I woke up in a bloodbath after an impromptu cervical biopsy in a luxury surgery in Sydney, Australia. I was supposed to be in safe surgical hands – but what happened in the gynecologist’s chair was an invitation to a spiritual adventure, not a medical one. When I took that road, I was to find myself in more dangerous territory than I had ever been before.
You can find the start of this story here…
And part two here…
~ * ~
High above the island of the gods, I could see the incessant, feverish twinkle of vast lines of traffic, throbbing like radioactive arteries across the dark mass of little Bali, shrouded in her sick halo of air pollution below me.
We had taken off from Sydney’s slick, ultra-stylish international airport, across the breath-taking sweep of Australia’s emerald-blue coastline, and over my own little house, which I saw disappear below me, perched on its cliff-edge, between the pristine wild of The Royal National Park, and the pristine wild of the open Pacific that was my backyard.
With all its loveliness and sophistication, its gorgeous ancient landscape and its vital, beautiful (and critically endangered) welfare safety net, Australia had failed me.
She had given me a cancer diagnosis, a gift of her free and widely publicised early prevention public health strategy, but she had not given me a safe place to take this unlucky ticket, and cash it in on the system for the help they said I needed.
The life-saving cervical cancer detection test, given for free, and strongly encouraged, might have been my country’s reward for citizenship, but what it had done so far was shove me into a labyrinth of confusion, despair, frightening medical advice, bamboozling cancer jargon and loneliness.
I had stumbled obediently down Cancer Boulevard, from one doctor to another, glossy brochures on pap smears, LEEP procedures, Cone Biopsy, HPV virus stuffed in all my pockets, headed for radical hysterectomy after chilling horderves of other, nasty surgeries, for two months, and stubbornly refused to hop aboard medicine’s conveyor belt in a way that was annoying friends and surgeons.
I don’t feel safe. I kept saying, over and over.
Just do it. They all told me.
But I still don’t really understand.
Just do it! You’re being a very silly girl.
In the end, I was passed into the hands of one of the most revered of elite gynaecologists whose rooms were in a pretty cottage, deep in the inner city, and who agreed to see me as a favour to a friend.
Professor YY practised from a lovely, homely luxury in a leafy street. Close to the largest women’s hospital in the nation. When he was ready to receive me, that late Thursday afternoon, I walked in to his surgery to face a warm, elderly gentleman who was clearly extremely excited to meet me.
I had come with excellent references. My career as a writer, my swashbuckling adventures for leading newspapers and magazines, and my work with indigenous Australians and projects in the Amazon, Africa, India and Antarctica, he had been told about, and so, we had a lot in common.
Dr YY was a dedicated adventurer, in fields of travel, science, philosophy and culture. He had been a ships doctor on research expeditions to Antarctica. There were pictures around his warm, bookish rooms, not only of the hundreds of babies he had delivered, but of him, ruddy-faced and jubilant at places familiar to me; Machu Picchu, icebergs, mountain tops and him also, on picnics, with his wife and family.
Was this the man I would finally trust to cut out my uterus?
Was this the man who could talk me off the ledge I had inched on to, and into the secure arms of oncology?
~ * ~
I was grateful to be here, but things went horribly wrong straight away.
As we rushed excitedly through tales of our exploits and our interests he told me he was adding to his PHD with a fascinating study of the use of gynaecology in political torture.
That news set a heavy pendulum of horror in motion inside me.
In what? I did not say. My mouth shrivelled up like a wildflower in a sandstorm.
~ * ~
The conversation ended suddenly. The Professor moved in his chair, cleared his throat and squared up in the shoulders as he opened a large paper folder in order to begin the business part of the meeting.
He began recounting a medical history that sounded like the voodoo incantations of a mad Haitian witchdoctor.
Codes, phrases in Latin, spooky medical syllables that death-danced into the room like nasty hunchbacked goblins were rolling off his tongue, as read out my sins.
“Hmmm. That doesn’t sound right,” I offered, carefully.
“Yes, well it sounds complicated, all very standard. We’ll walk through it, I can assure you,” he said.
“No, I mean, sorry, but actually, none of that sounds like me.” I said.
Because it wasn’t me.
I asked him to check the folder, could it be?
He was reluctant and a little miffed to close the pages and check the handwritten name perched on its top right corner.
The Professor had the wrong file. He was reading the test results and doctors’ notes for one Jane Richardson.
We looked at each other for a fraction of a second with a childlike sort of “Oh!”
“My name is Jade. With a ‘d‘.
“Yes, I know.”
A new file was delivered. We began again. But it wasn’t the same between us after that.
~ * ~
The Professor knew I was not going to be an easy fish to land. But now I was madly swimming deeper, underwater, his voice becoming more distant as my body remained prim and polite in the seat at his old desk, while my soul dove fathoms away, with his hook in its mouth.
“With a diagnosis like this there’s really no way around it,” he said.
“What this means, with HPV associated, is that you have cancer, it is very tricky to even find it, it can hide in odd corners of the cervix, so you are very lucky that whoever did this test was able to scrape in the right spot.”
“There are clear steps, we can do further tests. They are a little more invasive, no real problem though. We can take a biopsy. We can take a cone biopsy. We can do a LEEP procedure. Before you need to think about the hysterectomy.”
“You’re what? Let me see. 39. Steady partner? Yes. No children. Well, it’s obvious really then that you’re infertile. So. Really. Hysterectomy, in this scenario, you’ve got nothing much to lose.”
True. I did have nothing that much to lose. Scott had not given me a baby. He had not given me any support either. Because weeks ago, just after I was diagnosed, he had packed up and left, headed for Hawaii, he said, to do a yoga teacher training.
That was why I was here, alone, with only my little dog waiting for me, in the car outside.
“I know you want to wriggle away, but this is what is needed. There’s no question. Your shaman friends can’t save you now. Ha. Ha. Ha.”
It’s true that I had dabbled with shaman. In the Peruvian Amazon. I had worked there for years, assisting medical teams from Boston, USA, on a jungle outreach project providing vital medical aid to remote tribes there.
I had had a long term problem with severe arthritis a decade ago, and an ER surgeon had told me, “What you have, Western medicine can’t cure. Go and find a shaman. A good one. Bring back something useful.”
But this was a whole new problem and I wasn’t at all ready to go to the jungle for something as terrifying as cervical cancer.
Yank. Yank. Yank. My little fish was bottoming out, the line was pulling taughter, he had me on the reel.
Professor YY was a very experienced man. He knew how to whisper me up out of fear and refusal, and put my soul back inside my body so that more or less, the shocked me, and the me that had a body were in the same chair by the end of this prognosis.
I could hear some of what he said. I could, by concentrating with intense effort, follow the sketches he was making of a cervix, a womb, incision marks, cut sites, uterine walls, the difficult corners involved, cancer cells, hiding and tricking their nests away in remote convolutions of the gynaecological cave.
I could see where the knives would snatch their little triangular corner, for a biopsy – like a swift, precise metal shark, taking a bite out of an unsuspecting rose bud.
I could see where his little snatch and grab tissue-tearer gadget might rip a star-shaped hunk of uterine material out of me, to see if he could identify, or even exorcise the bad.
It all seemed reasonable. Sort of. Except what I wanted to say was;
W A I T !
So the cervix? What is it like? It is a sort of flower-shaped thing which we can take a petal out of, without destroying the whole?
Or is it a sort of mouth-shaped thing, which cutting a chunk out of will distort and maim forever?
The writer in me, the one who helps myself and others make sense of the world by providing comparisons, nose against the glass close ups, intimacies in imagery, allusion and description was shuffling dangerously in her neatly pressed white Country Road blouse and camel wrap skirt, wanting to take over the conversation with journalistic severity and demand;
Give me a goddam metaphor!!
The cervix, I imagined, was either like a sort of little anus, made of wrinkly edges that all worked together, like a spiralling apperture, to open and close, and which taking a bite out of, would be a catastrophic shock to the whole, but probably repairable.
Or it was like a sort of little peach, made of smooth surfaces which opened in a more silken sort of moon-based cycle, like a mysterious eye, and which taking a bite out of might be more like puncturing an eyeball. I needed to know.
He said I was being silly.
Or – as I had come to suspect, was the vagina a sort of inverted penis, with the cervix like the top of that external organ, and which no man alive would willing agree to have a section ripped out in day surgery, for a test – would he?
“Now you’re being hysterical,” he said, in a good humoured sort of way.
“Come on, we can do it now, everything we need is here. It will be over in a few moments, and that’s the end of all this silly struggle.”
He led me to the chair.
We glided there, together. The soft afternoon light was trickling through fig leaves outside the cottage window.
Professor YY was going to apply some old fashioned simple vinegar to my cervix, damaged cells would go white if they met vinegar, and then he was quickly going to pop his gadget in and take a snatch of cervix, and I would be able to dive the hour and half home, on my way to better.
~ * ~
The gynaecological chair is an object of dread.
It is medieval in ways a dentist chair only partially imitates.
Because it has straps, and buckles, and stirrups. And because a woman in that chair cannot see the doctor when he is peering inside her and fiddling with horrible looking instruments. She sees only the cruel porridge colours of his ceiling – a vast expanse of drab.
Dr YY injected my cervix with a local pain killer. I felt that spider stab deep low inside my belly. I flinched.
“Good. That’s the worst part. We’re doing well.” he said.
Dr YY was hidden by a surgical blanket, draped across my knees, like a puppeteer, as he moved about with invisible steels and invisible hypodermics inside me.
I did breathing exercises. I recited a poem in jagged sort of way, gripping and re-gripping my fingers uselessly as I desperately scanned the ceiling for something to cling on to.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily…
Life is but a…..
And in one awful, sweeping moment, I knew I was not ok.
I was falling out of consciousness, I was drowning under sudden waves of nausea and an coming rush of satin white light.
“I’m not ok,” I said, weakly.
Hold on. Hold on. The doctor rushed about, and placed a wet face cloth on my forehead. Just hold on. Nearly there.
~ * ~
I could feel a strange, comforting warm wave of thick wet tide washing over my hips. I felt the torrent of white light cascade over me and I fell, tumbling backwards into the beautiful bliss of a waking dreaming in which I was floating, without a body, in a pink abyss, where a woman’s voice was becoming more clear, through the undulating fog.
“I see you, Jade,” she said. In the rather corny voice, really, of an angel.
“You’re safe. I am here, but you cannot come to me now. Now is not the time. Do not go any further. Relax. Be gentle. Remember. Your little dog is in the car. What will she do if you leave now? What will happen to her? Be reasonable, relax. You cannot come here just now, everything is fine, just relax, relax, relax, you’re safe, there is more to this story than you think, but your little dog is in the car.”
Nausea and a hot blast of sweat roared through my body as I catapulted back into the chair. A single tear was tip toeing down my cheek. The cold cloth was stale across my face.
“I am not ok,” I whimpered.
Dr YY broke away from his puppet show between my legs, ripped off his plastic gloves.
“Good girl. All done. You can dress now.”
He unclipped my ankles from the stirrups, pressed a button to automatically square up the chair and left me some privacy to reorient myself to the now dark, tight and sad dimensions of the room. I struggled off my back and looked down across my lap to see torrents of my own bright red blood cascaded across my thighs, puddled underneath me and congealing in fingerprints on my knees.
~ * ~
The drive from Dr YY’s chair was a long night crossing of southern Sydney and into the magical dark and narrow road through wild forest and tumbling waterfalls toward home, to Bundeena.
Little Pip and I rode it that night together, she nestled in my lap, or perched on the passenger seat with her little paws on the window as she watched the city lights race past and gradually turn into the soft geometries of tree and rock and crow. Me, frightened I was mad, or drugged or on the brink of being white-lighted off to the pink void of cliche angelic intervention.
Probably not wise, at 110kms an hour, on highway or remote and moonless wilderness.
I wasn’t sure if I was fit for driving, but I was racing home like a storm-struck bird, and as we went, what came over me, actually, was not anything like anguish, or fear.
I became euphoric.
I felt a sensation of joy. I felt ablaze with beauty, optimism, wonder. A cascade of profoundly insightful thoughts, wisdom, impeccable and simple solutions to my life questions of human loneliness, purpose, suffering and meaning were exploding like fields of buttercups inside me.
I fished out a cd. I opened all the windows as we made the long, dark throat that opens into the National Park. I basked in the wild scents of lush mud, night-breathing trees, secret waterholes and owl dung that are the kiss of night air in forest.
I played Tricky, and Kate Bush and Oasis all the way home, at thousands of kilometers an hour, driving like a was in a Lear Jet, guided by the powerful genius of an Aquarian angel, who was lending me her glory as we sped toward my cliff.
~ * ~
I called my friend, Richard.
“Quick! Come over. I’ve had my cervix bitten.
There’s blood everywhere. I’ve got to tell you. How amazing I feel!”
Richard was a very reasonable man who had, for several years watched me arrange extremely difficult mountaineering expeditions around the world, and wrestle with various angels and demons caused by my inclination toward adventure, and my shadow of loneliness, sometimes, and overwhelm.
He had both courted my trouble, and rescued me from it, on occasions. In a remote National Park you are bound to have weird friends. I was one of his. And he was my reliable source of skeptical feedback and top shelf bubbles.
He came bearing pizza. And champagne.
I told him the meaning of life, the crazy hilarity of my epiphanies, my radiant knowing that I had stumbled on a path most incredibly beautiful, and sacred.
And he looked increasingly worried as I skipped off to dance about the lawn, under the pantheon of stars, with streaks of dried blood upon my skirt.
~ * ~
My epiphany lasted for days.
I had crossed over to a psychological place where a euphoric intelligence had completely eclipsed the dread and anguish of the months before.
I went to see my close friend and neighbour, a powerful Sydney surgeon, who did everything possible to talk me down.
I told me about a reflex that can, rarely, be tripped when the cervix is violated.
It causes a sort of black out, he said. It can over-ride the consciousness. There’s a word for it. It’s a thing.
Great! I said. This is exciting! So the cervix has some sort of magic in it?
He looked at me in a very cross sort of way.
Jade, I really hope you are not going to do anything stupid. You know where you are headed. Be sensible.
Days later I received an email from Professor YY.
The results confirm it, I am afraid.
You are going to need surgery.
“How much time do I have, seriously, to decide?” I emailed back.
“About two months is a fair window,” he wrote.
“I am going to go to Bali, to rest and think it over.” I said.
Good idea. The email shot back.
I am thinking I might look into yoga, some diet stuff, maybe you could recommend?
Look Jade. I am all for you taking a break, but putting your leg behind your neck is never going to help you. What you need is a cold knife.
~ * ~
Those words echoed painfully about in my head as looked down over Bali. From high up in my Qantas seat, the island of the Gods, scared all over her lovely mountainous breast with a frenzy of development, shopping malls, booze bars and millions of hotels, sidewalk shanties, glamorous villas, wretched warungs and souvenir shops winked through the maze.
I smiled, and thought too, that somewhere there, also, was the luxury yoga school I had booked into for the month.
A friend of mine in Ubud had recommended it. She and her yoga mates were discovering new things about detox, diet, raw foods, healing plants. She was certain this was exactly what I needed. But she didn’t tell me she was taking a cut from my $8000 booking.
And she didn’t tell me friends were the most notorious kind of con artists.