Roughly around this time last year, I found a lump in my neck.
It was right around the Jewish holidays, and I was going to synagogue with my parents the next day. On the way to shul, I pointed it out to my mom, a nurse, and said, “Tell me I don’t have to call the doctor about this.”
In June I had undergone a second abdominal surgery for endometriosis. The recovery was slow and painful. The tests, doctors’ appointments, and prep in the weeks leading up to it were mentally and emotionally draining. The battle with my insurance company to get some sort of reimbursement was soul-crushing.
I couldn’t face more medical travails. But of course, after feeling the lump, my mom responded with the answer I didn’t want to hear, “You have to call the doctor for that.”
So I saw my primary care doctor who sent me to an endocrinologist. I had an ultrasound, and the endocrinologist did a biopsy. All the while, the terrifying word “cancer” bounced around in the back of my mind.
The biopsy came back inconclusive. I cried to my mother and my boyfriend, “I CANNOT deal with this right now. What if it’s cancer? What if I have to have another surgery? I can’t do it again. I can’t have another surgery. I need a break.”
An inconclusive result on a thyroid biopsy is not all that uncommon. And so the endocrinologist sent more of the sample for genetic testing which he said would indicate with a percentage how likely it was that Donald Lump was cancer.
While I waited more weeks for the results, I felt like I was reaching my breaking point. Granted, it wasn’t quite the hell of 2015, but I was seriously on edge. I was unhappy and overwhelmed at work, I missed my boyfriend who was living in Florida at the time, and the thought of facing cancer and the potential of another surgery felt like more than I could bear.
My period that month was the worst. The literal worst.
My surgeon, an endometriosis expert, warned me my first three periods following surgery would be pretty bad — the worst I had ever experienced, she said. They were bad, but I was prepared. What I wasn’t prepared for was for my fifth period following surgery to render me completely nonfunctional.
The feeling of claws trying to rip their way out of my abdomen was back. The painkillers took hours to kick in and wore off before it was safe to take another one. I could sleep for 12 hours straight and need another 12 hours the next night.
When I went to my next physical therapy session and my PT asked how I was, I burst into tears.
I updated her on everything that was going on. Compounding my work/life/potential cancer stress was the crushing anxiety that after everything I went through for that second surgery it just didn’t work. I feared I was looking at a future of either crippling pain or yearly surgeries for a few months of relief. And I was devastated that after a pretty good fourth period during which I needed only Advil, my prescription painkillers were hardly working this month.
As she worked on me, she talked to me about the effect of stress on your period, and she hypothesized the stress of waiting for a potential cancer diagnosis was likely to blame. She encouraged me to call my surgeon and check on what I could expect for future periods. She reminded me that endometriosis is never a linear disease; some months will be bad and others will be better.
My surgeon echoed my PT’s wise words. She told me she did expect my periods to generally get better and better as time went on, but if I was under extreme stress, it would most certainly have negative effects. She encouraged meditation, acupuncture, yoga, and anything else I felt like would give my brain a break.
The genetic testing showed a 40 percent chance that Donald Lump was indeed cancerous. Perhaps I should have been more scared of a 100 percent chance of it being cancer, but I felt like my worst fears had been realized when my endocrinologist said 40 percent was high enough to warrant either some or all of my thyroid being removed.
And so two days before Christmas, I found myself back in the OR, taking deep breaths as the anesthesiologist laughed when I told him he was about to help impeach Donald Trump. Two days before Christmas I was back to being restricted from exercising, back to rotating prescription painkillers, back to wincing and clenching my jaw as my boyfriend gave me painful blood-thinner injections in my belly (an unfortunate result of having a history of a Yaz-induced blood clot).
I was also back to my boyfriend waiting on me hand and foot. And because it was Christmas and I had PTO to burn, I was totally off work for two weeks. Exercise was out of the question; I had had a relatively new surgery in which the surgeon removed half my thyroid through my lower lip (more on that and my thyroid woes in a later post) so even yoga was a no-go since downward dog would be pretty terrible for the neck and chin area. Unable to eat much of anything unless it was through a straw, I skipped Christmas festivities with his family. And unwilling to go out in public with an extremely swollen face and Jay Leno-esque chin, I didn’t do much of anything at all besides some hardcore Netflix binging and naps whenever I wanted.
That’s when the craziest thing happened.
I didn’t have pain when I ovulated. I didn’t experience PMS. I didn’t have cramps. And when my period came, it was perhaps the easiest period I could ever remember. So easy in fact that my brain, addled after years of chronic pain, started to wonder if something was wrong.
Yes, you read that right. I wondered if something was wrong with me because I felt good.
It reinforced what my surgeon, my PT, and before then, my acupuncturist had been telling me all along — reduce stress. Once the thyroid surgery was over and there was literally nothing left for me to do except recover, I truly rested and relaxed, and the results were clear.
I started the new year genuinely rejuvenated and motivated, and I took this as a lesson that I needed to work on making relaxation a focus. But as happens with all New Year’s resolutions, official or otherwise, this one eventually fell by the wayside.
My life and my health have improved immensely since this time last year. While there was a smidge of cancer, I am cancer-free now (though a Hashimoto’s diagnosis means I now have only half of an underachieving thyroid). I’ve moved on in my career to a new position that excites and challenges me, and now I am training for the NYC Marathon (please donate to support the Endo Foundation)! I’ve started the Baltimore Flow to support other women experiencing reproductive health issues, and time with these women means SO much to me.
But all these endeavors also mean forever feeling like there are not enough hours in the day. I’ve been meaning to make an appointment for a massage for two months now and can’t even manage to get that done.
I was reminded of the pleasantly surprising wakeup call that thyroid surgery recovery gave me in the form of a stress-free two weeks and a pain-free period recently when I traveled to Copenhagen and Stockholm with my Hashtag Jetlag bestie. You guys KNOW I’ve been doing my best to see if eating an antiinflammatory diet would help my cycle. I had somewhat dismissed my new gynecologist when he told me that more than diet, stress reduction would make the biggest difference for me. But when I ate whatever I pleased abroad and felt FUCKING GREAT anyway, I was reminded that I was probably feeling my best despite the sugar, caffeine, dairy (HOLY SHIT, THAT DAIRY), and cocktails because I couldn’t remember for eight days what was even on my to-do list.
TBH, I don’t think I will feel not-overwhelmed until the marathon is over in six weeks. Running the NYC Marathon and raising money for the Endometriosis Foundation were goals I set for myself for this year, so I am making an effort to not feel guilty about not getting as many things done as I would like when I am spending three hours running each formerly productive Sunday and then collapsing on the sofa.
But in the meantime, I am rededicating myself to meditation and rest. Epsom salt baths are a must both for my muscles and my mind. I may make that foray into restorative yoga that my entire healthcare team has been encouraging me to do for forever (but I love hot vinyasa…). I WILL schedule some regular massages. And when the race is over, you better believe I’ll be cycle-syncing FOR REAL. In addition to eating accordingly, I’ll also be resting when I am supposed to (it’s no fun running with your period anyway, let’s be real).
So I want to know — how do YOU relax? Especially when you’re extremely busy and under a lot of pressure. How do you stay chill? Tell me in the comments or on Insta!