I was around twelve years old the first time I felt that a faint, dull sort of pain pulsed in my lower left abdomen. It was uncomfortable but not altogether intolerable, that is until thirty seconds later when I could have sworn that a tiny Beatrix Kiddo was carving up my insides with a freshly sharpened sword. I called for my mother and told her I was pretty sure I was dying. She dutifully came running and I explained my symptoms to her. She gave me the four-word response women just love to hear: “Oh, it’s just cramps.”
This “just” word, in particular when leveled at me from another woman, felt like an insult to my spirit. What did she mean this full-scale assault on my uterus was just cramps, like this was an acceptable circumstance in which to find myself? Was I expected to function like this? Did I have to go to school? Why was I just now getting these cramps when I’d had my “special monthly friend” for almost three years already? When would the pain be over? WHY WAS SHE LOOKING AT ME LIKE THIS WAS NORMAL!!?!?
Months passed and the pain only worsened. I thought I’d had the Kill Bill treatment before but that first onset was kids’ stuff, a mere paper cut in comparison to the agony that now leveled me more persistently. It stopped me mid-sentence in conversation, doubled me over at all hours of the day, made me cancel plans and had me popping pills like acetaminophen was good for my liver. I complained at first, but everyone including the doctor I’d begged to see several times now was quick to tell me the same thing my mother had: it was just cramps and I was just going to have to get used to it. I quickly picked up on the fact that I was starting to annoy people with my complaints. This was something I was supposed to accept and also stop talking about.
Finally one night after she overheard me sobbing in the shower, my mother conceded that it wasn’t normal for this pain to be draining the life out of me. She called my pediatrician who reluctantly sent me to an OBGYN and told me not to get my hopes up. This new doctor though was wonderful though; she was very patient with me and listened with sympathetic eyes when I told her that an alien was trying to claw its way out of me. Despite the fact that this visit entailed my very first pelvic exam and shock of learning where she intended to put that speculum, I was nothing but grateful for this lovely woman. She wasn’t telling me that I was crazy or that this pain was par for the course. She didn’t use the “J” word but instead sent me to an ultrasound specialist.
A couple of very long, pain-filled days later after ingesting two large bottles of a vile and viscous pink substance, I endured a most uncomfortable exam in which another very nice woman pressed firmly on my abdomen with one hand and manipulated an ultrasound wand inside of me with the other. My eyes watered and I was screaming on the inside, but I powered through until the technician sent me home and told my mother she’d call her when my results were in. I cried in the car for the entire thirty-minute drive home and clawed at the seats in frustration. I was both relieved and terrified when I walked into our home and heard the sound of my OBGYN’s voice on our answering machine: “Mrs. Diaz, I’m so sorry but you need you bring your daughter back to the hospital immediately. We need to operate as quickly as possible.”
So. Guess what? It wasn’t just cramps. It was just an ovarian cyst the size of a small grapefruit twisting inside of me, making a tourniquet out of my arteries and cutting off the blood flow to my reproductive organs. For anyone not in the know, the normal size of an ovary is about the same as a walnut. Grapefruit > walnut, so grapefruit-sized cyst in Vanessa’s ovary = ovarian Armageddon. The next several hours were a blur but the surgery was both successful and minimally invasive, and I got to keep both of my ovaries. This was especially good news considering that this thing had been growing and twisting inside of for who knows how long, and also because the cyst was benign.
You may be asking yourself what I intend for you to glean from this story. First- cramps and periods and everything about them are NO $%#*@ JOKE. A foreign body was growing inside of me and causing me blinding, exhausting, nauseating pain; when I sought help, I was told for months to just deal with it because my symptoms sounded like just your average day in the life of a menstruating female. It pains me to think that for throngs of women out there, this type of pain and discomfort really are “just” cramps (or breast tenderness, or back pain, or being bloated or fatigue) in the sense that there is no other underlying cause besides it being that time of the month. Consider the magnitude of the discomfort a woman goes through month after month the next time you dismiss a teenaged girl complaining about cramps or criticize a professional tennis when she cites “girl problems” as the reason she was off her A-game. This stuff is real and it’s difficult and it’s often debilitating. It affects us, and we’re tired of the still rampant perception that we’re using cramps, PMS PMDD, etc as a scapegoat or convenient excuse.
Secondly and perhaps more importantly, I want to stress the importance of listening to your body. 95% of the time, it might be just cramps, but sometimes it’s more than that like in the case of my twelve-year-old self. If my parents hadn’t finally insisted on getting a second opinion when I kept telling them that something wasn’t right, I might have lost half of my reproductive system before my thirteenth birthday. This is where having an open and honest conversation with your healthcare professional is key, and where you should demand to dig deeper if you’re not getting the answers or help you need. Trust your gut and go with it; you don’t have to be justified.
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