Scenario: You have a weird ache or pain or itch or bleed. What do you do?
- Ignore it
- Google it and freak out but do nothing
- Promise yourself you’ll call the doctor and don’t
If you’re like me, you probably do all of the above. Repeatedly. Most of us women do. We’re pretty quick to run to the doctor when one of our loved ones is sick, but when it comes to ourselves we close our eyes and sing lalalala. And I’m here to tell you not to. Because that weird ache or pain or itch or bleed could be something serious.
Or it could not.
And you should know which it is. Not only for your own peace of mind, but also because it could be a matter of life or death (not to be overly dramatic or anything…)
Recently I had a health scare that woke me up. And I want to tell you about it.
A few years ago, I had some bleeding after sex. Nothing major. Just a little bit on the paper after the mandatory post-coital pee. I thought nothing of it other than it was the result of a really good time. It only happened on a couple of occasions and then just stopped.
Fast forward past my separation and right into the bed of my new boyfriend. Just like in all new adult (rebound) relationships that are probably based on physical attraction, we were pretty active in the sack. So when I had the same problem again, I attributed it to overuse. What I was seeing was still not anything much, but enough to wonder if it was possible to re-start one’s period after intercourse. Of course, I did what any sane woman would do. No, I didn’t call my doctor immediately. I got embarrassed and then googled it. Dr. Google did not have good news for me, but rather told me I could have a multitude of ills, which included everything from nothing to pregnancy, STDs, and of course, Cancer.
I did nothing. And told no one. Not my friends, not my partner, and certainly not my doctor.
And then it happened again. And again. And again. Each time a little bit more. And each time I googled it hoping the search result would yield the phrase Nah. Don’t worry. It’s nothing. It didn’t.
After a long while of quietly freaking out, and after the bleeding happened one more time with a new partner, worse, and in a way that I couldn’t ignore, I finally made an appointment at my doctor’s office.
How long has this been going on? she asked, shaking her head. I admitted, Oh about two years. Give or take a year or more.
Well, it could be nothing, and it could be everything, She said. And then she uttered the words we all love to hear: Why don’t you get naked from the waist down and spread ’em. And let’s have a look see.
And look she did. And scraped and prodded to get the pap smear of all pap smears. Your cervix is in pretty bad shape are not necessarily the words you hope to hear during an internal exam. Raw and irritated was how she described it. Chopped meat was how I interpreted it. Not very encouraging.
She also took blood and urine samples to check for every infection and disease under the sun— nothing you’d want to be checking for when you’re pushing 50 and have been monogamous nearly your whole adult life.
What do you think it is? Should I make a will? My mind went every which way, and especially downwards. She assured me again that until there was something to worry about, I shouldn’t worry. That I’d had clear pap smears my entire life, and that there was no reason for concern, and if there was, it was early. She then walked me through potential further tests and treatments should my pap smear turn up irregular. Not the conversation a woman who has forever been obsessed with the silent killers wants to hear. She then finished with an admonishment not give it a second thought until the test results were in.
Yah right. Naturally, I totally freaked out. Which is ridiculous since I’d waited more than 3 years to even get my symptoms looked at.
Did you know that in Canada it can take up to 4 weeks to get pap smear results back? Now you do. I got mine after waiting for the 3 longest weeks of my life. I spent entire therapy sessions discussing how long those 3 weeks were. Three of them, to be precise.
The results were not bad, but not good either. I have no diseases (yay!) but I do have irregular cells. Not cancerous ones, I was assured. Just irregular. It’s common, apparently, and since sometimes the cells rectify themselves, the standard practice is to re-test after 6 months. But since I have ‘symptoms’ (hello, bleeding), I get to bypass that step and go straight to a colposcopy, which is sort of like a pap smear that takes a deeper sample.
Funny thing is, my doctor said at the end of our phone call, the bleeding is most likely unrelated. While bleeding after sex can be a symptom of cervical cancer (or any number of STIs like Chlamydia, Gonorrhea, and Pelvic Inflammatory Disease), plain old run of the mill irregular cells don’t cause an irritated, unpresentable cervix.
Am I still worried? A bit. Am I sorry I waited to see the doctor? You bet. And am I lucky? Yes, of course. I’m lucky that my tests resulted in nothing much of anything to worry about. But even more, I’m damn lucky that I have a delicate cervix. Because my lady-like innards produced unrelated bleeding that sent me—eventually— to the doctor to have a pap smear that I wasn’t due to have for another year.
And most of all, I feel schooled. I’m not going to ignore symptoms or put my health on the back burner anymore. Nor am I going to use Dr. Google to feed my medical anxieties. While I’m not running to the clinic for every ache and pain, I’m definitely going work harder to be in tune with my body and treat it with the respect it deserves. After all, I’ve got a lot to live for and I need all my parts in good working order.
Don’t we all?