Almost exactly 10 years ago I had a cyst removed from my right ovary. It was discovered during my annual gynecologic exam, which I had scheduled early because I was about to move to Greece to oversee the rebuilding of my grandparents’ house, which had fallen into ruin after the Greek Civil War, an experience would form the basis of my travel memoir, North of Ithaka.
My doctor assured me that the cyst was probably nothing to worry about, that it was most likely water-filled, or a benign growth like afibroid or a dermoid. But a post-surgical biopsy showed it to be a low-malginant potential tumor, which isn’t cancerous, but isn’t benign either, and a CT-scan revealed that I still had two small cysts on the back of that ovary.
Some people counseled me to have that ovary removed, pointing out that your chances of getting pregnant are the same with one ovary as with two (because the remaining ovary steps up its hormone production and releases an egg every month instead of every other). But I was young (27) and very single, and didn’t know what the future held, so I wanted to keep both ovaries just to be safe. So I opted to have routine ultrasounds to make sure that the cysts hadn’t grown in size.
They stayed the same for the next ten years, even throughout my pregnancy. Then last week, in my six-month post-delivery checkup, we did the usual ultrasound and it revealed an 8-cm cyst on my right ovary (actually, the cyst is so large it has sort of swallowed the ovary). Everyone agreed that it (and, this time, the dwarfed ovary) had to come out. It was déja vu all over again.
Only this time everything felt totally different. On the one hand, I was much better off than I had been during my first surgery, when I was young and single and had no idea if I’d ever have children. I now have the incredible husband I wasn’t sure existed, and we already have one very funny, highly adorable baby. A baby who came partly from an egg that the problematic right ovary had dropped (I know because during my pregnancy ultrasounds we saw the corpus luteum cyst, which remains when the egg is released, on the right).
But that’s where things get complicated. That what’s changed the most since my last surgery–this little baby. She depends on me for everything, down to the food she eats. The truth is, she’d get by just fine if I weren’t around–she has her papi and three grandmothers and loving aunts and grandpas and all the rest–but she’s also such a delight to be around that I don’t want to miss watching her discover the world, not even for the day I’ll be surgery. She gets so excited feeling the wind or watching the rain or when a stranger waves at her, and I want to see every one of those smiles and hear her guttural little laugh.
The oophorectamy I’m having today is an outpatient procedure. If all goes well, I should be in and out the same day, and after three days of pumping and dumping (and Amalía’s grandma giving her milk I’ve stored) the anesthesia will be out of my system and I can feed her again.
So I’ve been trying not to get all Terms of Endearment about what I hope what will be a minor procedure. The doctor told me that there’s a 20% chance the mass is cancerous, given my history and the tumor’s size, but I’ve been trying to focus on the 80%. And eighty percent is pretty good odds, even though it’s a B-, and nobody likes a B-, not even in gym class. That’s probably my problem–my life is the equivalent of grade inflation; I have the family I always wanted (although I would like to keep adding to it), and my novel is coming out in a week; maybe I’ve been too lucky and now I want everything to be A+ all the time without the interference of clear-liquid diets, surgery, and whisperings of mortality.
But I’ve been talking to some of my girlfriends, and I think it’s not just me and my unrealistic expectations. One friend was about to go in for dental surgery when I called her, and, knowing she was about to be put under general anesthesia, she said she couldn’t stop thinking about who would raise her child if something were to happen to her, where her husband would move, and what influences would dominate her baby’s life. It may be maudlin, but it’s also natural and unavoidable. Everyone tells you that everything changes when you have a baby; this is just one of the unexpected ways in which that is true.
I think that’s one of the most significant things that changes when you have a child; you become aware that if something were to happen to you, you would miss out not only on experiencing your life, but also on witnessing his or hers. The joy of life doubles, but then, so does the risk, the potential loss.
I realize this blog’s a bit of a downer. And that’s how life has been lately, but only in moments. Because every day there are incidents that are so amazing, watching Amalía laugh at her grandparents who are visiting, as she tries to bite their knuckles to soothe her teething, or they pinch her nose. And those moments are so purely fun that they’re not even outweighed by the fear of missing out on them.
So I’m trying not to worry too much, to stay calm until the surgery happens and to hope everything goes well. I do what I can to feel in control, employing the rituals that give me comfort. I pray. I went to church and took communion. I bought my mother a necklace with an image of Ganesh, remover of obstacles, on it. And I had my toenails painted, because every time I look at them while I’m having a medical test they cheer me up.
I also see signs everywhere, or I hear them rather; “the Rose” was playing on the muzak system during my MRI, and I remembered singing it with my sister in the backseat of the car on a drive across Greece with my parents. “Dynamite”, which was sort of a theme song of our wedding reception, played on the radio the way to one doctor’s appointment, and I had to laugh out loud that I considered a cheesy disco tune to be a message from on high. I saw a big rainbow en route to my pre-op blood typing. And every time Amalía chuckles her vaguely evil little chuckle I think it’s a promise that I’ve got a lot more of those coming to me.
Because after the initial appointment when I learned I need surgery, I rushed home to relieve the babysitter, who was already late for her next appointment, since what was supposed to be a routine doctor’s visit took so long. Then I wheeled Amalía’s stroller down to the beach to show her the ocean and to promise that there’ so much more we’re going to discover together in the future, and she laughed to show she understood what I was trying to tell her.