6 Life Lessons I Learned From My Ovaries

by Melissa Tamberg-Heffron
Originally Published: 

Last year, my long-standing love/hate relationship with my ovaries came full circle: I had a complete hysterectomy on my oldest son’s birthday. Eighteen years to the day earlier, my lady parts had obviously played a starring role in my firstborn’s introduction into the world. Three years after that, they functioned equally well in the creation of son number two.

But then a few years later, without warning or cause or justification, they turned on me.

“You have a small cyst on your right ovary,” my gynecologist mentioned casually during my annual exam, as if informing me of the weather forecast.

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I burst into tears.

At 32, I was in the midst of tentatively navigating my first few months of post-divorce existence, a newly minted single mom caring for two kids under the age of 6. At the same time, I was working full-time from home and struggling to hit my stride with a rash of sudden and sole responsibilities, from carpools to trash takeout to even trapping field mice who mistakenly assumed they had the right to occupy my newly constructed condo. I seriously could not handle one more thing. Especially not the kind of thing that disconcertingly started with the letter “C”—cyst and cancer, in my mind, were one and the same. “Don’t worry,” my doctor said comfortingly. “The vast majority of these things go away completely on their own.”

But mine didn’t.

So began a 12-year sparring match with my obstinate ovaries, which ultimately yielded five cysts, four abdominal surgeries, one surprise baby and a multitude of invaluable life lessons. Here’s a few of the most meaningful:

1. Things don’t always go as planned. Not only did my cyst fail to run its course within a few monthly cycles as my doctor had predicted, but it also subsequently flipped the bird to her ensuing form of attack: jacking me up on mega doses of birth control pills that rendered me a hormonal nightmare. Even more, despite ovarian cysts being portrayed throughout my extensive research as most often “painless and unnoticeable,” mine hurt like hell, incessantly tugging at and searing my insides like a freaking tiki torch.

The nuisance was yet another reminder that, despite my most carefully constructed aspirations and painstaking preparations, reality had zero qualms about biting me in the ass as it twisted and veered down its own path. I had a choice: either meander as gracefully as possible along the new course being charted or be dragged kicking and screaming the entire way (and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t experiment with both approaches).

2. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Through several months of ultrasounds to gauge the growth of my cyst and repeated failed courses of the Pill, I could feel myself inching closer and closer to the dreaded surgical table. I was absolutely terrified of going under the knife, in part because of a history of life-threatening allergic reactions to multiple drugs, which was only magnified by the unbelievably untimely news of a coworker’s mom having died from an anesthesia complication during a routine knee surgery.

But with the cyst continuing to lurk like a gynecological ghoul, I ultimately had no other alternative. To minimize the anesthesia risks, my doctor opted to perform a laparotomy using a spinal epidural (essentially like having a C-section) as opposed to the more routine and much less-invasive laparoscopy, which can only be done under general anesthesia. In the weeks leading up to the surgery, images of my boys being left motherless played Ring Around the Rosie through my mind, taunting me relentlessly. But I’ll be damned if I didn’t feel like Super Woman when the procedure was finally complete and the cyst was confirmed to be benign. I knew if I could get through that, then I could get through anything. (I had no idea then how quickly that declaration would be put to the test.)

3. Trust your gut, or just below the gut, as the case may be. Less than a year after my surgery, when I again felt fire in one of my fallopian tubes, I was certain that another cyst had reared its ugly head. I just knew it. Yet everyone told me not to worry—it was just scar tissue flaring up from my first surgery, or my imagination playing tricks on me, or my scrupulously sharpened fears getting the best of me.

It wasn’t.

So, repeat: hallow hope for independent eradication, multiple ultrasounds, blasts of estrogen. Then ultimately, I had a second abdominal surgery to remove the (thankfully once again benign) beast, which this time had set up residence on my left ovary, along with traces of endometriosis (apparently my uterus felt left out).

The experience was a less-than-gentle reminder that my intuition is rarely off-track. How many times have I chosen to ignore that little premonition, or even the violently waving red flag, only to later curse hindsight for what I knew inherently all along? Rather than discount or diminish the feelings, I can rely on my instincts.

4. Sometimes you just have to say WTF. It was only six months after my second surgery when I started noticing, again, that all-too-familiar pelvic pull. Quite frankly, I was tired of my plans going AWOL. I was sick of being strong. I had no desire to second-guess my intuition. When it was confirmed that cysts had sprouted up on both ovaries, there was nothing I could do but, well, drop a few F-bombs.

I’m generally not one to curse, and it takes a lot for me to really lose my shit. But in that moment, the only thing I could do was scream—from the bottom of my super-cyst-producing ovaries—what the fuck!!!??? Because whether you’re subjected to three surgeries in less than two years like I was, or you just can’t bear another responsibility, need, errand, request or judgment popping up in the course of an average day, there are moments when it’s perfectly acceptable and advisable to curse like nobody’s watching. (And if they are, fuck ’em!)

5. If it’s meant to be, it will be. Prior to surgery number three, I begged my doctor to take out my ovaries and stop the madness. “But you’re still so young,” she counseled. “What if you meet a wonderful man one day and want to have another child?” Despite that scenario not even registering as a remote possibility in my future plans (umm, better review Lesson Number One), we compromised with her removing one ovary and cutting in half my chances of cultivating continued cysts. Apparently, my doc had a pretty trusty gut as well, because less than two months later, I did meet a fantastic man. We eventually got married, and despite the odds and not planning for it at all (thank you, Lesson Number One), I discovered at age 40 that I was pregnant. WTF!?

But this time, the exclamation was teeming only with excitement and appreciation. Thank you, thank you, thank you remaining ovary, for blessing me with what I had no idea I even desired. At our first prenatal appointment, my husband also expressed his gratitude to my doctor for having saved the eminent ovary all those years earlier. Neither of us can fathom what our lives would be like without our little girl.

6. Lessons unlearned tend to repeat themselves. Dammit. I hate this one. Last year, I was forced to review everything I thought I’d mastered when my lone ovary once again betrayed me; after nearly 10 years of being on its best behavior, it sprouted yet another cyst.

At 44, I was not only absolutely, positively done having children, but also terrifyingly in touch with my mortality—and the fear of another surgery damn near sent me over the edge. The stress magnified exponentially with each passing day, as I was forced to observe protocol and wait to see if the cyst might disappear on its own.

Spoiler alert! It didn’t.

So, hello, hysterectomy.

Now, stripped clean of all things estrogen and progesterone, I can only hope I’ve learned all my lessons.

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