Sometime early last year, while I was making an important presentation at work, a text message popped up on my phone. "Call me," it said. The text was unusually short, coming from a sender who preferred to write dangerously lengthy ones. She was also returning from an MRI that day. I remained distracted for the rest of the presentation.
In the ensuing days, my friend and I shared numerous calls and more texts as she underwent further tests and scans, took second opinions, pondered about her life and then awaited results. What if it's true? Who will raise the kids? What will I tell my mother? I should go visit her once. What did I do that may have caused it? Is it the stress at work or maybe it is because I stopped exercising? I need to go to the gym more often, sleep on time, eat kale, drink more water... she had an endless train of thoughts.
The thin line between benign and malignant, the hours in between knowing which one it is, changes one's perspective of life.
Once the initial stress is over, I observed that the thought process shifts to much simpler things in life. The kale and yoga is not what you think about. You appreciate the brightness of the sun, the colour of the Bougainville vine outside your window, the smell of your French toast and the rainbow crayons scribbled on tiny bits of papers. You breathe in every moment, greet the neighbour next door, stop rushing in the mornings or planning every minute of your day and living through it like a robot.
My friend's results came in as benign. But thereafter, a pattern of this kind set in my life last year. The mammograms, pap smears and the MRI scans got varied results for friends and colleagues (all women).
The thin line between benign and malignant, the hours in between knowing which one it is, changes one's perspective of life. You hold on to every breath of your life, say every prayer that you know, remember every memory you have made and wonder if you will be able to make new ones for much longer.
But nothing hits you hard enough until the axe falls directly on your head. After ignoring an on and off abdominal pain throughout the year, I finally went to see a doctor only when the pain became severe. The whispers in the MRI room gave me an indication that all was not well. They found a 13cm ovarian tumour that had a high chance of being malignant. My primary care doctor went a step ahead and said the dreaded words: it could be cancer.
I went through a barrage of emotions, just as my friends had earlier. They rallied around me this time. The husband held fort. I prayed silently every night while putting the kids to bed. I wanted it to be alright just for them. I wanted to be there for their graduations and weddings and what not.
An emergency surgery, biopsy and some tests later, I finally got a call from the surgeon with my results. I let it go to my voicemail and then played it later, fearfully, pausing it every few seconds.
"It was benign and all looks good."
We ignore our aches and pains, our fatigue, our doctor's appointments, our routine mammograms and scans because we are always making room and time for others.
I paused the message again and choked. The surge of emotions I experienced at that moment is inexplicable. When your life is handed back to you, no amount of gratitude will be ever enough.
In a post-op visit, I discussed preventive actions with my surgeon. He had fairly simple advice.
"Listen to your body and see a doctor when something does not feel right. I know most women, especially mothers, never ever do that on time," he said.
I had not been for my annual health check for two years, I had ignored a nagging abdominal and lower back pain for 12 months and I had not cared for all the signals my body gave me during this time.
While I am grateful for my life now more than I have been in the past many years, I also have a realisation that all the women that I write about here (including me) are circling in and around their forties, passionate about their work, have a full calendar, a family to look after, kids to raise and elderly parents to care for. Life is dedicated to people around us so much that it is forgotten that we have to stop and care about ourselves.
We ignore our aches and pains, our fatigue, our doctor's appointments, our routine mammograms and scans because we are always making room and time for others. We so deeply love everyone else in our life that we forget ourselves. But in doing so we overlook the fact that for our love to be present, we have to be present. We have to be well and we have to be alive. There is no other fancy way to state this.
We overlook the fact that for our love to be present, we have to be present. We have to be well and we have to be alive.
So this year, at the cost of being a nag, I have been asking all the women in my life to start loving themselves, just a bit more than usual. We coax our girl friends and sisters to join the gym, follow a diet, try a new shade of lip gloss, come out for a drink, a girls' date night or take that selfie with a pout. Persuading them to go for a mammogram, a pap-smear, a routine scan, an annual check up or seeing a specialist for a long lingering pain is definitely tougher but it is well worth it. Your friends may feel annoyed or may not call you back for a bit, they may not even reply to your texts temporarily, but it is still worth it.
And ladies, we put our glamorous pictures and the important events of our lives on social media. Maybe we should consider a mammogram, a pap, a routine MRI or a cardiac stress test to be an important life event and post on that too. (I know many who already do that.) A lump in the breast, a cyst in the ovary or a clot in the heart... these are things we need to talk about. We need to share our stories and our personal experiences. It is not easy to do that, I know that personally all too well. I have been very hesitant to write this post but I felt it was important to do it.
Women's health issues are an epidemic. Ovarian cancer and breast cancer are on the rise. But a lot of it can be prevented and diagnosed early, if only we pay a little more attention to ourselves. We need to take the first step towards seeking help, understanding our symptoms and discussing it with a qualified healthcare professional.
Here's hoping that women reading this will not put off their upcoming healthcare appointments any longer or will schedule one if they've neglected it for too long.