Melissa Harris Lacewell is a scholar and friend. I haven’t seen or heard from her in while. She has been out on sick leave. She has penned her first article since since her surgery. Her article is a tribute to her uterus. It is both funny and thoughtful.
After a four-year battle with uterine fibroids, I am finally surrendering. Last Monday, I checked into N.Y. Presbyterian Hospital and underwent a hysterectomy. I am 34 years old.
I fought back with hormones and holistic treatments. I have had second and third opinions in Chicago, Philadelphia and New York. I’ve seen black doctors and white, male and female. I have had every test, read every book and gotten advice from everyone I know. In the end, I made the difficult decision to bid farewell to my uterus.
It is a tough goodbye. I really like my uterus. I don’t have personal relationships with all of my internal organs, but this one was special. She protected and carried my lovely daughter for nine months. She was with me every step of the way in a 12-hour, natural delivery. My uterus and I did not take so much as a Tylenol while birthing that seven-pound baby. We are very proud of ourselves.
My path to this surgery has had some pretty bizarre moments. There was deafening fear the first time my doctor said “oncologist.” The room went silent, and I missed the next five minutes of what my GYN said to me. I had to ask her to repeat everything when my hearing returned.
There were ludicrous situations like my three-hour appearance on CNN American Morning. I was losing so much blood that I sat on set and sent a text to my best friend: “If u dont c me after commercial call 911. I might pass out in ladies room.”
There was unmitigated joy when the results of biopsies, blood tests and MRIs determined the mass was benign. That day I bought myself a great piece of jewelry that I affectionately call my “I don’t have cancer necklace.”
There was annoyance when, one week before the final Democratic primaries, doctors advised that my low iron count was life threatening, and I had to immediately cease travel and public appearances in order to rebuild my hemoglobin.
There was wistful regret when I realized I would never birth another child.
I am a political writer, so sharing my personal health status is difficult. But I am also a black women’s health advocate. I know from my work with breast cancer that shame and silence have the power to kill. Black women suffer from fibroids at much higher rate than white women, and we are far more likely to end up with hysterectomies. Yet, we rarely talk about it.
“Woman troubles” are not polite conversation. Fibroid symptoms can be degrading and embarrassing. The possibility of losing our reproductive capacity makes fibroids hard to confront. But our silence has real consequences. Because we don’t talk about it in families, we often don’t know that our own mothers, grandmothers and sisters have battled fibroids. Because we don’t tell our friends, we are not there to support one another or to share alternatives for treatment, good doctors to see, useful books to read and horrifying Web sites to avoid. Because we don’t talk about it in public, there is little pressure from black communities on the medical establishment to find better alternatives for alleviating our suffering.
Just a few decades ago, breast cancer was also shrouded in silence and suffering from neglect in the medical field. Women did not discuss their breasts in public or examine them in private. The medical-science search for causes and cures was woefully inadequate. But women turned the reality of breast cancer around by making it a top priority public health issue. Women’s health advocates exploded the shame surrounding the disease with pink ribbons, public walks and aggressive public awareness campaigns. I have been a small part of that community, and I know the work saves lives.
I want the same thing for black women and our uteruses. I want everyone to read Dorothy Roberts’ Killing the Black Body to learn the shameful history of racist reproductive control that black women have endured. I want everyone to read Medical Apartheid for a fuller appreciation of the frightening medical terrain black women must navigate as they try to find healing. Then I want a ribbon, an awareness month, a survivors’ circle and a marathon. I want medical research to find alternatives to surgical intervention for uterine fibroids. I want my nieces, friends and daughter to face more choices if they ever find they must.
I am sure that I made the right decision for this moment and for my body. Unlike many sisters, I am blessed with great health insurance, a flexible job and a supportive network of family and friends. I expect to be whole and healthy soon.
Melissa Harris-Lacewell is an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University. She is teaching a course on the Politics of Racial Health Disparities this fall.