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How Meditation Helped Me Heal After Hysterectomy

After surgery for uterine fibroids put me in bed for a month, I turned to mindfulness and meditation to recenter myself.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk known for his teachings on mindfulness, wrote, “Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.” While I was quite certain when I first read that quote that he knew what he was talking about, I wasn’t convinced. But when it was time for me to start getting ready for a major surgery, I hoped I could rely on that simple insight because I was about to put his theory to the test.

Heather Sweeney.

I’d known about my uterine fibroid for over two years. Like many women, at first I wasn’t bothered by symptoms of the noncancerous growth in my uterus. It wasn’t until my doctor ordered x-rays for my unexplained lower back pain that I realized the fibroid wasn’t just a mild inconvenience: it had indeed been wreaking havoc in my body. A pelvic ultrasound revealed that my fibroid had grown to the size of a tangerine and was likely the cause of my frequent and heavy periods, severe pelvic pain and the back pain that had started me on a string of doctor visits to figure out what was wrong with me.

I attempted the non-surgical treatment route first. But after months of being miserable on birth control pills, I knew I didn’t want to continue that path. After two surgical consults, I learned the fibroid was too large to simply be removed through a laparoscopic myomectomy, and an abdominal myomectomy was a major surgery, with a recovery time as lengthy as a hysterectomy. Because a myomectomy didn’t guarantee that more fibroids wouldn’t pop up later and because I didn’t plan on having more children, I decided a hysterectomy was my best option to alleviate the chronic issues that had become impossible to ignore.

I’m a physically active person. That’s why the thought of a four-to-six week recovery after my hysterectomy made me just as anxious as the surgery itself. Rest? For over a month? How could I possibly sit still for that long?

Rest? For over a month? How could I possibly sit still for that long?

Meditation was not new to me. I started practicing meditation and mindfulness over a year prior to my hysterectomy as a way to combat stress. I meditated every day, and I quickly learned what worked for me and what didn’t. I created a meditation station in my home office, purchased a half a dozen instructional books and downloaded apps with guided meditations. However, as with most fads, the daily practices trickled down to a few days a week and then I found I only meditated when I was so stressed out that I was desperate.

But I never forgot about the benefits of meditation. That’s why, when I was making a checklist of all the things I needed to take care of before my hysterectomy — work coverage, child care, meal planning — I started meditating again. Planning to put my life on hold for at least a month wasn’t easy. Daily meditations helped ease that burden.

By the time I walked into the hospital, I had meditated every day for almost a month, a feat I had never accomplished before. Not only did it help keep my nerves in check, but it also made the practice come naturally to me. So when I woke up after the successful total hysterectomy that removed my uterus, cervix and fallopian tubes, it took little effort to fall back on what I had taught myself. My body instinctively knew to focus on the breath.

Planning to put my life on hold for at least a month wasn’t easy. Daily meditations helped ease that burden.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

I connected with my breath when nurses woke me in the middle of the night because my surgeon wanted me walking as soon as possible. As they guided me across the room, I took baby steps mindfully, focusing on my feet lifting off and touching the floor instead of the pain in my abdomen.

Lift. Step. Lift. Step.

I used meditation during the many hours I spent in my hospital bed. Sometimes the pain was so intense it took my breath away. But once I found my breath again, I found the calm I knew I needed to get through it.

Inhale. Exhale.

Meditation followed me home after I was discharged from the hospital and was a constant throughout my recovery. I still leaned on the practice for pain management, but I also found it to be essential as a sleep aid. The first couple of weeks at home were a blur of pain medication and middle-of-the-night wake-ups. My favorite guided meditation app talked me through those nights and got me back to sleep.

Sometimes I did body scan meditations while lying down, a practice that showed me how tense my entire body was when I was in pain or frustrated by my lack of progress. Acknowledging that tension allowed me to release it, which in turn allowed me to relax enough to embrace the pain or fall asleep or whatever relief I was seeking.

Because meditation doesn’t require a formal sitting, I practiced walking meditations outside as I gradually got back in motion. I mindfully focused on my footsteps hitting the ground, the birds chirping around me, the kids whizzing past me on their bicycles. This helped me to fully appreciate the fresh air in my lungs and the feeling of getting stronger.

Of course, I still felt pain. Of course, I had moments when it all felt like too much to bear. Of course, negative feelings arose and tried to convince me that this was the longest and worst six weeks of my life and not at all worth alleviating the pain from my fibroid. Practicing meditation didn’t prevent bad moods or bad feelings or bad days, nor did it try to suppress them. What it did was allow me to face the negativity, accept it and let it go so I could move on.

Practicing meditation didn’t prevent bad moods or bad feelings or bad days, nor did it try to suppress them. What it did was allow me to face the negativity, accept it, and let it go so I could move on.

Mindful meditation is all about being in the present moment, acknowledging and accepting the feelings and emotions happening right now. Meditating proved to me that Thich Nhat Hanh was absolutely correct, that all feelings are fleeting, whether they are perceived in our mind as positive or negative, and I could rely on my breath to center myself. The pain I was enduring wouldn’t last forever. The fatigue that overwhelmed me wasn’t permanent. But the pain and fatigue were necessary and served a purpose. It was my body working its magic to heal internally. Instead of berating my body for temporarily putting my life on hold, meditation reminded me to take a breath and appreciate the hard work my body was doing for me.

Six weeks after my hysterectomy I returned to work and was easing back into my active lifestyle. By then my body had recovered enough that I finally noticed I was no longer experiencing any of the issues my fibroid had caused, a relief that confirmed for me the surgery was worth all the struggles.

By then I had also meditated every day for over two months. It had become a part of my daily routine, and I brought the practice with me as I adjusted to my normal pre-surgery schedule. I know now that if meditation can help get me through a hysterectomy, it can help me get through anything.

Q&As The Good Fight

Taking The White Dress Back Out Of The Closet

Millions of women suffer from fibroids across America, but through the White Dress Project, Tanika Gray Valbrun is helping show that fibroids are nothing to be embarrassed about.

Fibroids—benign tumors that grow in or outside of the uterus—can be more than an inconvenience for women. Ranging in size from a pea to a melon,they can be down right debilitating, creating crippling symptoms ranging from anemia to infertility. Worse? Whether out of ignorance or out of stigma, women often suffer through in silence, despite the fact that they are incredibly prevalent: According to an American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology report, between 80 and 90 percent of African American women and 70 percent of white women will develop fibroids by age 50.

Through her nonprofit organization The White Dress Project, Atlanta resident Tanika Gray Valbrun, 40, is turning to spotlight on how fibroids affect women’s health. By encouraging women with fibroids to wear white, Valbrun hopes to raise awareness around fibroids, while simultaneously symbolizing the strength, courage, and perseverance of the millions of women around the country who deal with the issue every day.

Folks sat down with Valbrun to find out why she established the White Dress Project, why it’s important for women with fibroids to stick together, and what she hopes will happen to the movement next. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tanika Gray Valbrun’s experience with fibroids inspired her to create the White Dress Project.

Explain why this cause is so personal for you.

It runs in the family. My mom lost two sets of twins to fibroids. She lost a set before me, got pregnant with me, and then she lost a set of twins after me. But even though my mother told me about her fibroids, you still don’t get the reality until you experience it yourself.

Even though my mother told me about her fibroids, you still don’t get the reality until you experience it yourself.

When did you learn you had fibroids?

I was diagnosed at 19. I’d always had heavy periods. My stomach always looked like I was three-months pregnant, but even through all that, I said “whatever.” I just thought that’s how periods were. After I was diagnosed, I started going to specialists. Some doctors would say to just watch and wait. But the problem with watching and waiting is that the fibroids are growing.
As soon as I started talking about it, everybody came out of the woodwork with their story.

Did the symptoms hinder you in any way?

There are so many women who have severe anemia because of fibroids. I am one of them. I’ve had five transfusions because I was severely anemic.

Fibroids completely took a hold on my quality of life. I wouldn’t go to white parties or have anything white in my closet. That may seem a bit superficial, but it made me think about how I’d never done so many things because of fibroids. I wouldn’t get a car with cloth seats because it’s harder to get blood out of it. You’re conscious about sneezing because you don’t want to worry about being embarrassed because you’ll mess yourself up. It takes a toll on you.

Why are fibroids such a misunderstood issue for women?

I think that there’s a stigma because women aren’t talking about it. We’ve been taught that we don’t talk about issues below the belt. We don’t talk about periods because it happens once a month, so it’s nothing special. You just prepare yourself, take the necessary medicines, and keep moving. But if we’re not talking about it, then no one else is going to take it up for discussion for us.

What did you learn about fibroids that was surprising to you?

It really shocked me how many women suffer from fibroids. Even though there are so many, so many of us aren’t talking about it.

I was also surprised when a doctor told me I was developing pica from fibroids.With pica, you crave certain things, like ice or soap or clay. I’d become so anemic, I had a strong craving for soap, just for the minerals. I didn’t always want to eat it, but just taking it out the package and smelling it was so soothing to me and made me feel stronger.

I realized that it was connected because as soon as I would have a transfusion I couldn’t stand soap.

The White Dress Project helps women come out of the fibroids closet.

What are some things women should be mindful of before or after a diagnosis?

What I’ve always told women to do is to be in tune with what is going on in their body. When you feel something is off, it’s time to get it checked out.

Any consistent pain means something needs to be addressed.

Any consistent pain means something needs to be addressed.

How large is your reach?

We have a chapter in the D.C./Maryland/Virginia area, and we have a presence in New York City, LA, Houston and in South Florida. We launched an ambassador program for people who had an interest in joining us and helping in any kind of way. Women volunteer and coordinate events in their region or city.

It’s relatively small and growing. It’s grassroots movement.Getting people to know we’re here, that’s half the battle.

Besides the personal experiences, why was it important to start this campaign with a potentially global reach?

There’s nothing being done about it. I was shocked that there are no runs, no T-shirts, nothing about fibroids awareness. When I started the organization, someone asked me: “Has anyone died from this condition?’ I was taken aback: dying shouldn’t be the standard that something needs to be advocated for.

If there were more funding, it would help to get the conversations going. If more legislators supported reproductive issues, that would also get conversations going.

What’s next for the White Dress Project?

We want to move toward a membership-based organization with dues so that we can support women with fibroids. We want to build a community. We’d like to assist with scholarships and grants to help women with copays or help medically no matter what stage they’re in. If someone needs help with recovery we’d like to provide support, like send meals to her house while she recovers.

We also want to ramp up fundraising so that we can dedicate funds to fibroids research. There are researchers who are looking at this but they may not be able to dedicate all of their research hours to fibroids research.

How does one help the White Dress Project or get involved?

They can visit whitedressproject.com or thewhitedressproject.org  to get information and donate there, or they can follow us on social media, which has been important for us. We’re @WeCan_WearWhite on Twitter, We Can Wear White on Instagram, and The White Dress Project: We CAN Wear White on Facebook.

 

Essays

How A Magic Pill Saved Me From A Hysterectomy

Thanks to fibroids on my uterus, half my life was spent in embarrassment and severe pain. My doctor recommended surgery; instead, in my 40s, I went on birth control.

After bleeding over 500 days in a row, the fibroids I endured for ten years ended in a single day. It was like turning off a faucet (or going to Lourdes). My saviors: A miracle-worker pill and menopause.

Fibroids, or benign (non-cancerous) growths on the uterus, are very common. Most women with them have no symptoms. But some cause heavy periods and cramps. In my case, the term “heavy”  was the understatement of the century.

I once woke up in the morning to find a blood stain three feet long and over a foot wide on my bed, despite wearing a tampon while I slept. Another time, I was getting out of a taxi, and saw the blood had soaked through my pants and raincoat, making the backseat look like someone had been murdered with an ax.

My flow was so heavy, I’d need to wear a SuperPlus tampon and a Kotex MaxiPad at the same time to get through some days. When even that combo failed to staunch the flow, I began to wear Depends, the special underwear worn by the incontinent, hoping the drugstore clerk would assume I was buying them for my elderly parents or grandparents.

I suppose I was lucky. I was a freelance writer, working at home. With fibroids, how on earth could I perform a regular job: one that required standing, walking, commuting and sitting in office chairs? But I didn’t feel lucky. Once at a restaurant interviewing someone for a story, I had to jump to the bathroom mid-sentence when I felt Niagara starting to gush. Every time I sat down to interview someone, I feared that there would be a bloodstain on the chair when I stood up. As for my wardrobe, it was practically monochrome:: I wore only black pants and long black skirts, to hide any stains or seepage. And that was when I was productive at all. During my period, which lasted for two weeks, I often had such bad stomach cramps, all I could do was lie down and hope to fall asleep to blot out the pain.

It’s hard to overstate the emotional impact of a life spent bleeding.

It’s hard to overstate the emotional impact of a life spent bleeding. The isolation of having to constantly cancel plans with friends. The shame of boyfriends complaining they “had to buy new mattresses” because of me. The perpetual tension of a life half-spent in severe pain. Yet, in a very real way, I had no time to feel sorry for myself. I was too busy mopping up.

Hysterectomy is the most common treatment for fibroids: removing the entire uterus. My doctor was forever urging me to have one. You have no choice, my gynecologist said. My blood loss every month, he argued, was akin to that suffered in a major car accident, or gunshot wound: if they kept going the way they were going, my fibroids could put me at the risk of going into shock, or even death.

But I didn’t want my uterus removed. Not because I wanted to have kids: I didn’t. But the procedure was expensive, I had no health insurance, and even if I did, I still didn’t want a hysterectomy. I lived alone, was self-employed as a freelance writer and had a dog; how could I possibly handle a two-month recovery period where I wasn’t supposed to work or bend over? Besides, anytime I met a woman after a hysterectomy, she looked older overnight, and I prided myself on my youthful appearance.

There are alternatives, I read: procedures like uterine fibroid embolization (UFE), in which a radiologist injects particles to arteries that feed the fibroids to choke off their blood supply, or cryomyolosis, which freezes them off. But for some of these procedures, I was told I wasn’t a candidate. Others, I learned, often ended in hysterectomy anyway.

Frustrated by my doctor’s insistence that a hysterectomy was my only option, I went in search of a professional who could recommend an alternative. Finally, at a low-cost clinic near my Brooklyn apartment, I found one. This doctor said since fibroids need estrogen to grow, menopause can cure them.

Most women dread menopause; in my 40s, I suddenly found myself yearning for it the way that knights yearned for the Holy Grail. It couldn’t come soon enough.

In the meantime, my new doctor suggested I take Ovral, the original birth control pill. By regulating my menstrual cycle, he said, it might reduce my blood loss and pain.

Another understatement of the century. Taking Ovral, I started bleeding every day, but instead of feeling like an ax murder victim for half of every month, my bleeding slowed to a trickle. Suddenly, I could use just use a single tampon to get through the day. Similarly, my cramps went away, as did my severe anemia. Sure, I was having my period every day, and nurses were astounded when they found out I’d been having my period for over a year. But otherwise, I felt like a normal person again for the first time in eight years.

Menopause, for me, has been pure bliss; it was the ten years preceding that was sheer hell.

Then, after 500 days, my bleeding came to an end: Menopause was finally here.

That was in 2004. I phased into menopause with no problems of any kind: no hot flashes, no insomnia, no itchy scalp, or any of the other classic symptoms. Menopause, for me, has been pure bliss; it was the ten years preceding that was sheer hell. Now, I can walk anywhere without fear of collapsing. The black pants and skirts have been flushed out of my wardrobe, and I can actually wear colors and whites again. And I can travel light: I don’t have to go everywhere with a tote bag full of feminine protection products anymore.

Best of all? In the words of Frank Sinatra, I did it my way, without a hysterectomy. What I learned: Always get a second opinion. Surgery may not be the answer. Don’t feel like you have to always believe common wisdom. What works for others may not be the right answer for you.