Losing My Sense of Being a Woman
Being a mom was something I waited for, and I was thrilled when my husband and I finally had our first child. We loved being new parents and were eager to have more babies. But in 2013, cancer had another future planned for me, for us. And it wasn’t a pretty one or even one we ever dreamed could happen at such a young age. When my doctor discovered I had abnormal PAP test results and HPV, the journey took an ugly turn that would save my life but leave me with a profound sense of loss that lingers 7 years later – my sense of being a woman.
Literally, within 12 hours of my cancer diagnosis, I was in the operating room having my reproductive organs removed along with an aggressive 4-centimeter carcinoma tumor on my cervix – Stage II cervical cancer. It also removed any chance of ever having my own children and being a mom again.
To some people, a woman losing her breasts to cancer might seem like the most obvious reason to feel as though she’s lost her sense of being a woman. I may have not lost my breasts, but the loss of my reproductive organs is just painful. As a woman, I could still carry a baby in my uterus without breasts.
I now knew I would live the rest of my life with this incomplete feeling, this void that no one could fill or fix.
The surgery left me feeling like the doctors took everything important out of me, like I was not of any value to anyone anymore. I felt my husband was also impacted because he was now stuck with a woman who could no longer have his children. But mostly, it was hard for me to accept because I was still young - only 30 years old. I now knew I would live the rest of my life with this incomplete feeling, this void that no one could fill or fix. I struggled with the unwanted memories, nightmares, and flashbacks of the trauma - it stuck to my life like super glue for quite a while.
I was angry and distrustful of doctors. I had been experiencing symptoms and going to the doctor well before my diagnosis, following every recommendation they gave me. The stress and uncertainty those visits caused, along with waiting, and continuing to wait for test results was debilitating. I even ended up in the emergency room, thinking I could be having a heart attack at one point. I couldn’t eat or sleep well, and I wasn’t able to fully enjoy my young son as I tried to heal physically and emotionally.
Outwardly, the profound sense of loss caused me to avoid situations related to cancer, like hospitals and doctors’ offices. I disliked going to places with lots of kids. Even the announcement of a friend’s pregnancy robbed me of feeling any joy through my own deep, aching sense of loss. I felt very irritable, had a hard time focusing and concentrating, and difficulty sleeping.
On the inside, I hated my surgery scar, my body, and I didn't want to be as close to my husband as I was before. I believed he wouldn't like my body anymore either, even after he told me that wasn't the case. But I did not, could not, believe him. How could he not look at my scar and realize it represented the fact we would never have more children?
I developed PTSD and body dysmorphia, a mental health disorder where you obsess over one or more flaws (which may or may not exist) in your appearance. It caused me to feel embarrassed and ashamed about my abdominal scar - it impacted how I saw myself as less than a complete woman. These feelings made me want to avoid social situations and obsess about which types of clothing I could or couldn’t wear.
To this day, 7 years later, I struggle with my appearance, my weight, and my midsection. Thankfully, therapy is helping me learn to deal with it better, but it’s still hard. As a result of waiting, it affected my family in negative ways that are not easy to fix years later.
If I had dealt with my feelings as they developed, I believe I could have moved on from them sooner.
I wish someone had encouraged me sooner to seek therapy over these intense feelings and a deep sense of loss. Unfortunately, I chose to keep my fears, anger, and worries to myself. I thought if I could lock them away, I would forget about them. I realize now that wasn’t the right approach. If I had dealt with my feelings as they developed, I believe I could have moved on from them sooner.
Cancer really doesn’t care about your life plans to be a mom relocating for a job, or anything else that’s happening. This was true in my case when my American husband’s job relocated us back to the US from my native Germany, leaving behind friends, family, and a support system. Just one year after my cervical cancer surgery, our little family of three arrived in Florida to start a new chapter.
I used this opportunity to throw myself into working and started my own cleaning business, Custom Cleanups. My dedication quickly brought new clients and a need to hire employees to continue my growth. This was a welcomed chance that made me feel useful and strong again, and I made the most of it.
I realized I wanted to be able to give back in my community and partnered with a non-profit group called Cleaning for a Reason. They partner with cleaning companies across the US to offer free house cleaning services to cancer patients while they receive treatment. My business gave me a purpose and an outlet to stay busy by helping others.
With my husband’s support and encouragement, I also wrote and published a book about my experiences. I wrote about my early life in Germany, meeting my husband, and starting our family through my cancer diagnosis. I also covered how my faith and hard work brought me to where I am today. How Far I Have Risen - Coming Clean About Cancer, God and My American Dream was both therapeutic and rewarding to complete.
If I am honest with myself, I still carry that sense of loss, and of feeling incomplete as a woman. But my journey and therapy have helped me find gratitude and balance again. I can push the negative feelings away more easily and believe I am blessed to be alive today. I do that while sharing my two biggest pieces of advice: trust your body when it’s telling you something is wrong, and to get professional counseling as early as possible after your cancer diagnosis.
There’s no question my life-saving surgery left me feeling incomplete as a woman, but it’s possible to live with that, accept that, and make a tremendous impact on others anyway.
Photo courtesy of author.
Jacky Costello is the founder and owner of Custom Cleanups LLC. During her early days in East Germany before the wall came down and her time in school and the workforce in West Germany, she learned many of life's tough lessons. But, it was after she had found happiness with her husband and the birth of their son that she faced the toughest challenges of all. Through her company's partnership with Cleaning for a Reason she gives back to others who are battling cancer like she did and through her book "How Far I Have Risen: Coming Clean About Cancer, God And My American Dream" she hopes to inspire others who may be facing similar challenges.