When I was 29 I had a partial hysterectomy: a removal of the uterus and cervix. And I was thrilled: no more period, no more cramps, no more personal associations with tampons. It was huge to be rid of the feminine marker of menstruation. Thank God my insurance company paid completely for that 30,000$ surgery and luxurious 3 day, 2 night stay in the hospital. Given all the remarks I have seen on top and bottom surgery blogs about the cost, and insurance companies unwilling to shell out a dime to confirm our identities, some of you may wonder why my insurance company paid for a surgery that is so clearly related to my gender identity. Well, the trade-off was that this surgery was not coded under gender reassignment, or anything of the like. My insurance company paid for the whole circus because I had uterine cancer.
It was caught early, and the cancer didn’t spread and I am free of it now, but it took me a long time to get over that, to get over being afraid of cancer, of death. We have to forget everyday that we could die, at any moment, because without that wool pulled over our eyes none of us would leave the house. We are always told to “live life like it’s our last day on earth.” But if you have a healthy fear of the unknown like I do, and really felt like you were about to die, could see nothing in front of you but black, a black so wide you couldn’t find the edges, well, I doubt very much any of us would feel like going hand gliding or bungie jumping, or doing any of that other shit people do when they profess to be “living life to the fullest.”
After surgery I moped* for 6 months. I was depressed for the first time in my life. I was rid of the disease but I didn’t feel any better, in fact I felt worse because before the discovery of the cancer I wasn’t “sick.” That is, I didn’t have t.v. cancer: there was no vomiting, no weight loss, no chemotherapy, no general greying of the skin, no bandanas in place of hair. I was “healthy:” I went out drinking with my friends, I studied at grad school and wrote poetry and taught classes. I said interesting things and flirted with girls and had a generally care free life. Then one day, right in the middle of my good time, my period went out of wack, I had an ultrasound, they found a lump, I had the surgery, and it was over before the semester was done. It is a strange experience to have the diagnosis and resolution of such a culturally significant disease occur in a relatively short amount of time. We are told cancer is painful and never resolved. My version of cancer was quick and clear: I had it, it was removed, and now it is gone for good. Even my doctor said I was “cured.” She never said I was “in remission.”
Start to finish the whole thing lasted 3 months. As you can see, my life went from normal to traumatic very quickly. I was in shock, and heavily medicated for the panic attacks I was having daily from diagnosis to surgery. Three months after my wonky period, I woke up in the hospital with a five inch long incision in my gut through which another human inserted their hands into my abdomen and removed some of my organs. I was at the end of the disease just as I had discovered it, but at the beginning of becoming someone who had cancer, and that was the most terrifying–to acknowledge that I was a different person, that my identity was fundamentally altered. I felt sick and weak and old for the first time in my life. But the healing, that was the worst part, and that took years. I suppose that is always the most difficult part: when we are healing our bodies are changing, and change is painful.
I compare top surgery to the hysterectomy because the hysto is the only surgery I have ever had, and that is when this impending surgery scares me most. After the hysterectomy, I couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs for weeks. I slept all day and when I was awake I felt like my life was no longer my own, that it belonged to the universe, and the universe didn’t give a shit if I lived or died. I was part of something much larger, and that was of no comfort to me. My body took months to regain its full strength. I had to pull my ass out of bed without the use of my abdominal muscles, had to roll onto my side like a bug and then onto my hands and knees on the floor, then push myself up to standing, or rather slouching, shuffling. It was humiliating and I have never felt weaker, never felt more worthless.
I had an allergic reaction to the internal sutures, and so now I have a wide and raised remnant of my brush with cancer: it sits under the waist of my jeans and aches–it reminds me I almost died. Or it reminds me I persevered. It reminds me I am at the whim of a world that takes no interest in my survival. Or it reminds me I took control over my body and fought back an illness that could have killed me, but didn’t. It depends on the day, but all of these things are true and so all of them rattle around in my head now, making up the background noise of my days.
I am reminding myself top surgery is different than that other surgery. it is elective. It is affirming. It is empowering. It is less evasive and it is not searching for disease. Top surgery is uncovering my real body, the one that has been hidden under layers of tissue and denial and cultural repression. I am peeling back lies and revealing the truth underneath. We should all be so luck to have such an opportunity, to allow ourselves to go searching for ourselves in a deep and sincere way.
Through both surgeries I am not just changing my life, I am saving it. Through top surgery I am saving myself from living a life that is less fulfilling, less rewarding, less authentic, and isn’t that what “living life to its fullest” is all about? I don’t want to waste my time sky diving if I can’t look in a mirror and see myself looking back.
Be nice to yourselves,
Your Pal Eli
*I suppose it could also be called “healed.”