First Person Periods: Kat
I didn’t need to be able to see the nurse’s face to work out that something wasn’t quite right when she said, “You’re bleeding quite a bit but it’s nothing to worry about.” Having spent years ignoring or simply not being able to tune into my instincts, I could suddenly hear them loud and clear. The pitch of her voice was all wrong and, when I did struggle up on to my elbows from my ungainly position, I could read it in her eyes. It wasn’t that she was lying to me, it was that she didn’t know if she was telling me the truth. One month later I was diagnosed with cervical cancer.
I suspect what I’m about to write will make me rather unpopular with many of you: I’m 38 and, until five years ago, my periods really had no effect on my life whatsoever. I can’t even remember when they started. Physically, they are no more than a minor inconvenience, if that. One day of spotting, then one or two days of bleeding so light it barely fills a tampon. I’ve never had the discomfort of wearing a saturated sanitary towel, or been in so much pain I needed to dose up with ibuprofen and paracetamol just to make it out of the house. And mentally, I’ve been let off just as lightly. I’ve never had to worry about my period arriving unexpectedly, or felt the shame of standing up and blood showing through my skirt. I’ve never felt like I was going to explode in the days leading up to it, or felt desperate that I have to go through this every month for the rest of my life. See, I told you you’d hate me.
Until five years ago, my periods really had no effect on my life whatsoever
For many years, I couldn’t see a downside to having virtually non-existent periods. I knew how some of my friends suffered and, although I felt bad for them, I also felt lucky that it wasn’t happening to me. It wasn’t that I was proud of it, but I’m ashamed to admit now that I did think I was somehow stronger than other women for not falling foul of such femaleness. That all changed when I got cancer. I realised that the downside was I was completely out of touch with my body. Far from being ‘stronger’, I was living in complete ignorance.
Having a period enables us to learn about our bodies, and how our bodies can affect our minds. It’s one of the first female experiences we talk about in detail with our mums, sisters and friends. It shows us what it feels like to lose control, and how to take back that control. It teaches us to listen to what’s going on inside us, and know when we need to take action to regain balance. But it never did any of this for me.
For me, the fact that hormones didn’t appear to have any effect on me meant I was less womanly than my friends. I felt different, and withdrew from conversations I didn’t feel I had a right to take part in. My mum and my sister had the same experience as me so, although there were no off-limits subjects in our house, periods and hormones simply weren’t a hot topic for us. I gave little thought to what it meant to live in a female body.
Hardly surprising then, that when I started having unexplained bleeding after sex, I momentarily thought it was a bit odd, but forgot about it instantly. It didn’t even occur to me to worry about it or mention it to anyone. And when I got a reminder about my smear test, I was so oblivious to what was going on inside me, I booked the appointment for my birthday.
Do you know how important a cervix is? I didn’t, until mine was removed
Without meaning to sound trite, having cervical cancer is a good way to get in touch with your body quickly. Do you know how important a cervix is? I didn’t, until mine was removed. Did you know that having 26 lymph nodes taken out of your legs and groin will mean you’ll never feel the same again? Me neither. Do you accidentally embarrass doctors by getting undressed while they’re still talking to you because you’re so used to showing people your vagina? (Sorry Dad.) Can you imagine weeping with joy the day you start bleeding again, knowing that it means you might still be able to have your own child?
I’m not for a moment saying that had I had more significant periods I wouldn’t have got cancer. But I do think I would have had a healthier respect for the incredible system at work beneath my skin. I still consider myself lucky that my periods don’t cause me the misery they do many women, but I also have a much greater understanding of why that is and what it means. And, while I wouldn’t go as far as to say I celebrate the arrival of my period each month, I do have a deeper appreciation of it. Because it means everything is working as it should, and I’m alive.