In February of 2023, we released our third Open Call: How might we reflect and reimagine wellness in public health as art, letters, stories and poetry? The following is a story submission we received from this open call.
“A big crisis in public health is the way that women’s health is ignored. Women wait years for a diagnosis and more likely to have their heart attacks ignored. This story reflects a woman going inward and connecting with her anger. She links the poor healthcare she gets to the male-centered focus of governments. At the end of the story, she decides to look clearly at her condition, taking the first step towards activism.”
Hostage Letters From My Body
I’ve been living in here for 44 years and I wonder about the foundation. Aches and shooting pains rocket through like meteorites, unexpected and bright. My diagnoses, they form a constellation in my head. Endometriosis. Fibroids. PCOS. Perimenopause. Each delivered in the confident tones of a doctor sure that her version is correct. We’re sure.
“This disease is called by diverse names amongst our Authors: Passio Hysterica, Suffocatio, Praefocatio, and Strangulatus vteri, Caducus matricis, &c. In English the Mother, or the Suffocation of the Mother, because most commonly it takes them with choaking in the throat: and it is an affect of the Mother or wombe wherein the principal parts of the bodie by consent do suffer diuersly according.” –1603
Hysteria. 1603. Edward Jorden, dreaming in Kent of uteruses, the wandering womb. Reading the words of ancient Greek physicians, the idea that a woman’s uterus would unlock once a month and travel all over her body. It would travel to her throat and head, making her mad.
“When ovarian cancer is found and treated early, the chances of successful treatment are better.” –Canadian Cancer Society, 2022
“There is no reliable screening test.” –Ovarian Cancer Canada, 2022
I am waiting for my body to make sense, to settle down. Today, my abdomen feels like a troll, living in my basement and sending me aggressive texts. Pain. Nausea. Red hot. Don’t bother getting out of bed. You’re too tired. You’re too broken. We still don’t know what’s wrong.
The line between cancer cells and normal cells is wafer-thin. Normal cells replicate, thrive, bloom anew in a uterus, which is two pounds. They wait for the signal to grow, patient in their order. Cancer cells are the extra-health option, expanding and replicating faster and faster, taking over. They don’t wait for a signal, eager to live.
What cells am I growing today? By the time we’re 40, we all have some cancer cells, parts gone wrong, the Quasimodo versions, one-eyed and hunched over, lurching through the system.
These are the cells we bury underground, with the loved ones we run in marathons for. The ones we buy plastic daffodils for. There, underground, do they still grow?
“We’ll do a biopsy,” my OB-GYN tells me. She has a sunny corner office and on a tall shelf there are cards, probably from the mothers of babies she has helped deliver. Two toys lean on the top of a bookshelf—a Barbie-pink plush uterus, and a bright white ovary with a fallopian tube like a tail. Both of them have round eyes and bright smiles. I’m not smiling right now. I’m pretty sure none of my reproductive organs are.
Day surgery, booked at the local hospital. Forms to fill out. Consent and signatures to take pieces of me, send them to a lab, get back an answer. I’m to be determined. “I, the patient, agree . . .”
In my city, there is a wait, a shadow that falls over my calendar between the words “biopsy,” uttered in a sunny office, and the day I can get an answer. In that shadow are months of nights. 3 am. 4 am. Dry, burning eyes and my hands on the bedsheets, my mind racing like a frothing horse. Normal cells? Cancer cells? I wonder how long is reasonable to wait, to walk around in my body, to have it say “maybe, maybe, maybe” as I wash a plate, vacuum under the bed, change the shower curtains. How long can this metronome tick on?
Our premier is an old man, someone without a uterus, who seems determined to close down women’s clinics, abortion clinics, emergency rooms in small towns. I imagine he has never laid in a bed, heating pad over his hunched form. In the halls of parliament, men like this make choices about the amount of money to be parsed out for biopsies, doctors, specialists. Parliament shuts off the lights and goes home. Must be nice to get a full night of sleep.
Weight is a risk factor of ovarian and endometrial cancer. I have been working to lose weight, despite my body’s random lurching for more food, more sugar. I push away a second helping of potatoes. My apron floats around my waist as I prepare the healthy food my body doesn’t want but needs. Soups with vegetables chopped in every color. Lean fish, pink and quivering on a small island of rice. Chocolate, some rebel cells in my body shriek, squinting at me one-eyed. Shut up, Quasimodo. You’re supposed to be Parisian anyway, and the French love soupe. My body’s one-finger salute comes on Saturday morning, when I step onto the cool platform of my digital scale and the passionless numbers show the same three digits they did last week.
Everything is a risk factor of cancer. I don’t smoke or drink, but radon could be lurking. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission recommends a 1 mSv limit on radiation exposure for the public. Living in Canada means a yearly dose of 1.8 mSv. The world glows under our feet. Previous generations built homes and cities with lead pipes. Asbestos rains down on us when we redo the ceiling in the dining room. Across the country, cars and factories blurt plumes of chemicals.
Oh, I’m not going to go all natural, body. I wouldn’t do that to you. We’re in this together and you still shout at me, a child asking for the cookie, for the hot chocolate steaming on a cold day. But I can sneak you in broccoli, a piece of salmon. I can say thank you on the sunny Tuesday when you don’t ache.
And we wait together. Our OB-GYN said the day surgery could be booked in three months—isn’t that long for a biopsy? With COVID, non-urgent surgeries are pushed back. What’s urgent, body? If you’re growing life inside, malignant cells, it’s urgent. Every day, you’re growing something and I don’t know what. Nyah, Nyah. You don’t know, you tell me. You could be brewing anything, mad scientist in your lab. There’s going to be the moment when all your trolling will become a betrayal. You will turn on me, like a lover with a wandering eye I’ll have gotten too old for you, and you’ll abandon me. I’ll go through my days, typing and working, meeting deadlines and making stew, not knowing you’ve already let me down until the call with the test results or the sudden pain in my chest. A blood vessel in my brain unmooring from the shore, the line broken forever. When will you let me down, body?
This is terrorism, body, the way you’re holding me hostage, each symptom a letter you send me, demanding more ransom. Another day. Another week. You want more. I hang up with the OB-GYN’s office, appointment booked, and I wonder at the world. Somewhere above me an entire city floats in space and someone is discovering a new idea that will be wondered at a hundred years from now. But I’m bookended by this meat, these organs, waiting to hear back. Waiting to get the lurid pictures from the investigator. Have you betrayed me or is our relationship going to continue?
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