12 Hysterectomy Lessons, One Year Later

Today is the first anniversary of my total abdominal hysterectomy with bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy. Why do I continue to share my personal medical history with the world, the checkout ladies at the grocery store, and a random older woman I swam into (literally) at the pool? Shouldn’t I just shut up about it?

No, I shouldn’t “just shut up.” Twenty MILLION American women will have a hysterectomy this year. They will have questions, and they will need encouragement and validation, and if I can be a voice that helps them through the ugly days (and there are ugly days), I am honored to do so.

So… 12 lessons learned:

1. Being gutted like a fish is a BFD (big frickin’ deal), no matter how “prepared” you thought you were for the event. Let yourself heal, especially in the first few weeks following surgery. Follow doctor’s orders, get help, and don’t even attempt to put on your Wonder Woman garb.

2. There’s a whole new version of normal. Nothing in your body from ribs to knees will ever be quite the same. But that’s OK, because most everything from ribs to knees was probably affected in some negative way by whatever prompted your need for a hysterectomy. Seriously, wardrobe was one of the hardest adjustments to make… Granny panties to support your abused belly, loose skirts and dresses for months… I still have soreness around my incision if I wear jeans for more than a few days in a row.

3. You find out how compelled you are to bargain shop for tampons and pads when you don’t need them anymore. It’s a bit disturbing to realize how much of your brain was dedicated to the purchase and use of feminine hygiene supplies.

4. Hormones are the elixir of life. Up until your surgery, hormones may have been the bane of your existence, prompting PMS and PMDD and feeding all sorts of other troubles. After surgery, hormones become your friend. (Obviously, many women opt out of hormone replacement therapy, for good reasons. If that’s you, your story will be different, and I wish you well!)

5. You’ll need to set alarms to remember your elixirs. Do not take said elixirs randomly. I accidentally doubled my testosterone dosage one day, and flew into what I can only describe as a “red rage” just a few hours later. I don’t remember ever feeling that out-of-control since my teenage years. Set those alarms, people!

6. You’ll probably mourn those missing parts, even if you loathed them for years, and that’s OK. I didn’t think I would go through the grief process others had mentioned, but three months post-op I found myself sitting on my bed with my prayer journal, weeping for my lost reproductive organs. Like bidding an estranged relative farewell at a funeral, I said good-bye, grieved their loss, and moved on. Your experience may differ, especially if your reproductive years were cut short by surgery.

7. Boobs continue to grow, whether you want them to or not. This was an unforeseen by-product, and fairly common side effect of hysterectomy. Had I known in advance, I might have changed my mind. Probably good I didn’t know…

8. You’ll be tempted to fall into the “old lady” pit. Don’t go there. Just because you’re “technically” in menopause (if you had your ovaries removed), that doesn’t make you OLD! Old is a state of mind, not a state of body. But the temptation to stop doing things, to make excuses, to quit setting goals, etc., may rear its grizzled, wrinkly head… kick it in the face and move on.

9. Lots and lots of the women you meet every day have been through the same thing. If you open up, they will, too, and there’s healing to be found in that communication. Sometimes it’s healing born of simple sharing, sometimes it’s healing that comes from wisdom and knowledge gained from other people’s experiences. I spent HOURS on www.hystersisters.com reviewing forums and reading articles. It was hugely helpful to know that I wasn’t alone in what I was dealing with.

10. Open your mind to alternative therapies: acupuncture, visceral massage, Reiki, meditation, etc. Ask lots of questions, and don’t give up. It took six months for me to be able to lie flat on my back and stretch my arms overhead without feeling like my abdomen was ripping. A few acupuncture treatments and some visceral massage made all the difference.

11. Everyone’s experience is unique. Don’t judge! Even though it’s especially hard not to judge the woman who runs her first triathlon less than six months after her surgery, be kind… she probably has some other issue you don’t want.

12. Recovery takes a LOT longer than you think (or than anyone tells you). Cut yourself some slack. Getting better is like watching kids grow… a little bit every day. One of the best things my husband told me was to realize I was getting a little bit better every day. I sang that Beatles’ song “it’s getting better all the time” for weeks like a mantra. Stay hopeful and positive and, to quote another old song, “accentuate the positive” in your life!

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