If you’ve read my post about my history with health anxiety, you’ll know that this has been a topic for me for a while already. I wanted to take a few minutes to share a journal entry on my recent surgery as this is something which I know affects a lot of women.
I cherish my privacy, but after some consideration I decided it was the right thing to share this story on the blog. Honestly, I could have used a first hand account of this myself a few months ago, and I wish I would’ve have been able to read a happy-ending story myself.
How It Began...
It was September when I made the appointment for my annual check-up with my gynecologist in Zürich, and I didn’t think much of it because, well, why would you, right? I went in, had my regular exam and standard pap-smear, and went home thinking this was it for 2020. Until my phone rang a week or so later.
It was my gynecologist, informing me that the pap-smear had showed some cell-changes and the sample would be sent for further examination. I’d hear more in another week or so.
I was sitting in our living room, preparing for a work-call when I had gotten the call. Needless to say, it suddenly became harder to focus. To be completely honest: I was scared to death even though my gynecologist had tried to calm me down on the phone and moderately succeeded in doing so.
When I got the next call a week later, I was in my car. Unfortunately the cell-changes were moderate to severe, and I was told to come in for a biopsy. I was also told not to worry, but who really takes that advice? I had mentally been waiting for the call a whole week. I’d just started to be able to put it to the back of my mind. The whole thing came right back at me like a wave of anxiety.
So We Took The Next Step: Biopsies & Bad News
I made the appointment to have the biopsy taken and was dead nervous before coming in on a Thursday morning. The whole situation just made me nervous – I’ve never had a biopsy taken before in my life. Speaking to my gynecologist helped somewhat as she explained the bigger picture, saying that she’d use a vinegar solution to visualize potential cell-changes on my cervix and take biopsies accordingly.
She ended up taking four biopsies that day which was the maximum amount you’d take for this purpose. It hurt less than I thought but was obviously not the most pleasant thing in the world. I went back home, went to bed with cramps, ate a whole bag of licorice and tried my best to forget all about it, but in reality I knew that another countdown had started now and I just felt so sure I had more bad news coming my way somehow. Call it intuition or bad vibes – when you know you know.
And so my phone rang a week later early in the morning. We had just gotten up and were both working from home.
My doctor told me the results were back, that my cell-changes were high risk, and that she’d recommend I go straight for a conization in the coming weeks as 3 out of 4 biopsies had indicated changes. A conization, or a cone biopsy, is an ambulant procedure where the outer layer of the cervix is removed by laser to eliminate the affected tissue which has cell-changes. We talked for about 10 minutes, and she said that given the fact that I had had my previous checkup just a year prior which was all clear, she wasn’t too concerned.
Obviously this didn’t really help me in the moment. I of course went down the most fatalistic route and asked if there was any chance whatsoever that I had cancer. She said that this could only fully be ruled out after the conization had been done – which was the part I heard – but that she wasn’t worried about this. This last bit was of course the part I knew she said but didn’t pay much attention to.
I Need A Conization... Now What?
Googling it was both unsettling and reassuring at the same time.
Around 20’000 procedures are done in Switzerland alone every single year. The success rate is 90%, meaning the cell-changes don’t reappear later. But when you google conization and what to expect when you have a conization, you also get a lot of really unsettling stories about cervical cancer which is not what high-risk cell-changes are.
Needless to say it completely set me off. I found myself speculation about anything any everything I could. I got my surgery date for two weeks later to the date, and knew it was gonna be a long two weeks ahead with my own thoughts. I felt convinced I had cancer, a disease I’ve already experienced first hand as my mom survived one form of cancer only to die from another a decade later. It’s such a horrible disease.
My surgery was scheduled for a Friday two weeks from the day I got the news at Zollikerberg Spital outside of Zurich, slightly inconveniently located across the lake from where we live. But knowing that one of my friends had delivered her baby there and spoke highly about the staff and the experience, I felt a bit more at ease. Talking to my girlfriends I found that quite a lot had a friend who’d had a conization done, but no first-hand experiences. I’m guessing because it’s more common in your 30s but I don’t know.
Preparing For My Conization Surgery
In any case I was prepared for the worst to put it mildly. I went in for my pre-op consultation which went ok, except for a moment where the (rather young) doctor who spoke to me freaked me out more than anything in how she responded to my questions. I asked about the outlook and all she could say was “we’ll have to wait and see”. This answer just wasn’t good enough for me! I asked her if she could get her superior or someone with more experience to give me more of a high-level understanding of where my specific case was in the greater scheme of things. I really think it’s important to be a strong advocate for yourself, and sitting there I just knew that if I didn’t get to speak to someone with a proper level of experience and confidence in giving me some answers I’d be going through even more unnecessary stress.
She went and got her superior who was able to really calm me down and explain the risk profile and outlook to me, and she also said that given the amount of tissue they’d taken in the biopsies it was extremely unlikely that the conization would reveal an actual cancer (which was my fear, of course) as no cancerous cells were found in the biopsies. She also made it clear that cervical cancer normally takes years if not decades to develop from the pre-cancerous stages I had.
When I left I felt a bit better, but obviously still nervous for the surgery.
The Day Of My Surgery At Zollikerberg Spital
For my conization surgery at Zollikerberg Spital, Pablo and I left 7.45 in the morning. I was pretty calm in spite of having felt nervous the whole week, but that morning it was as if I just knew it was game time. I’d be going under full general anesthesia which is of course not normal, so it’s always a little unsettling, but all in all I was just grateful that I wouldn’t have to be awake during the procedure as I’m a complete wuss!
We arrived, registered and were taken up to the ambulant section where I got my own little room. It wasn’t big, but it was private and comfortable. I got changed, and Pablo and I spent the time waiting together, talking, him taking a few photos as he always does, and suddenly it was time. I got in my bed and the nurse wheeled me into the entryway of the operating theatre.
I honestly haven’t been in an operating theatre for… well, MANY years, and I was super nervous. I had to wait for another patient to be finished, and I just remember lying in my bed with my little heated blanket and shivering as it was also quite cold.
Finally I got wheeled in, and I really started getting nervous as I was suddenly surrounded by fully geared up nurses and doctors who were busy moving around instruments and measuring my blood pressure. The anesthesiologist came over and put the needle in my left hand – I hate needles – but as soon as the drugs started flowing I basically passed out instantly, and before I knew it I woke up again. It was as if nothing had happened – just as I wanted it!
Recovery After My Conization Surgery
Pablo had gone home to work for the day, and he had barely sat down at the desk before I was video calling him, high as a kite, from my little room. The surgery took less than half an hour and I had no side effects from the anesthesia other than feeling tired, but I couldn’t really sleep. I took it easy, ate my sandwich which I was served, and enjoyed the fact that it was over!
The doctor came in to see me a few hours later, and told me everything had gone very well, and she felt confident they’d gotten all the impacted tissue. Of course we would have to wait for the histology analysis to see if this was truly the case, but she was optimistic.
I actually felt completely fine, had no pain or bleeding and basically just hopped in an Uber and went home. I was completely shocked how easy it had been! In the following days I was definitely a bit more tired than normally, but I’d taken off Monday-Tuesday to give myself time to recover as well as catch up on some sleep as I felt exhausted from the previous weeks of tension.
... And The Result
About 2.5 weeks after my surgery I went in for a checkup with my normal GYN. To my great relief everything was perfect – she said the results from the surgery were great; I didn’t need a second procedure as the margins of healthy tissue had been satisfactory, and the analysis of the removed tissue was also congruent with the biopsies, meaning no worse cell changes had been detected.
Aka – no cancer! I knew it was a pretty small risk, but it just felt good to know that I could finally delete this from my mind!
She also told me that the risk of having the cell changes reoccur again were around 5%, a number I felt pretty good about! I’m now due for a control in another 6 months, and if that one’s clear then we follow up again after 6 more months.
Final Thoughts & Experience With Zollikerberg Spital
In the end, the biopsy was actually way worse than my actual surgery! I was really surprised how easy the surgery and recovery was. The mental aspect of coping with uncertainty was far harder than the physical aspects.
My experience with Zollikerberg Spital was excellent. I really felt well cared for, and the entire process was super smooth. I had a few questions in advance of the procedure and found that I always had prompt responses on email within an hour or so of writing. Most of the staff spoke English and my mediocre German made do for the rest of it.
I’m super grateful that these screenings exist and learnt a lot about my own resilience during the process. I definitely found it helpful to practice mindfulness, and especially having Pablo to calm me down once in a while and remind me that it’s a very common procedure really helped.
In the end, good health is the greatest gift we have.