This past summer season was a bit challenging for me sans taper meet and thus focus. But it was still much better than last summer, when I wasn’t in the water at all due to a hysterectomy on June 13 and the subsequent two-month restrictions, which were well, very restrictive.
Having major surgery was both humbling and enlightening. As such, there’s lots of ground to cover here, so today I’ll start with part one of three—symptoms and what treatments I tried before opting for surgery.
Disclosure: This may be icky reading for men or kids!
I’ve never been one of those females who breezed through her cycle each month. The worst, longest-term issue I had was extreme cramping. Yet, similar to my food my allergies and sensitivities, your “norm” is your norm. You don’t always understand that struggling with basic body functions such as digestion and menstruation isn’t the way the body is designed.
By the time I hit my 40s though, I knew my cycle wasn’t “normal.” I had severe cramping on/off two weeks prior to each cycle accompanied by lower left back pain—it felt like someone was constantly sticking a three-inch across, three-inch deep knife into me. Bloating, irrational irritability, and insomnia were constant issues of this phase too.
During the first three days of bleeding, the severe cramping transitioned to “excruciating.” I’d camp out on the bathroom floor (ironically lying in a fetal position), because I’d alternate among diarrhea, throwing up, and feeling like I was going to pass out.
I had to hover near a bathroom 24/7 due to “flooding*” and passing huge (think baby-fisted sized) clots as well. There was little warning when either would occur, and they did at such a volume that no amount of sanitary products (not even layering—yep, tried it) could contain the blood flow, so it’d be best to be in the bathroom.
I still ruined a lot of clothing, furniture, and bedding though. I bought all black trousers, skirts, shorts, and sweatpants at the thrift store because they’d show blood stains the least, and were cheap and worn enough to not feel bad when tossing them out after a few cycles. I had black bedding, and learned to wrap myself in a ratty, dark-colored towel before sitting on the couch or my desk chair.
Perhaps worse than the pain, however, was the shrinking of my life. I was unable to work on site (let alone full time—I’d be fired for missing so much time), or plan anything in advance as “unpredictable” became the new cycle norm. The window between symptoms and actual cycle winnowed down to one week per month.
As my symptoms increasingly became worse, of course I tried several remedies. OTCs, heat, and ice only took the edge off of the back pain and cramping. And, I worried about my poor liver when I took up to 12 pills/day for two weeks every month. Acupuncture, Mayan massage, and naturopathy eased some symptoms, but not the main ones (heavy bleeding, cramping). When I discussed my situation with my then-gynecologist, her response was “oh that’s just how it is when you age.” (That was my last appointment with her.) Other OTC remedies (e.g. primrose oil, black currant oil, etc.) had no effect or exacerbated existing symptoms.
By age 46, I hit rock bottom. I was exhausted and leading an incredibly painful, limited life. I missed being able to swim symptom-free and to plan for meets, let alone practice. I was jealous of friends who had hysterectomies or were in menopause. And my symptoms were only getting worse.
Luckily, after the new year (and when I was 47), I found a gynecologist who took my symptoms seriously. Surgery, one of the few options remaining for me, was a pretty quick and easy decision for me. For one, I didn’t like the remaining treatment option—massive hormone shots to temporarily stop my cycle. I was already struggling with out-of-whack hormones, and I didn’t like the risk of more hormonal side effects. Plus, the shots weren’t a permanent solution. Second, while the medical field was labeling me as “young” for a hysterectomy at 47, it’s not like I forgot to have kids and was going to have them now. Third, my menopause onset may be years away. I didn’t think I could continue as I was for years. Finally, my older sister was as ever my champion and trailblazer. She had a hysterectomy the prior year (she had tons of fibroids**), and was there to encourage and coach me every step of the way.
The only tough part about the surgery decision for me was knowing I’d be out of the water for a minimum of two months, maybe more, if there were complications. Also that walking would be the only activity allowed during recovery—no swimming, riding my bike, lifting weights (another restriction: no lifting/carrying anything more than five pounds), hiking, or any activity. For two straight months.
Certainly, it’d be the longest stretch out of the pool for me since joining my first team at age five. And it’d occur during my favorite season—outdoor long course meters—while missing Worlds in Canada, a big taper meet I’d originally hoped to do. I was terrified of dealing with what I knew would hit, depression and extreme crankiness. Luckily, my sister came to my rescue once again by saying that in my current condition, I wouldn’t swim my best in Canada (or even compete if my cycle hit), and it’d be best to have the surgery ASAP because after recovery, I’d never have to miss a single day in the pool again due to cycle issues.
Next week, in Surgery and Recovery, I’ll share not only interesting surgery details and what it took to recover and rebuild back to competitive condition.
*Flooding: Sudden, unexpected bleeding (“like turning on a tap) during menstruation that is heavy enough to soak clothing and furniture; it is often accompanied by clots.
**Fibroids: Benign tumors that grow in and on the uterus. Each month, they fill with blood, which explains why women with fibroids also experience heavy bleeding.