IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Had An 18-Pound Ovarian Cyst and Everybody Thought I Was Pregnant
There I was, in the waiting room. On my right, a pregnant woman with a small child playing at her feet. On my left, my father who was not speaking to me. I was 17 and pleased because I was skipping school for the day. That those hours would be spent at the hospital? Less exciting.
I was wearing a baggy sweatshirt and an old pair of jeans. Every few moments, I would play with my sleeves as I snuck a glance at the pregnant woman to compare. I couldn’t see any similarities between her and me. However, there were quite a few people who did.
The year before, I had decided to go on a diet, and as the rest of my body got smaller, my stomach retained a balloon shape. I honestly don't know why I never noticed (at least not until the several seriously awkward moments that had led up to that hospital waiting room). My body was successfully losing weight, and there was no reason to suspect what was going on inside it.
Well, there were hints. That summer, I had tried yoga for the first time, and after bending a certain way, I almost passed out from pain -- probably because my lungs were being crushed inside my ribcage. Other attempts at physical fitness were met with breathing problems and agony. I wish I had paid attention to these signs instead of chalking them up to random occurrences.
Fortunately, I have several total strangers to thank for jamming some of the final puzzle pieces into place. Unfortunately, that meant my teenage self had to go through many reiterations of a supremely embarrassing confrontation, the first of which went like this:
My friend and I had gone for a walk to Starbucks. This was in the middle of winter -- everyone was clamoring for a coffee, the machines were going, baristas were yelling, and it was pretty much a mess. My friend opted to stand outside while I went to order. As the girl was keying in my drink, she looked up at me with a smile and said something. I didn't hear her.
"What?" I shouted back.
She leaned closer, and whatever she said had been lost again in all of the noise.
"What?" I said, because clearly this was important.
"WHEN ARE YOU DUE?" she yelled while making a swirling motion over her stomach.
What she said took a moment to sink in. And when it did, my smile fell, then her smile fell, and I was shaking my head as I ran out of the Starbucks.
After that, I got a lot more adept at running away. I was an expert at reading someone's face and knowing right away when they were about to ask me if it was a boy or a girl. I adopted a uniform of a baggy sweatshirt and loose jeans. What used to be a triumphant feeling over losing weight had turned into paranoia and anxiety that every stranger I ran into would ask the wrong question.
In retrospect, developing avoidance skills was unfortunate. If I hadn't ignored what these people were saying to me -- if I had embraced it -- things probably would have been revealed a whole lot faster.
My dad kept telling me that I just needed to lose a little bit more weight, and that people lost weight in different places at different times, so really there was no reason to be upset. I continued to hide in baggy clothes because I didn’t want to confront what was happening. Finally, my mom's friend, a doctor, noticed something in passing. She said I didn’t look right. Maybe she said it with more tact, but that’s what she meant. Something was wrong.
I received my first validation from my GP, whose eyes literally widened when I showed her my stomach. At that moment, just from her expression, I knew this wasn't just about losing weight differently in different places. She called in another doctor. They both agreed to immediately schedule me a sonogram.
Which brings us back to the hospital waiting room.
When I was called, my mouth was dry and my eyes were wide as I followed the nurse. The room she led me to was dark, but it looked like those rooms you see in the movies when the character is having a baby. The nurse had me sit in a chair.
I waited some more. I did not look at the machine next to the chair.
The technician came in. A blonde woman. She smiled at me as she put her gloves on. Then came the goop on my stomach, and yes it was cold. The technician pressed the little gizmo to my belly.
“Oh!” she said with a laugh, “you need to pee.”
Maybe I mumbled something at her. Who knows? My eyes were glued to the screen.
A few moments passed, her nice demeanor never waning. But then, suddenly, she stopped moving the gizmo. “Oh.”
She shook her head, and she clucked her tongue.
She looked at me.
And then she said: “You need to take this to Oprah.”
I blinked, and then said, "What?"
She shook her head again, and started moving the gizmo around. “I have seen this too many times. Women need to know. You have to take this to Oprah.” She was serious.
I wasn’t able to get the particulars on how one took something to Oprah, because the doctor walked in at that point, and then she and the technician conferred with mumbles while staring the screen. Something was obviously wrong. They just didn’t tell me what.
That honor was bestowed on my father and my stepmother who, as nice as they are, decided to lead in with “It might be cancer.”
It wasn’t cancer.
It was an 18-pound ovarian cyst.
It was sitting in my gut like a parasitic balloon, having already cannibalized my ovary. I was disappointed that I couldn't call it a tumor, and was stuck with the slightly less romantic "cyst," but I got over that.
Before the surgery, I got to see an MRI scan of the cyst. Its gigantic circumference meant all of my non-parasitic organs were squished into a tiny blob against my side. I loved that MRI scan, seeing just how humongous the cyst was, seeing how much room my poor organs would have once it was taken out.
They drain it, I was told. Suck the water out, and then when its small enough, drag the deflated remains out of a hole they would cut into me. At the time, I hadn't known the cyst was taking my ovary down with it, but I was warned about the possibility.
A year of embarrassing, painful and humiliating experiences were suddenly reframed with a new perspective. That time I fainted and fell off my bike? The cyst. That time I puked after walking up a rather tame hill? The cyst. Every time someone asked if I was pregnant? 18-pound ovarian cyst. The amount of relief just from that knowledge was indescribable.
On the other hand, I think about what could have happened if I hadn't decided to go on a diet. During that time, I went to the doctor frequently because of my hypothyroidism, and no one had noticed a thing.
I didn’t end up taking the cyst on Oprah, but my friend and I had a good time calling it Baby Jesus, and after it was taken out, my surgeon sent me a photo album CD. I'd asked for the MRI scan, but what she gave me were pictures of the white, veiny, deflated blob and the three liters of water that had been inside it.
Written on the CD, in beautiful cursive: Jeanie’s Cyst, 2008.