Something called cancer gets in the way

The cancer came somewhere between breakfast cereals and evening snacks. Between work and house dreams. Between love and … life. I was unsuspecting.

A pap smear in 2002 shows an atypia which is “difficult to interpret”. Something in my vaginal parts differs from the usual. The sample is retaken after a week and it comes back as normal. I think, that sounds quite weird. But buy entirely the explanation that it “sometimes happens”. At age 23, of course nothing bad happens to you. 

Three years later, I have a new appointment with a pap smear. Before the routine check, I have troubles with a stubbornly aching abdominal pain. I have also sought help for bleeding and irritation in my lower abdomen that feels strange. Then I get the answer that I have an “easily annoyed cervix”, which also seems reasonable. The midwife who does the test this time raises her eyebrows a little surprised when I now have pain and bleed heavily. ”Come back if you get a fever”.

(After those words, I still find it difficult to take midwives seriously. With a few exceptions)

A week later, I call the gynecologist reception at the hospital. I get hospitalized and get antibiotics intravenously for a severe infection on the cervix. The doctor’s test also shows cell changes. The general surgeon is called in and examines me. He plans for an operation where the cervix is to be laser irradiated. A psychologist comes into my room, sits on the side of the bed with her head tilted and puts her hand on my leg. The family is visiting, worried. I calmly explain what is about to happen and what has been indited to me by the doctors. “Cell changes are not dangerous”. It is even a little exciting to be sedated for the first time.

On the post-op are other girls who have undergone the same procedure. They go home after a couple of hours, I am being rolled up to the ward again. At that time, an invasive cervical tumor has taken root in the body, but doctors cleverly avoid the word cancer. Afterwards, I have understood that the staff very well knew what was expected and that cell changes were just a small pretext for the operation. The term “happily unaware” is shoved down the throat. When the doctor enters my room after the operation and wants to talk about his findings, I am completely unprepared. I’m being paralyzed.

We sit in a cell-like minimal room, me and my partner. I see the lips of the doctor moving, but do not understand what he is saying. Thoughts wanders off. I am bothered by the psychologist’s red lipstick and aunty hairstyle. And I think to myself that it is a strange thought to be having when the doctor tells me that I have cancer.

My case is taken over by the Sahlgrenska University Hospital in Gothenburg, where the doctor does an examination under anesthesia. The general surgeon at the town hospital is confident and assures me that he has probably removed everything when he did the radiating. “This is just a routine procedure”. Once again, I’m being fooled. The second time in a short while I am lying in a post-op. I see the doctor who examined me walking around to the other women and talking reassuringly to them, they are smiling relieved. Me, she walks just past, without wanting to face me. The fear grabs me, instinctively I know what that means. Quiet tears aches within me. I hold my breath for two days.

I’m back in the hospital on a Wednesday. In an as small room as the last one. In sweeps a storm of disaster, disguised to my doctor. As scaled-down and light-hearted as announsing what´s for dinner, she gives me the information I have feared. “As I suspected, the cancer remains, so we will remove it”. Cervix, lymph nodes, tissue and uterus. Everything will be removed. It takes a while to realize what she says. Within me, an abyss opens. I have hold my breath for so long that I no longer can breathe. Out comes a scream and the beginning of a flood of ​​dammed and uncontrolled crying. The doctor is confused, “I thought you were informed”.

I leave the hospital shocked and mentally turned off. In the car home, me and my partner sit quiet. The tears run down my face, I don’t even care to wipe them. In the luggage there is a drying rack for the bathroom, which we had intended to return at Ikea after the conversation with the doctor. How incredible stupid. It is no longer possible to ignore the problem, this is really happening. On Tuesday I will be operated. For five days I cry constantly, there is not more time. The partner says the right things in the moment, but deep down I know this will not last. Not because I am playing martyrs and feel sorry for myself. Because I just know. Our relationship is not built to cope with this disaster. We have just moved to a house, it is now that life with plans for family should take over. Something called cancer gets in the way. My life will not be the same.

April 12, 2005, at 6.10 am, I am outside the hospital gate. I haven’t slept all night. I do not understand how the body is steered into the hospital when the panic and predator within me scream to run away. I have such anxiety that it feels like I’m going to fall apart. I am 10 minutes late and I get a scolding from a stodgy nurse. I feel like I want to kill her.

With thin drapes in between we are lined up. Like cattle on their way to slaughter. One after the other we are rolled away, sometimes there is a slight traffic jam in the hub into the operating rooms. Someone screams in anxiety – “I don’t want this!”. It could have been me. If it wasn’t because I’m afraid of losing it. Even in the worst time of my life, I am too well behaved to be troublesome.

The surgery goes well. The test results are positive. As quick as I was with cancer, as quick it is removed from me. I never even felt sick. Left is a scar on the stomach, which reminds me the days I wake up and supposedly believe that everything is like it was before. That everything was just a nightmare. And that I could still be a mother. Left is also an indescribable anger that the universe and one of Sweden’s foremost hospitals deprived me of the most sacred. Afterwards, they leave the anxiety of not understanding why I, by a gathering of older women, is the only 25-year-old at the ward. A nurse wants to talk about how I look inside after the surgery, wants to give me the tools to process. But I’m not there. I do not know how to explain that the doctors dug a larger hole within me than the size of a uterus. Surely I will regret that I do not listen, but I just want to go home. Establishe a strategy to cope with the days in the hospital, one minute at a time. I bury the psychological pain in a safe place deep within me where no one can access it. Cancer is gone. Outwards, everything is just fine.

Two months after I first received the diagnosis, I am back at work. Everyone seem relieved that I take everything so well. I talk about everything that has happened and I feel invincible. Feed of the attention I get. I tell myself that I am indeed strong and that I got away lightly. “There are always those who have it worse”. The partner moves out and I bury myself in work. What defined me up to the cancer has been an insatiable energy and demands of performance. I’m not going to stop now. Fight bravely not to change. It works for a while. As people move on from what has happened to me and the everyday is back to normale, the emptiness within me grows larger. At lunch breaks, I pull away from the others. Can’t bear to listen to their talk about families anymore. Can’t bear to keep up the facade for their staring eyes. I’m not the same anymore. My rescue becomes a fatigue depression, one year after the surgery, which is piercing everything. Only then, I let go of the control over my feelings.

No one told me what the little plastic cups were for

The transplant reception on floor 6 feels at first sight as a slightly scary place. Here we shall, after we have been released, turn up for regular check ups. Initially, it is twice a week, but over time the visits becomes more sparse. We meet them in the corridor and in the check-in. We see them sitting in the waiting room with their notes. The others who have got an implanted organ. Now we are one of them. The transplanted. Kidney transplanted, liver transplanted and uterine transplanted in a peculiar mixture. It’s all peculiar.

The first time I am there, one of them starts talking to me. “Liver or kidney?”, he asks. Half panicky, I respond “well, I am a uterine transplanted”. It’s the first time I say it out loud. And with the scary propaganda I have been provided with, I expect him to call the press directly and tell them that here is the girl who is first in Sweden to have received a uterine transplant. He does not. He rather feels embarrassed by the answer and hurries to finish the conversation. Or is it me? In any case, I note to myself to avoid the sofas in the waiting room from now on.

A friendly nurse, who immediately becomes my favourite in the herd of nurses, gives me a tour. The room with four small stalls with each patient chair, in which the nurse sticks a needle into the arm and supplies herself with blood to a certain number of tubes. The kitchen where you as a patient can arrange any food after leaving the blood sample. (To most of the blood samples that the doctors check the health status with, it is necessary to be fasting. You must also wait to take the daily immunosuppressive tablets.) The small “box” slightly opposite the sampling room which can best be described as one of those popular smoking rooms back the old days (in it you sit to inhale a medicine that prevents a certain kind of pneumonia). And the toilets. One frequently used toilet (by the looks of it) directly to the waiting room, one a little further down the corridor and one inside a patient’s room that can be used unless the room is occupied. It is a good idea to be in need of peeing when you arrive to the reception since it every time, one or two tubes also must be filled with urine. And when you are in the toilet, you can take the opportunity to drink a mouth or two from the small white plastic cups that are stacked in a container on the wall. Practical!

Then the round tour is over. Nothing more to see. Not so scary really.

After a while it becomes a routine. Take the elevator up to the sixth floor, push out a number patch and sit on one of the chairs outside the sampling room (instead of in the waiting room). Smile a little when the nurse takes the blood samples, bring the tube to the urine sample into the toilet, do your thing and then leave the tube in the refrigerator. Then go down to fourth floor and end up with the others.

In the beginning we are the unbeatable four. Me and S operated on September 15 and 16, 2012. And another two women operated one month later. We become a group. A band. (A little further on, five more women are operated. They form other groups.) We sit in the dayroom of the ward where we once were cared for – eating our breakfast sandwich from Seven Eleven, taking our medicine and sharing our life stories – while we wait for Dr. Liza to examine us. After a while S disappears. She gets an infection that cannot be cured and the uterus is taken out. Our unbeatable quartet becomes a trio. The three Musketeers.

The moments in the dayroom are, when I look back, some of the best moments of the year after the operation. The sisterhood. How we tense get through month by month, before we get an embryo inserted into our transplanted uterus. There is so much to talk about. We and our partners, who are almost always there with us. Where we come from, what journeys we made and what awaits us in the future. The grief, the disappointments and now the expectations. There is so much to laugh about. We laugh at entanglements and embarrassments. Gynecology examinations and sperm samples delivered in a patient shower. They laugh at me when I complain about the small tubes we have to fill with urine. ”Like, how do you as a woman do to hit the hole?!”.

“That’s what the white plastic cups are for”.

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