could see their shock and the wrongness of the situation hit me. It was upsetting and I felt terrible for you.”
In constantly preparing for the worst, I had failed to see what was in front of me. He wasn’t thinking about his hypothetical biological child who will never be carried by me. He was just thinking about me. My boyfriend had never thought about what he would lose. He had, from day one it turns out, been trying to figure out what he could give by staying.
Six months later, I’m now in the process of freezing my eggs. I doubt that I will ever use them, but it’s an insurance policy if I ever decide to go with surrogacy. My boyfriend is supportive. We’ve now been dating for a year and a half.
My liver grew back. My uterus won’t. Whether this relationship grows or not, I know I can survive either outcome. I’ve done it before, after all.
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