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Having Elective Surgery as a Mom—How I Made the Choice

Photograph by Twenty20

The decision to go under the knife is never an easy one, but when you’re a mother of two young kids, it’s even more difficult. It was a late summer day when I went in for a routine exam at the OB-GYN. My twins were 5 years old and I was in good shape, mentally and physically. A few years prior, an ultrasound had picked up a spot on my ovary that didn’t seem to go away as we monitored it. My doctor speculated that it could be a dermoid cyst, which I am very sorry for ever Googling (basically it’s a tumor with genetic material—and sometimes hair and teeth). Even though the thought of this grossed me out, after having undergone a dicey C-section, during which I required multiple blood transfusions, I was in no rush to further explore what this supposed cyst might actually be. I choose to watch and wait.

By last September, the mass had grown in size and although my doctor thought it was unlikely to be cancer, he no longer advocated watchful waiting. He booked me for an MRI, which would hopefully shed some light on what we were dealing with. Meanwhile, I underwent genetic testing to see if I was a carrier of the BRCA gene, which can also be an indicator for ovarian cancer. Angelina Jolie tested positive for the genes and made the decision to undergo a preventative double mastectomy and removal of both ovaries and tubes, putting her into forced menopause.

Unfortunately, the MRI was inconclusive. The technicians and doctors could not say for sure what the heck that was growing on my ovary. My doctor’s advice: laparoscopic removal of my left ovary.

When you have kids, playing the odds with your health is a risk you would rather not take.

Even though my husband and I are done having kids, and I was assured that the one remaining ovary would take over and thus not send me spiraling into early menopause, I freaked out. I was healthy: I ran three miles a day and lifted 50-pound twins like they were sacks of potatoes. More importantly, I didn’t have any pain. I felt fine! Was I really going to undergo surgery under anesthesia in a hospital when I was fairly certain nothing was wrong?

It turns out that when you have kids, playing the odds with your health is a risk you would rather not take. I thought about my comedic idols, Madeline Kahn and Gilda Radner, who both died of ovarian cancer, a disease that is nearly impossible to diagnosis until it’s too late. Although it was unlikely that whatever this was on my ovary was cancer—I had no history in my family of it and the genetic testing came back negative—the nagging feeling of “what if” led me to schedule the surgery.

On a cold, sunny December day, my husband and sister drove me to the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia where the capable Dr. Stephen Rubin would remove my left ovary. Even though Dr. Rubin echoed my OB-GYN’s advice to remove the ovary, I still felt unsure up until the moment they asked me if I wanted the drugs (hell yes!) and wheeled me into the operating room.

Although not getting the surgery felt like too much of a risk, undergoing surgery felt risky too. And getting rid of one of my organs also seemed very extreme. In the end, it turned out that I had endometriosis—a condition where the lining of the uterus grows in places it shouldn’t (like on your ovary). While endometriosis is often extremely painful for the women who have it, in some cases, like mine, the woman suffers no pain and thus goes undiagnosed.

Now that it’s been eight months since the surgery, I’m back to all of my normal activities, but still questioning what happened to me. One thing that I learned from Dr. Rubin is that there is no reliable screening for ovarian cancer. Routine ultrasounds don’t help in early diagnosis and often lead to unnecessary surgeries. Still, knowing the information I had, I do believe I made the right decision. Just thinking about my kids' little faces made me know that watchful waiting was not an option.

I would like to say that I feel empowered for having taken control of my health and done what was necessary, but in truth, I now feel that the line between being vigilant about one’s own health and looking for problems where there are none is blurrier than ever. Right now, there is no reliable screening recommendation for ovarian cancer, which is the top gynecological cancer women die from. The question we need to be asking is: When it comes to women’s health, why are the answers so vague?

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