2020 has got to be the most crazy year in our lifetime. It certainly was memorable in my very own personal life. Who can forget that we have had the pandemic which forced everyone to bunker down in our homes. Of course that meant we had to change the way we work, live, eat, play and vacation.
Who can forget the 2 months of lockdown, the constant wearing of masks, the near empty roads and streets and yet long queues outside the supermarkets, the brave frontline workers and our celebration of them, our constant struggles with working and learning virtually and even our contentious elections?
And, after 10 months of this, I know I speak for pretty much every single person when I say we are feeling tired, frustrated and, frankly, just fed up and can’t wait to put all of 2020 behind us.
As 2021 is probably shaping up to be a year full of hope and promise, I will never want to forget the lesson of 2020: The importance of self-care. I can’t think of a more memorable, impactful, life-altering year than 2020. Personally, it is close to my heart, well, actually, close to my stomach.
If I were to summarise 2020 in a word, it is Health. We have had a major health crisis throughout the world, and I have had my own mini health crisis. It really changes the meaning of “self-care”.
Discovery of a Large, Fist-Sized Ovarian Cyst
Prior to the discovery, I was delaying my visit to the doctor for three years, due to my usual busy schedule of juggling life, work, family, fun and travel. There was always “something else” to do. I had to plan to move into my new home, plan holidays and travel, plan family time and I neglected to pay attention to some small signs that my body has been telling me.
I thought I had been suffering from something called IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) for a long time. The symptoms seem to fit: Constipation, bloatedness and frequent abdominal pains and cramps. Not too pain but more of a nuisance. Since IBS wasn’t life-threatening, I just thought I could try to manage it with diet and exercise. However, the more I tried eliminating trigger foods like caffeine and soft drinks, the more I felt that the symptoms didn’t seem fit. Even increasing my exercise only made the pain more frequent.
So a couple of months after the circuit breaker in Singapore, I was going through a week of bloating and pain which doesn’t seem to improve. I decided to see a doctor at the polyclinic. The doctor then referred me to see a gastroenterologist to get to the root of my issues.
Two weeks later, I ended up at Alexandra hospital going through a battery of test because the doctor had to go through a process of elimination to make sure that it was really IBS and not something more serious like colon cancer as someone in my family had a history of that. There was the x-ray first, blood test and I had to even submit a stool sample for the first time in my life. After a week or so, they asked me to go for an ultrasound.
Then it was more waiting. Then I received a strange SMS telling me that I had to go for another detailed ultrasound, this time at NUH Gynaecology clinic. Other than the SMS, I received no call from the hospital so I had to call back to confirm. They reassured me that, yes, I do have to go for the ultrasound and it wasn’t a mistake, which left me truly puzzled. I called my gastro doc and finally he told me the reason for the detailed ultrasound was that they discovered some calcified deposit in my reproductive area in the X-ray which was then confirmed with the first ultrasound.
Finally, after my second ultrasound, I met with the gynaecologist who told me that I had a rather large ovarian cyst that’s around 9cm in diameter. My immediate reaction was surprise as it was the first time I had heard of such a thing and that it was so large! She then told me that I had to go for surgery to remove it. The word “Surgery” was the last thing you wanted to hear because what I thought I had all along was something else altogether. We were wondering if there were alternatives but she was very certain that surgery was the only way.
She reassured me that the procedure was rather straightforward and relatively fast and it was also minimally invasive. However, she wasn’t too much of a talker so I was rather embarrassed after asking my fifth or so question so I decided to do the rest of my research online.
Ovarian Cysts: What Are They?
First of all, ovarian cysts are apparently very common in women. If you have ovaries, chances are, they will have cysts. There are many types of cysts too, there are functional ones which are related to your menstrual cycle and hormones, and then there are my type of cysts, which is called a dermoid cyst.
What You Don’t Usually Read About Dermoid Cysts
As I said, they are super common! I mentioned it to some of my friends and they are like, “Oh we have them too” or “Oh I know someone who has them”. However because we don’t talk about it, it was literally the first that I have heard of them until I mentioned it. Part of me hopes that writing this blog will help more women discover that it is something not to be afraid of and we can also openly talk about it.
As I learnt firsthand, the symptoms are quite similar to IBS. A large cyst can obstruct your colon or other organs and cause bloating and cramping. You might also think your belly is growing and think you are getting fatter but it isn’t. However, remedies like diet and exercise do not seem to help the symptoms and could sometimes make it worse.
I did not experience any telltale symptoms related to my menstrual cycle. It wasn’t particularly abnormal, it wasn’t more painful or cramping that badly. In fact, I had less menstrual cramping as I grew older. A dermoid cyst isn’t a functional cyst and likely will only show symptoms when it grows so large that it twists on itself. In most cases, people only accidentally discover it during a checkup like me, or when it is too late, like when it twists around your ovaries and cause pain or, worse, bursts in your body and cause a nasty infection or turn septic which will in turn create all kinds of complications.
It becomes a problem when it is big. Small cysts will likely go away on their own and only should be monitored. It is only when they grow over 5cm that the doctor will recommend taking it out. When mine was first discovered, it was 9cm in diameter and, as a follow-up scan revealed it was still around that size two months later. The doctor can’t tell me how long it took to grow to that size but likely it has been more than two years as my IBS-like symptoms seem to be that long.
There’s no cure and there’s no prevention either. Dermoid cysts are considered as one of those quirks of nature and doctors don’t really know what causes them, and what I can do to prevent future occurrences. To my dismay, other than removing it surgically, there was no medication or non-invasive treatment that could remove it.
They are weird. Read on to see why.
Cystectomy via Keyhole Surgery aka Laprascopy
Because this was NUH, getting an appointment for the surgery was yet another 2 months of waiting. Meanwhile, I calmed myself by reading as much as I can about the procedure. My doctor seemed to be very experienced in removing cysts via this method so I felt that was in good hands.
However if you are going through the same thing, try not to read too much. There’s a point when too much knowledge becomes a burden and causes even more anxiety and that’s when you should stop.
As a Christian, my faith also played a big part in keeping me calm and collected even though it was the first time I was going under the knife. I am also blessed with a ton of support from my family and friends.
Soon, the date of the surgery was upon us and I felt a little apprehension rising inside in the few hours before the time I was wheeled in to the operating theatre but before I knew it, I was completely knocked out and didn’t knew a thing until it was all over. I didn’t even catch a glimpse of my surgeons or anyone other than the nurses and anaesthetist.
When I came to, I was in a haze but shivering like crazy but was quickly warmed up with multiple blankets. After I had completely recovered, I was wheeled to the ward to recover.
Recovering from Ovarian Cystectomy
Immediately I felt tired even though I was completely knocked out for hours so after my dear husband came to check up on me, I spent the first night sleeping like a baby and only had two mouthfuls of a light dinner. The next day, I was also hurting and aching in areas that is not near the surgery wounds at all. My shoulders were aching so terribly the next morning it felt like I did a hundred push-ups which is a common side effect of the carbon dioxide that was pumped into the abdominal area to expand it.
Laparoscopy is minimally invasive and people tend to recover faster and most could be discharged in a day. I was quite enthusiastic about leaving the hospital so soon so I tried to put up a strong front, bore the pain and ate a lot of breakfast and even went to the bathroom and took a shower.
However by afternoon, it became apparent that I was not ready to be discharged. I experienced nausea and a mild fever. It also meant I could not eat my painkillers. So, much to my disappointment, I had to stay another night for observation. Glad to say, my appetite and condition improved by day three and I was discharged.
Back home, I took things slowly and I stopped taking the painkillers on Day 5. After a week, I was even out for a bit of shopping, albeit slowly. Recovery was surprisingly rapid after the first 3 days so it was really nothing much to worry about.
After a week of being discharged, I had a follow-up visit at the hospital for the biopsy results as there was a really slim chance it could be cancerous. Thankfully it wasn’t.
But that wasn’t all. Remember I said it was weird? Well, it truly is! After cutting it open, they found 3 teeth, some bones, skin, hair and appendages. It was like I was pregnant with a cyst baby. LOL. It was so weird that I wanted to see it to believe it but they didn’t have any photos to share. Shucks.
I have to note that I was back at the doctors’ after two weeks as I developed a small allergic reaction, probably to the surgical glue, which I thought was infection. And even after 5 weeks now, one last wound is still trying to recover and has not completely scab over. But those are all superficial issues and there were no advanced complications.
Cost of Ovarian Cyst Removal
As Singaporeans, I’m sure you want to know the cost right? Simply put, it was around $2200 after all the subsidies I get as a Singaporean, and after deducting from Medisave, I paid just $200 in cash.
Surgery isn’t as bad as I thought, especially keyhole ones. I have three small scars in my pelvic area about 1-2cm long but I’m sure they will disappear over time.
Although in a short three weeks, I have fully recovered from surgery and no longer have IBS-like symptoms, surgery should be something that everyone should try to avoid. I’m really glad I did it and I am even more glad it is over.
The silver lining of 2020 is that self-care means I am now healthier than ever and can spend more quality time with my family.