According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, over the period of 2012-2013 (the most recent statistics we could find), more than 40,000 women in Canada had a hysterectomy. If those numbers blow your mind, we hope you’re sitting down right now because the National Women’s Health Network in the United States reports a staggering 600,000 hysterectomies per year in the US. In fact, there is a 1-in-3 chance that an American woman will have a hysterectomy by the time she reaches the age of 60.
A hysterectomy might be partial, total, or radical, and the procedure itself is performed vaginally or abdominally depending on individual circumstances. Regardless of the method, it is always a major surgical undertaking. Most women approach their hysterectomies with at least some trepidation and it remains a subject that we don’t often find opportunity to discuss openly with one another. Today two BLUNTmoms, Jill and Alison, share their own experiences with you about life after a hysterectomy.
About the procedure…
Jill: I had a total abdominal hysterectomy – TAH. That means my uterus and cervix are gone and that they cut my belly open to take them out. I still have my ovaries but since I am mostly done with menopause now, they’re probably shriveled up like little tiny raisins. Seriously, last time I had a pelvic exam, my doc told me she could no longer feel my ovaries, which I have to tell you was mildly depressing.
My procedure was optional-ish. I wouldn’t have died if I had kept my uterus, but my quality of life would have sucked. I had fibroid tumors the size of grapefruits in my uterus. Why do they always compare tumors to fruits, anyway? I was having uber-heavy periods… like life stopping heavy, “take to your bed” kind of menses which hadn’t been my norm until my early forties. When I went to get checked out, my gyno’s first guess is that I was pregnant because of the size of my uterus. She also mentioned fibroids as a potential culprit and ordered some tests.
I had a small moment of panic. I was single and I’d broken up with the man I’d been seeing about three months before. I went through the “what if” scenarios in my mind. What if I was pregnant? What would it be like to have another baby? How did I feel about being connected to a man I’d just decided I didn’t want in my life?
In my heart of hearts, I knew I wasn’t pregnant, but I’d be lying if I said some part of me didn’t wish for a diagnosis of pregnancy instead of fibroids.
Alison: I had a radical hysterectomy to treat cervical cancer when I was 29. The upper 1/3 of my vagina and cervix were both removed, along with my uterus, fallopian tubes, surrounding tissues and ligaments, and lymph nodes. I kept my ovaries because my oncologist was confident they were not at risk for metastasis and he felt the benefits of leaving them in place outweighed the risk of problems later on in life if I lost them at such a young age.
I admit, it was not something I wanted to do. After my diagnosis, my number one goal was avoiding radiation because the permanent side effects were too fucking scary. I wasn’t kidding when I said “radiation shortens and tightens your Cavern Of Womanly Delights like it’s made from Shrinky Dinks.”
No, thank you. Surgery, it was. I’m confident I made the right decision, and I’ve been cancer-free for almost ten years now.
What was the recovery like? Were there complications?
Jill: My surgery and recovery were pretty uneventful. Things went smoothly and I was in the hospital for only about a day. Side note: I had a morphine drip where I could medicate myself on demand and I maxed myself out. I don’t usually do meds, and I was so loopy I couldn’t get my popsicle in my mouth. That’s my most “standout” memory of being in the hospital, besides the fact that they tried to feed me plain yogurt. Clearly, I’m all about the food.
I went home with Vicodin tablets, but weaned myself off after a couple of days; opiates are constipating, and pooping after having your abs sliced open is painful enough. Plus, I was able to manage the pain well enough with just Tylenol. I considered myself lucky I had an easy time with pain management. I know some women don’t.
I think my recovery was easy because I listened to my doc and followed his post op orders to a tee: no lifting anything heavier than a gallon of milk or driving for two weeks; no exercising for four weeks. I’m independent and active so the restrictions were hard, but I saw this as my one chance to heal the right way, so I was cautious. I started taking walks after four weeks and slow running at six weeks.
Alison: I was in the hospital for a week. The surgery went well; the pain was manageable, but I had to have anti-nausea medication for both the morphine drip and the Vicodin I was given after the drip was removed. I do not recommend puking after major abdominal surgery; it hurts in ways you can’t imagine.
My bladder did not function properly for a few weeks afterward. I just couldn’t feel it when I had to pee; I had no muscle memory for how to do so. I had a regular catheter in the hospital but before I left, a nurse taught me to self-catheterize with a portable one so I didn’t have to be tethered to a bag of pee all day, every day. I had to self-cath every four hours, measuring urine into a metered container each time. It should be noted that it was incredibly easy to do, so rest assured it is certainly a manageable complication to have. Eventually, all those little sensations that tell you when you have to pee came back, and everything was working just as it did before the surgery. I continued to have numbness in the outer portion of my upper left thigh for many months afterward; it might have been a year or more – I really don’t recall exactly when I regained most of the feeling in it. To this day, my sense of feeling is the slightest bit dulled in that area.
During the recovery, every little gas bubble that passed through my intestine hurt like a motherfucker. I guess it’s because of the proximity of my digestive organs to the areas that were all stitched and healing inside. My stool softeners and I were best buds for a long time.
I have a lot of abdominal adhesions, which basically means that scar tissue has kind of made my innards stick together here and there. Pretty gross, but it hasn’t caused any dire consequences (yet).
What about menopause?
Jill: I had night sweats immediately after surgery, but they only lasted a couple weeks. I didn’t start experiencing symptoms of menopause until several years later… probably at the natural point where I’d have started the change. I was about 46 when all that started, and I’m almost 49 now. I just started really having the full force symptoms about a year ago. Menopause really sucks, but I don’t think my hysterectomy impacted the natural course of things. Did I mention menopause really sucks?
Alison: My procedure was in 2005; in 2013, I swore I was going through menopause. For a few months, I had hot flashes, night sweats, I couldn’t sleep, my boobs were constantly sore, and I was a bitch on wheels almost all the time. My oncologist had told me it was likely I’d go into menopause early; he said that extensive scar tissue produced by a radical hysterectomy could potentially “strangle” my ovaries (or my intestines, what fun!) so I just figured that’s what had happened. However, I had a hormone test last year and my levels were all fine at that point. My current doctor thinks it’s possible one of my ovaries was shutting down; the other possibility is that I only had one working ovary to begin with and it was petering out for some unknown reason.
Did your sex life change after a hysterectomy?
Jill: I started dating my husband very shortly after my surgery, so he had no pre-hysterectomy sex with me to compare it to. I was a bit nervous about what it would be like to have sex with someone new when my body had been through so many changes. Since I have no cervix, there’s nothing to absorb semen. So I can’t just hop up after sex or I have a leaky mess. Although it was a little awkward, I was up front and explained things to him. He was unfazed.
Sex is really no different. It doesn’t feel different to me. Getting me a washcloth to help clean myself up is just part of our post-nooky ritual. My husband always gets up to grab it for me. I don’t think about it unless he forgets!
Alison: I was terrified of sex. Like Jill, I have no cervix so I’m just sewn shut on the inside. With my vagina being shorter, and my insides tender from the surgery, we started having sex about three months after the procedure. I was always on top so I could control all of the movement, but even then, my insides ached for days afterward. I couldn’t have sex more than once a week for that reason and I was so concerned with not hurting myself that orgasm became a distant memory, at least for a while. It took a couple years for things to get back to normal; there is no pain or discomfort now, and sex is awesome.
And yeah, Jill’s not kidding about post-sex leakage. We keep a stash of “ho towels” in the bedside drawer.
Jill: Alison, I am laughing my ass off at “ho towels!” And why did I never think to put them in my nightstand with some of our “other stuff?”
Alison: I have to give credit where it is due; my husband came up with that name for them one night, and we’ve been using it ever since.
Did you mourn the loss of your reproductive organs? Were there other emotional ramifications after hysterectomy?
Jill: The loss of my reproductive organs is complicated. I did not mourn the fact that I could no longer have babies, although there was some disappointment mixed in with the relief when I learned I wasn’t pregnant. I think I was too busy making my plans on how I’d survive surgery and recovery alone, and I didn’t let myself really grieve that my babymaking parts were gone.
I was 42. I had one daughter. I thought the door was closed on more kids, and I tried to be okay with that.
Since my surgery was elective, I did have some pangs of regret when my husband and I decided to get married. He had never had kids and even though he says it wasn’t, I know it was hard for him to accept we wouldn’t ever get pregnant. We eventually decided to adopt, which was the best decision ever. It all worked out.
I do not feel less of a woman. I’m not less of a woman. A uterus doesn’t define me… I’ve never felt that way, but I think it’s important to understand that some women do feel that way. I think the experience of being able to have a baby before my hysterectomy may have mitigated some of that for me.
Physically, I feel so much better. My periods were out of control, and just little things like being able to have nice underwear was a big deal. Not having to plan life around my periods has been a game changer.
Alison: When I had my procedure done, it wasn’t quite four months after I gave birth to our second child. At that point, I really didn’t worry about being unable to have any more kids. For the most part, that has remained the case.
Now, ten years later and with one of my kids still in elementary school, I’m around younger moms who are either pregnant again or toting infants and young toddlers. I would be lying if I said that it didn’t sometimes make me a little sad, knowing that I’ll never carry another child. Cankles and hemorrhoids aside, I loved being pregnant. I used to set stuff on my belly just to watch the baby kick at it. Out in the world, I received VIP (Very Important Pregnancy) access to all bathrooms everywhere, even if they were employees-only, simply because I was with child. Pregnancy and childbirth are miracles that I’ll no longer have the opportunity to experience. And babies… oh, babies are just so wonderful.
I do mourn that loss just a little bit. Not enough to cause immeasurable woe and a river of tears, but at least enough to make me sigh wistfully at the sight of a wee kidlet in another mother’s arms.
On the upside, I have to tell you that not having periods and never thinking twice about birth control is kind of sexy. It’s funny, but I sort of feel more womanly now that my reproductive organs are gone because I don’t bleed like a stuck pig for a week every month. I had forgotten what a pain in the ass that was. I don’t miss it.
What advice would you give women who are considering or will be having the procedure?
Jill: I think support and education and knowing what sort of support and education you need are key. I joined a forum called “Hyster Sisters” and honestly, it freaked me out more than it did anything else. There were ladies on there who had that… that stuff that Jenny talked about in her post where her bladder and asshole were falling out. I had nothing of the sort, and it just made me panic. There are probably closed FB groups for support now. But ask questions and listen to your doctor. You have one chance to heal right – take it.
Alison: Do not watch a comedy movie on your first night home from the hospital. I made the mistake of watching “Shaun of the Dead” during my first night of freedom, and the pool stick scene (the one set to Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now) nearly split me in two. That said, clutching a pillow tightly to your abdomen whenever you sneeze, cough, or laugh will help to reduce the pain along with the sensation that your incision is going to bust open.
Like Jill mentioned, you get one shot at recovery. Follow your doctor’s instructions like your life depends on it, because it kind of does. After a few weeks, you’ll start feeling like yourself again. Your energy will come back. You’ll be hurting less. You’ll think to yourself, “Oh, I can carry this laundry basket; I feel awesome!”
Drop the fucking basket. Make someone else carry it because you. Are not. Ready. It is so easy to do damage to yourself during those following weeks because you’re feeling great on the outside, but your stitched-up insides are still healing, and they’re doing it for much longer than you might realize. Your doctor says no lifting anything heavier than a plate of food for six weeks? Don’t lift anything heavier than a plate of food for six weeks.
Jill: Oh yeah. That first sneeze is brutal.
Every woman’s hysterectomy story is different. There are many types of medical conditions that lead to this decision, and every body reacts to surgery, pain and healing in a unique way. The emotional footprint is also different for every woman. You may grieve. You may be unruffled by the whole process. Give yourself permission to heal at your own pace–both physically and mentally–and don’t be afraid to make adjustments. Take care of you. Get information. Find support.
And, if you need a laugh or a badass community of fearless women who “get it,” BLUNTmoms is always here for you.