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When I first started to experience pain in my lower abdomen, I felt uncomfortable talking about it, but I was sure something wasn’t right. Ovaries, uteruses and cervixes are not everyone’s favourite topic of conversation. I kept it fairly quiet, but eventually went to the doctor and had a few tests. A month later, I was told that I had an unusual kind of cyst called a dermoid, or a mature teratoma (don’t Google it, trust me).
In the cab back to work from the doctor, I started to worry. I knew the cyst was causing me significant pain, and I knew I was going to have to miss work for the surgery and recovery at the very least. This was going to be hard to hide from my co-workers. But why did I feel the need to hide it? If I had broken my leg or needed shoulder surgery, you bet my colleagues would hear all about it. Why was my ovary any different?
We don’t want to talk about women’s reproductive health because we aren’t taught how. It all begins in elementary school. As early as 10 or 12 years old, girls are told that once a month, something gross will start happening to them and they should do their best to hide it. I remember walking down the school hallway with a tampon up my sleeve, hoping no one would notice. I remember whispering about period cramps and turning red when a teacher awkwardly mentioned “a woman’s time of the month.” We did not even know the proper words to talk about what was happening to our bodies. This behaviour continues to adulthood. Tampon and pad packaging, aimed at girls and women alike, are often advertised as “discreet” or “quiet.” Hiding periods from our classmates and teachers evolves to colleagues and bosses. Last month, I even caught myself using the trusty old “tampon up the sleeve” trick (I am now 24). By reinforcing the “grossness” of periods, society is telling women to be ashamed of anything in the reproductive region of their body, and it has serious consequences.
Openness about what is happening to our bodies when we are young might make us more likely to discuss our reproductive issues when we are older. If I had felt more comfortable talking about my ovary pain from the get go, would a friend who had experienced the same thing have helped me through the tests? If I had heard about another friend’s experience, would I have felt support and kinship or even simply have had an idea of what was causing the pain? If women’s health were less taboo, would we have more studies on birth control and reproductive health issues? Would they get more funding and would we be further ahead on coping mechanisms and cures? I don’t know for sure. What I do know is that many women are ashamed to talk about their pain to friends, family and even doctors. They miss work, school and social activities. When women are silent, the inability and shame about discussing our reproductive health can quickly become a health care crisis.
Some people don’t want to share their personal health issues and experiences, and that is totally fine. But if you are the kind of person that wants to complain to a colleague about your sore back or lament with your friend about a sprained ankle, then you should also be free to tell them about your chronic endometriosis or uterine polyps.
I ended up telling almost anyone who would listen about my cyst. It was extremely uncomfortable, but slowly and surely over time, it became normal. I told my colleagues when I was in pain, I informed all my close friends, men and women, I made jokes and I even named the damn thing (Delilah the dermoid cyst, in case you were curious). Delilah became a casual topic to the point that my friends and family would ask, “How’s Delilah doing?” on a regular basis, and my roommate even suggested we have a “Delilah going away party” the week before my surgery.
Being open about my cyst played a huge factor in reducing my stress. I had to miss work to undergo a few tests and, because of my honesty about what was going on, my colleagues were understanding. Especially on the day I had to get an MRI. It was my first one, and I was rushed through the instructions, given an IV and told to lie down on a platform. I found it terrifying. I struggled to stay calm inside that loud, noisy, claustrophobic tube and, to this day, am not sure how I got through it without squeezing the emergency button. I left the hospital alone and shaken. My boss, my mom and a few friends texted me to ask how it went, and I told them it had been awful. My boss told me to take the afternoon off, and my family and friends were supportive and kind as I rested. I knew that, at that moment, being secretive would have made everything even harder.
I was lucky. I had a supportive family doctor and an amazing surgeon. I had a family who wanted to hear about my experiences and help alleviate my pain. I lived in a country where health care is accessible to its citizens. My cyst was successfully removed and I have had no issues since. Through talking about it, I ended up discovering that a ton of women I knew had had similar issues, but no one wanted to be the first to bring it up. We missed out on years of sharing, but at least we can start talking now.
As women, we struggle with so many pressures and societal setbacks. How about we get rid of one by just talking. I want to talk about my ovaries, and I hope you do, too.
Madeline Dinsdale is from Toronto, and studies in New York.