My mother and I sat in the tiny waiting room. I sat, she paced the aisle between the row of uncomfortable chairs. In a few hours I would have a life-saving surgery. I couldn’t wait. I was like a child waiting for Christmas morning! I knew the surgery would not only save my life, it would restore it. In the months leading up to my diagnosis I fought against debilitating fatigue, my mind was engulfed in a heavy fog and I was having trouble remembering words – an inhumane torture for a writer, and a terrifying reality for an independent woman with a mortgage and a plethora of modern day responsibilities. My brain and body were slowing down and I feared that death was imminent. The few days between my diagnosis and the surgery were the longest of my life as I waited for my insurance to approve my doctor’s request for the costly CT scans and surgery that were necessary to save my life.
By the time I was diagnosed with a highly aggressive form of papillary thyroid cancer, the cancer cells had engulfed my thyroid, spread to 22 lymph nodes in my neck, surrounded my vocal chords, and spread to my lungs. The recommended treatment was a surgery called a “total neck dissection” wherein the surgeon would make a long incision across the front of my neck and remove my thyroid gland and all the lymph nodes in the front of my neck. I would look like a guillotine survivor – but that was a small price to pay for my life.
I should’ve been scared, but I wasn’t because I wanted to live. In the days leading up to my surgery I lay in bed, in a half stupor. The lumps in my neck were so pronounced that it was hard to find a comfortable sleeping position. I was plagued by recurring nightmares of reaching through my own skin and pulling out the tumors with my bare hands. Even in my sleep I was fighting to survive.
When they called my name a volunteer led us back to a hospital room where I was to prep for surgery. A nurse entered and handed me a gown, a plastic bag, and a wax coated cup. I was instructed to remove all my clothes and put them in the plastic bag, put on the robe which tied in the back, and urinate into the tiny cup. I did as I was told.
I placed the cup of urine on a small raised table and lay down on the bed. Another nurse entered the room. She introduced herself and proceeded to insert a large needled into my arm. It was painful, but necessary. It would be used to inject fluids and anesthesia intravenously. I stared straight ahead at the cup of urine as she taped the needled onto my arm.
“Why do you need a urine sample?” I asked. I assumed they were testing my urine to make sure I had abided by the rules of not eating or drinking before surgery. I was making small talk as one does before their neck is sliced open.
“We have to do a pregnancy test before we can operate.” She said.
“What happens if I’m pregnant?” I asked.
“We would cancel your surgery.” She said. Then she got up and left the room.
Cancel my surgery? But I could die if I don’t have this surgery. I can barely function in this severe state of hypothyroidism. I can’t wait any longer. I could lose my job, my home, my life. Could I be pregnant? I had sex with my boyfriend recently, but I was on the birth control pill. No, this can’t be. They wouldn’t deny me a life-saving surgery if I was accidentally pregnant. Cancer trumps pregnant right?
Another nurse came into my room to let us know that my surgeon was running behind. There would be a bit of a delay.
“Why do you need a urine sample?” I asked in an attempt to fact check the first nurse.
“It’s routine to do a pregnancy test before any surgery.”
“But I don’t want a pregnancy test.” I said. “Can I decline to have it?”
“No.” she said. “It’s hospital protocol.”
“What happens if I’m pregnant?” I asked, hoping for a different answer.
“We would have to cancel your surgery today. The doctor can’t operate on you if you’re pregnant.”
“It’s too risky.” She said as she exited my room.
I was helpless and confused. Where was I? The 1950s? No it’s 2016. A religious hospital? No. Some small backwards rural town, like the one in the movie Footloose? No. I was in downtown Denver. What the hell is going on? And risky for whom? The embryo? And I say embryo because I couldn’t have been more than 4 weeks pregnant.
Plus, and more importantly, I don’t want a baby. I have cancer. I can barely get out of bed in the morning, there’s no way I could care for an infant. I doubt my body could support a healthy pregnancy under such physical duress. My body is already consumed with procreating cancer cells.
If I were to be a parent I would chose to do it under better circumstances – you know circumstances where it was likely that I would live to raise the child. At this early stage of my cancer treatment my survival was questionable.
The nurse’s words, “it’s too risky” echoed in my brain. What the hell does she mean? Too risky for who? Is it too risky for the surgeon and hospital? Are they scared I would sue them if my embryo didn’t survive the stress of surgery?
My goal was to live. All I wanted to do was survive. I suddenly felt like a baby antelope running from a hungry lioness across the desolate African grasslands with nowhere to hide and no shelter in sight. Clearly there were systems in place to protect the hospital, my surgeon and the embryo, but there was nothing protecting me. What about me? What about my life? Ugh! Don’t they see, if I die the embryo dies. It’s not rocket science!
I lay in the bed staring at the cup of urine. It just sat there, threatening to kill me. Another nurse came in and I asked her the same questions, again hoping for a different answer, as Einstein whispered from beyond the grave, “Insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result.” Yes, I felt insane, but the situation I found myself in was absurd so what choice did I have?
“If you’re pregnant, we would cancel your cancer surgery. You would have to wait until your baby was born before we could perform the surgery.”
“But what if I can’t wait 9 months for the surgery? My cancer has already spread to my lungs. I don’t want it to spread further. If I don’t want to be pregnant could I still have the surgery, today?”
“No, you would have to go somewhere else to get an abortion, and then you would have to make another appointment to come back for your cancer surgery.”
I could feel her judging me.
My surgeon entered the room. He pulled out a marker and drew a black line across my neck, as though I were being prepared for execution. We talked for a few minutes about the procedure. I didn’t ask him about the pregnancy test. I was too scared to let the man who was about to cut into me know that I am a pro-choice liberal. The pro-choice/pro-life debate is such a hot button emotional/religious/political issue I didn’t want to risk it. He left the room with no idea of my rising anxiety. Or if he could sense my anxiety he probably assumed I was scared to go under the knife – a fair hypothesis.
But my mind continued to race. I can’t drive. I can’t think straight. I can’t organize an abortion.
One of the nurses came back in and took the urine sample and left. I sat there waiting for my fate to be decided. Terrified. Time moving more slowly than I ever thought possible.
If I were a man, and my neck and chest was consumed with cancer I would never have to endure such disrespect. If I were prepubescent or post-menopausal I would be spared this torture. Why didn’t I have the choice to consent to the pregnancy test at the very least? Why couldn’t I just say no to the test and risk the outcome? It is my body and my reproductive rights – or so I erroneously thought.
I have always been pro-choice. No one should be forced to be a parent. And no one should dictate what another person does with their own body. Plus, in countries where abortion is illegal, they still take place but have devastating consequences like infertility, infection, trauma, and even death when performed without medical training or sterile equipment. Access to safe abortion is a no brainer for any thriving society concerned with its public’s health and safety.
I’d never been pregnant before so I’d never had to choose. What am I going to do if my test comes back positive? Have I been taking my birth control pills? Yes. I mean, I think so? Dammit, cancer brain fog. I can’t remember.
Perhaps 10 minutes past, perhaps two hours. It’s hard to tell when fear is your dictator, but finally the nurse returned with the news that I was not pregnant.
A sigh of relief! I relaxed on the gurney. Two surgical residents came into my room. I kissed my mom and they wheeled me down the hall to the operating room. Inside it was very cold and the bright lights looked like white flying saucers. The surgical residents put warm blankets on my body and I stopped shivering. The anesthesiologist said something to me, and then I was gone.
Later I woke up in another part of the hospital. My surgeon was taping my arm and saying my name.
“The surgery went very well.” He said. “You had a lot of cancer dear, but we got it all.”
I smiled, I think. And then I was gone again.
It’s unbelievable to think that in 2016, in the United States, a young woman with a highly aggressive form of cancer could be denied a life-saving procedure due to tensions over reproductive rights. Meanwhile a surgeon can sever your neck, remove multiple tumors over the course of 5 hours, stitch you back up and it’s no big deal. I woke up later that night, ate a plate of chicken strips and fries and watched TV. I felt fine. And I will be forever grateful for the surgery. But I’ll never forget the fear I felt when my fate was in the hands of a pregnancy test. I will never forget the helplessness inflicted on me by hospital policy. And I will never stop supporting Planned Parenthood and advocating for a women’s right to choose – especially in medical cases where an abortion would save a woman’s life.