‘If you’re spending all of your time worrying about ‘what ifs’, chances are you’re worrying about the wrong things.’
This is the note I wrote myself a week after I was supposed return to Mexico. I should say up front I’m largely fine and in two days I really do go back.
But right now I’m still in New York, and the rest of the scribbles in my notebook are doctors’ appointments, recommendations for short and long-term medical action (wash wounds with saline, get sonograms), and the diagnosis of a ‘serous low-malignant potential tumor’ which is what the 15-centimer cyst turned out to be that they removed with my right ovary in emergency surgery on December 23rd.
It could have been worse. Thank God you weren’t in Mexico, friends say whenever I tell the story, although that could have been fine—I just would have had a long car ride in intense pain before I reached a solid hospital. That scenario bothers me less than what might have happened had I been on the plane flying back to New York.
As it was, when things really went south, I was in a clinic in Brooklyn trying to find out why my lower back had been throbbing, irritated at having to wait because the nurse who took my urine sample had gone to lunch.
I don’t know how long it took the cyst to grow but by the time they found it, it was the size of a large grapefruit and was strangling my ovary, causing pain that made me double over and vomit. Eight hours after I went to the clinic, I was in the OR with surgeons removing the cyst, the ovary and a fallopian tube in the first dramatic medical event of my life.
But I wasn’t all that terrified at the time. When the doctors asked if I had questions, I made my sister ask why the box of rubber gloves in the examining room was labeled “fingertip textured.” It wasn’t just that I was fighting fear with humor. I genuinely believed that the mammoth cyst was a fluke, that my other ovary would pick up the slack as the doctors promised, that what needed to be be done would be done and I’d be fine.
When I woke from surgery, I continued to be calm, especially when the surgeon explained that while the cyst was black and blobby (she showed me pictures), it didn’t look cancerous. She also pointed out the clean white sphere of my other ovary and my “cute” uterus. I liked her. Because the surgery was laparoscopic, I went home the same day I went in.
I didn’t freak out until my follow-up appointment two weeks later. That’s when a different doctor told me that the cyst they removed was, in fact, a tumor. It had been borderline, slow-growing and noninvasive, and it was likely they’d gotten it all, but I needed a blood test to assess the possible presence of ovarian cancer.
I heard the words that were intended to be reassuring but the ones that stuck were ‘tumor’ and ‘cancer’ and I cried. I called my sister and my parents and a nurse friend. I got the blood test done. And then, because I didn’t know what else to do, I got the pedicure that I had been planned to get as a treat once my anxiety was alleviated. Because they were supposed to say everything was OK.
At 3 o’clock the next day I found out the blood test was normal and the doctor advised that I come back for sonograms every four months. I told my primary care physician who felt strongly I should go see an oncologist for a second opinion. But the oncologist didn’t have an opening for two and a half weeks which gave me plenty of time to google myself manic. I slid between remembering that the tumor was gone and had been borderline (which means not exactly cancer but not exactly not cancer), and devolving into sheer terror over the “what ifs”—invasive carcinoma, hysterectomy, death.
By the time I had my appointment I was tweaked and sleep deprived. But the oncologist—who was lovely—gave me the best possible news. He said there were no signs of cancer. Given that I had only a 15 percent chance of this tumor type recurring in my lifetime, and since my remaining lady parts were integrally involved in maintaining my bone density and heart health, he felt it prudent that I keep all my bits and come back for tests in six months just to make sure nothing new was growing.
I agreed. Prudent.
So, in two days I go back to Mexico. And there’s the question of whether I’m frightened. What if this happens again there?
It could. But I am refusing, to the best of my ability, to entertain this concern. Because I have already spent a lot of time worrying about what could happen in Mexico, and I have to tell you, it has not done me much good.
Before I moved in August I prepared for every “what if” I could think of. I read the State Department security warnings and filled myself in on where not to go in a country I knew was being ripped apart by a horrific drug war. I got vaccinated, had prescriptions filled for Cipro and Tamiflu, bought three bottles of environmentally friendly bugspray, three more bottles of extremely toxic bugspray, five bottles of sunblock, water distillation tablets, band aids, gauze, topical antibiotic, Immodium, Pepto, Advil, a book on survivalist techniques, and rain pants in case of hurricanes.
Once I got to Mexico, I worried about what I would do if the terrifying things in the news came my way. I thought of contingency plans for if Ebola hit Mexico or if ISIS started flaring in places that actively affected my family.
And then I got immersed in a place that I loved and stopped spending so much time on the Internet. I biked, cooked in my jungle kitchen and swam in cenotes. I started to be able to speak Spanish and began writing regularly, both goals of mine for years.
And then I flew home and the shit hit the fan.
For me here’s what would have been worse: If I had not taken the chance on Mexico and the cyst had announced itself in the beige cubicle I detested in New York. Or if it arrived on the subway when I was shoved up in a stranger’s armpit. Those scenarios would have been far more horrible. Because my body still would have betrayed me and getting better would have meant returning to things that made me miserable.
Instead, this has all gone as pleasantly as it could have. I’ve been bunking with my sister and brother-in-law who mercifully I still get along with though we’ve been trapped for weeks in a relatively small apartment with a rambunctious toddler who requires frequent command performances of “Twinkle” and “Itsy Bitsy.” I have been forced to have snuggly time with said toddler, spend additional quality time with my parents, hang out with my closest friends, and eat all of the ethnic food I didn’t think I’d get to during my intended stay. I have health insurance. And in a few days I’ll be lounging in a hammock with a cerveza.
Last year my New Year’s resolution was to do things I wanted to do and not focus on the “shoulds.” I genuinely fretted over whether this was responsible—I feared that if I didn’t get another degree or a more prestigious job I might become an unemployable woman child who had to move into her parents’ garage.
Funnily enough, this did not happen. Instead I got a whole lot happier and more resilient, which I think made me way more able to deal with this “what if”, the one I didn’t predict.
And so I will be returning to Mexico because I want to. I will be spending the rest of 2015 continuing to have as lovely a time as possible, cooking, traveling, using my new binoculars and birdbook (thanks Dad!) and keeping myself as healthy as one can without cutting out delicious food and alcohol.
The “what ifs” can sort themselves.