There are a few stories I am embarrassed to tell. And (just about) all of them are about my sexuality as a woman.
The patriarchy has led me to believe, for a very long time, that the body of a woman should be quiet and “deal with things in silence”. In return, it took me nearly 25 years of my own life to figure out the meaning and essence of my body because no one was talking about women’s bodies and how they work. Sexual abuse, abnormal periods, tampons, abortions, sex, estrogen, birth control – all have become a quiet and painful dance. We have been taught to live them alone. In fact, this story I’m about to tell was one of the weirdest moments of my lady part journey, specifically because it happened when I was thirty-years-old and I thought I knew everything.
One morning in September, one like many of the other mornings, I received a phone call from my gynecologist. I had recently been in for a pap smear that went just like all the others: cold stirrups, a pinch, and a lubed up walk through the lobby to my car. Being a woman is beautiful!! The wetness of fear washed over me when she called, however. Because she never called. She’d refill my birth control prescription and send me off. This time, she left me a message,
“Hi, Brittany. It’s Dawn from Western OBGYN. The tests came back from your pap smear and they came back abnormal. Okay? I highly suggest you receive a colposcopy to ensure you don’t have any signs of cervical cancer. Give us a call and we’ll get an appointment on the calendar.”
Huddled in my stairwell at work, I definitely heard “you have cervical cancer” somewhere in there.
The news covered my face with a ghost of fear. The fear that suffocates and blunders, pushes tear ducts to their limit, grabs the throat and holds it in place. I needed to ask a lot of questions. When I called back, my doctor’s calmness on the other end of the line made me hold my breath, fearing she was only calm because she knew I needed her coolness and confidence deeper than she needed coolness and confidence. “Whatever you do, don’t read Google,” she instructed on the call. “We’ll send you some brochures to read up on.” I remember her saying the brochure thing specifically because brochures quickly turned her into an ancient enemy. Brochures? You want to send me…brochures? Amazon can deliver me a multi-colored toilet bowl light in under an hour and you’re saying you can’t tell me how I’m dying for another 3 business days??!
I scheduled a colposcopy immediately. I had no idea what it was, but it sounded scary. My doctor transferred me to the appointments line and the lady on the other end asked with a kind demeanor, “what appointment are you trying to make, sweetie?” And I had forgotten the word “colposcopy. So, I said, “I don’t know…it sounds like colonoscopy but that’s not it…?” And she knew right away.
Since I made the appointment so quickly, the brochures didn’t come through the mail on time. Imagine that. I wanted to talk to someone about “abnormal cells” and “colposcopies” but I couldn’t think of anyone to talk to. I was embarrassed and grossed out by my own body, and had never heard of anyone going through this before.
Instead, I chose the high road and thought a lot about cancer. I imagined cervical cancer every day for a week until my appointment. My body was a bad, dirty host; the unknown of my insides spiteful and terrifying. I was an unfit woman and it was simple: my body was not working. My insides were growing unhealthy cells that could give me cancer at a young age and I still had everything to do and many people to love. I still had tons of questions and I had to ask them. The doctor had told me to write them down to share before my colposcopy. I wrote them down in my phone notepad: Is this my fault? Are abnormal cells normal? Why can’t I ask anybody this? Do abnormal cells heal? Are abnormal cells common? Can I give abnormal cells to my boyfriend? And what about a colposcopy? Do you scoop my insides out like a cantaloupe? Will a colposcopy affect my desire to get pregnant in the future?
For that weekend, I didn’t want to be with friends or family. I didn’t want to talk to anyone about my mossy sickness growing inside but I deeply wanted to find a connection with someone that had been through the same thing before. I craved understanding and comfort. I knew I wasn’t dying but the dangling potential of death looming forward, as it typically does, sat next to me and sipped my fear for three days straight.
On the day of my doctor’s appointment, I drove in a functional haze to the gynecologist. I drank iced coffee that tasted like sawdust. I left my apartment. I drove down the highway. A van driving behind me was driving erratically. I called the Customer Care number on the side of the van. I screamed into the Customer Care’s answering machine. The van was carrying stairlifts for old people. I threw my phone on the passenger’s seat and it bounced onto the car floor. I cried to classical music in my car because of it. I imagined being a man. I imagined not having a cervix. I thought about my body as a confetti blaster of fear and disease, emotions and instability. I imagined being a man for a great, long while. When I parked my car at the doctor, I almost felt like maybe I could be a man. I pulled up Twitter and scrolled through a plethora of depressing news. I ran across a vintage picture of Debbie Harry, delectably savage and hardy. I imagined being a man once again. Not even a man with a penis, just a man in his soul. I imagined having strong upper arms and minding my own business. I imagined how my brain would possibly work, in structure – practically and emotionally, under very simple terms. I imagined all of this while struck by Debbie Harry’s blunt blonde cut in the photo I was viewing of her. I was struck by her pink eyeshadow that matched her dress. Past the oppression and equal rights, I knew I needed my womanhood. I loved my womanhood. Past the abnormal pap smears and cervical cancer, I wanted to be a woman. I wanted to be healthy. I wanted to be fruitful. But, I knew a badass picture of Debbie Harry wasn’t going to cure me.
I walked into the doctor, consciously dousing a casual aura on my entrance, desperate to ensure all humans in the building knew I was going in for a yearly checkup – totally normal, folks! I wasn’t going in for a colposcopy. I wasn’t going in to find out I had cancer. Absolutely not one of those. I was healthy. I was young. I had taken care of myself all these years and I’d done it well!
The nurse weighed me and I made a fearful stink about that. “I was weighed like, two weeks ago.” The nurse smiled. I looked up and avoided her leveling out the numbers on the scale. The nurse took my blood pressure and asked if I buckled my seatbelt. I did. I took off my pants and wrapped my lower half around the tissue, feeling like I was dressing up with a roll of toilet paper, like I had when I was a kid. I didn’t feel like a kid though; the brutal honesty of womanhood spit on my feet.
While I waited for the doctor to come in, I swung my naked bum on the tissue covered bench, accompanied with such a loud noise of rustling I felt the need to sneak onto the bench, place each cheek before the other. Even worse, next to me on a spotless silver tray was everything I feared. One instrument looked like an ice cream scoop combined with a wine bottle opener. Then there was a giant cuticle trimmer, a vile, and what looked like a medium-sized eyelash curler. I could see people walking through the parking lot into the office from my perch. It was sleeting. Then I looked at the tools again.
The doctor came in and she was warm. She told me to “scoot down just a bit” and my ankles were in the stirrups. I hated the word “scoot.” I thought of my body. I thought of how my butt cheeks looked connecting to my thighs at that angle. I thought of my vagina, the hairs I’d missed and the earthy realness of my vagina. I tried to calm myself by thinking about how many vaginas she’d seen. Mine was just like the rest, an opening and a life maker. She said things like “this is going to pinch a bit” and “this is going to feel just like a period cramp” and “this will be a little cold.” The nurse adjusted my pillow and I thought that was nice because I’m sure she felt my aura trying to be desperately cool while all this happened to me.
And then it was over. The doctor gave me a giant pad to wear that came in this modest, tiny cardboard box. I folded the tissue and noted that I could hear the fluorescent lights buzzing above me as I left the room. I went home to my mom and she made me toast and coffee. We talked long into the afternoon. And I willed myself to forget I lived inside a body.
On Wednesday the following week, the test results came back. I had been in a desperate hurry all week long to stay distracted, so even the phone call startled me.
She told me my insides were 100% healthy and the cells were just “some pesky cells that had initially made them a little suspicious” as if she was telling me she heard a mouse in the kitchen but it had just been the cat. I could believe it but I couldn’t. The way things that scare you don’t seem real but you spend a long time convincing yourself they do. My fears were erased with one Wednesday morning phone call in a matter of 15 seconds.
I was instantly crazy with the urge to be very and visually in love with everyone in my life. I text a few friends I’d been thinking about lately; things I’d wanted to mention to them at an earlier date, minor things, even. I called my mother. I told her she was good. I had a few cards sitting around my apartment, as I am The Person Who Keeps Cards™ and wrote one to my grandma and my little sister. I was psycho and safe in the non-threatening slumber of the feeling I had been waiting for: ignorant life comfort. More importantly, I felt healthy again. But still, a little alone.
A quick pause for a piece of mind. Here’s what I can tell you about colposcopies (and abnormal cells):
Abnormal cells are totally normal! In fact, they heal and change all the time. Most women that have abnormal cervical screening tests results do not have cervical cancer, they simply should be monitored for precaution. Most of the time, abnormal cells are signs of early cell changes that go away on their own (because bodies are rad). A colposcopy feels a lot like a pap smear on crack – a little more painful but the pain scale for women is like, unattainable so – it’s really not that bad. You shouldn’t be getting one of these procedures done once a year, so it won’t affect the potential of becoming pregnant. I wish I could have read this paragraph on the internet before going to my doctor appointment.
The next day, I went to happy hour and told a good friend about the experience. I was healthy; I didn’t have cancer, so I felt a safe space in telling her the story.
“Brittany,” she quipped with urgency, “the same thing happened to me.”
I couldn’t’ believe it. We talked candidly about our experiences and she went on to tell me it had happened to a few of her girlfriends, too. The experience had momentarily broken all of them, freaked them out, and sent them reeling with anxiety for weeks. Abnormal cells are actually very commonly found in a woman’s cervix, some women containing more than others. And also very often they serve a low threat. Precaution is seemingly the name of the game. However, my doctor had been right, there is nothing for a fearful woman on Google. It’s all in the stories we, as women, tell.
Which is why I’m telling it again, here.
The women’s narrative deserves to be voiced. Especially when it comes to our bodies and how they serve us. Google is a black-hole-fear-chamber and it’s not going to give a woman the accurate space to find truth. So, we can do that elsewhere. Our bodies are powerful and exquisite. We are not alone. Our abnormal stories are meant to be held closely and told, shouted out even, by each and every one of us.
Brittany Chaffee is an avid storyteller, professional empath, and author. On the daily, she gets paid to strategize and create content for brands. Off work hours, it’s all about a well-lit place, warm bread, and good company. She lives in St.Paul with her 80-year-old cat, Butch. Read more about her latest book, Borderline, and go hug your mother.