There is an undeniable commonality that we all share, and unfortunately we risk our own lives in doing so. This commonality goes against our natural instincts and it makes absolutely no sense as to why we continue to let this particular behaviour be.
I’ll begin with my own experience which may offer a reason for my sudden change of heart and personal awakening. I am currently 13 weeks pregnant and it is because of this that I am starting to realise my own mortality, treasure my health and value my time – all of which directly relates to our first child. My health determines the well-being of our unborn baby, which really makes one think twice about everything.
Before our first ultrasound, the thoughts had been somewhat common; baby names, possible gender, buying teeny-tiny clothes, prenatal vitamins etc. Though, it wasn’t until we saw our baby on the screen for the first time, bouncing around and enjoying him/herself, that I had the shocking and sudden realisation that yes, this precious being is indeed growing inside of me. Life has changed and the urge to protect our baby from anything and everything increased
dramatically and suddenly. Before the ultrasound, I had been more than careful to protect the baby, but now the mindset has changed and the feeling has somehow intensified.
Despite all of this, there was still something that I hadn’t considered. I spend my life worrying about the safety/well-being of my husband, and am now in full-on “mummy mode” in regard to protecting our baby, but I still did not care about my own health. I felt invincible and that if (even a few years down the line) anything were to happen to me, it would be just a fateful occurrence.
It wasn’t until the first pre-natal appointment at the local hospital that I actually got
(my version) of a wake-up call. Proudly rattling off a list of “no’s” to each of the midwife’s questions regarding previous health problems, I couldn’t help but think, “I’m young, of course my medical history is clear”. Then she asked for the ultrasound envelope. After removing the doctor’s letters from within, she handed the envelope back to me along with my copy of the letter. I glanced at it briefly and thought, “why didn’t I think to look at this earlier?” – the answer was simple, I had assumed that all was copacetic. When the midwife left the room later, I decided to read the letter that had remained in my hands. I saw some words that confused me; “There is a small corpus luteum in the right ovary”.
As soon as the midwife returned, I calmly asked her what it was and if the baby would be okay. She explained that it’s a common cyst that is typically harmless. I was relieved, yet somehow shaken that while nothing was wrong, there was something that had to be noted. It wasn’t so much the revelation of having a cyst, it was the feeling of invincibility suddenly washing away; I felt stupid for having assumed that nothing could be wrong.
The midwife continued her questions; feeling less proud of my answers, and suddenly vulnerable, I responded to them as they came. Then she asked something I had not considered, “have you ever had a pap smear?” I looked to the ground, incredibly ashamed of the answer – “no, I haven’t. I… I… Well, I..” I searched for the excuse, the reason to explain why this 25 year old woman had not yet bothered to have this simple procedure done. There was nothing – no excuse, no explanation, just a feeling of utter shame. She of course did not judge, but instead suggested that near to immediately after recovering from giving birth, I have this done.
I felt a change in my mind and in my spirit; suddenly the anxiety about the procedure was near to gone and I realised that as a mother-to-be, I needed to care as much about myself as I do about the ones that I love. In fact, as a daughter and as a wife, I owe it to my family to do everything within my power to ensure that I value my own health.
So why was I so intent on protecting my baby, yet had no regard for the future well-being of our baby’s mum? Am I the only one? Of course not. This is the unfortunate and common phenomenon that somehow occurs in a world that is so well-equipped to handle such a devastating disease as cancer in it’s early stages. When we learn that someone we love has been diagnosed, our typical first question is “what stage/how far along is it?” This implies that it is common knowledge that we understand how vital it is to detect cancer early; treatment is more effective and has a higher rate of success this way. Knowing all of this, some of us still somehow deny ourselves the opportunity to detect it early, possibly risking our own lives in doing so.
A recent viral video on the topic of early detection involved Amy Robach from the popular US TV show, Good Morning America. Amy is 40 years of age and admitted to never having a mammogram. She represents a vast majority of women who are anxious about the test itself and was “putting it off” for as long as possible. During Breast Cancer Awareness week, she volunteered to be the representative of their show and opted to get her very first mammogram on-air. Emerging from the screening bus, she explained how simple the test actually was, “there really wasn’t anything to be scared of, it was over in a few minutes”. Unfortunately for Amy, this wasn’t the end of the story. She later received a call and was rushed through for a battery of tests. They had found something and Amy had to swallow the unbearable thought that she did indeed have breast cancer.
Realising the journey ahead, Amy knew that she had to fight with every ounce of her being. She had to fight for her life, and she has more than a few reasons why that fight is strong within her; “I know that I have a fight ahead of me but I know that I have a lot worth fighting for”.
Amy recently emailed her colleagues to thank them and give an update on her treatment since having a bilateral double mastectomy. She wrote, “While in surgery last week my surgeon found a second, undetected malignant tumor.” – from the LA Times. Knowing that the test and subsequent treatment has saved her life, Robach is extremely grateful.
Though, Amy did need some convincing to actually go through with her test. Robin, a colleague at GMA, told her that “If you get the mammogram on air and it saved one life, then it’s all worth it.” Commenting on this recollection, Amy expresses the feeling of invincibility that she had; “It never occurred to me that life would be mine”. Again, that invincibility is a feeling that we all share; it doesn’t come from a place of arrogance or stupidity, but rather a coping mechanism for life. If we all believed that something is wrong all the time, we’d never survive as a species. However, it’s so imperative to keep reality in mind and remember that the test takes mere moments and if all is well, you can live with peace-of-mind until next time.
Like everyone else, Amy tried to talk herself out of it; “I had no connection to the disease – should I be the one to do it?” What she didn’t realise is that she actually had cancer at that very moment. This is a common misconception, a lack of family history does not preclude one from the disease. Amy represents the majority and her bravery should inspire all of us to change the way we think about our own mortality. Her most simple words were certainly the most profound, “I’m so glad I got that mammogram that day”; we are too Amy.
Please don’t limit this plea to cervical and breast cancer screenings. If you, or someone that you know has a vital test outstanding, please consider taking action. Generally, men over 50 need to have their prostate checked, both men and women begin the screening for colorectal cancer (via colonoscopy) at age 50, breast screenings should occur in women from the age of 40 and pap smears should be sought every two years between the age of 18 and 70 (or one or two years from age of first sexual encounter). This is all general information. You should talk to your doctor about your specific situation as in certain cases, family history and other factors will determine an earlier age requirement for testing.
Try to remember the people you love and how much they love you. Would you feel comfortable explaining to your partner/parents/children/siblings that you have been diagnosed with what could have been treatable cancer? I can’t imagine anything worse than being told, “it’s too late”, then realising in hindsight that the test you didn’t take could have saved your life.