Friday, November 12, 2004

Pre-op: Fear

It's a truism of hysterectomies that the waiting for the surgery is the worst part of the whole thing. And like any truism, there's a great deal of validity in that statement. For most of us, a hyst may be our first experience of major surgery. For others, we know it's a gamble for better health and so it's reasonable to be edgy. Frankly, anyone who isn't worried at the prospect of a hyst is more worrisome to me.

But for other women, the fear is deeper and both more specific and more disabling. I read comments like "I'm terrified of anesthesia. I'm sure I'll never wake up." Or "I'm really having second thoughts because I don't want to be turned into a menopausal demon." I've read about women who have jumped up off of the cart headed to the OR and turned around and gone home. I've read about women who have canceled and rescheduled their surgeries so many times they are finally "fired" by their surgeon. For some women, fear is immobilizing.

But a lot of the time, there are things we can do to deal with this level of fear...and need to. When we face surgery with the strong conviction that we are going to die or when we are terrorized by the image of a hot flash as the fast track to doom, we're setting ourselves up with stress and worry to just make the entire situation worse. It's been well proven that lowering stress contributes significantly to our health during surgery and our recovery.

Instead, we can take back control of a terrifying part of surgery. Whatever it is, we can't eliminate the uncertainty, but we can really whack away at the terror. And we need to.

Is this surgery the right thing for me?

Take for instance ambivalence about the surgery itself. It's normal to have some doubts, but our overwhelming sense before we consent to surgery needs to be that this is the last best hope for health for us after having exhausted all lesser approaches. We have to be sure that this is the right thing for us to do. That doesn't mean that our surgeon needs to think this or our relatives need to think this. We have to believe it strongly enough to embrace the surgery with hope, not helpless doom. Until we're there, we're not ready. If you feel as though this decision is being urged on you and you ought to go along with it, you're not ready. If you don't feel you've explored all the options, you're not ready.

How do you get more ready? See more doctors. There's a good reason why your insurance company willingly pays for second or even third pre-op opinions, and it works to your benefit. You may have to see several doctors and listen to several explanations before you hear one that clicks and suddenly makes things fall into focus. That doesn't mean you can't use your first doctor as your surgeon--it just means you needed to do more research. Different doctors bring different interpretations and different communication skills. It's only prudent when looking at an irreversible surgery that we seek a broad range of opinions. It makes it much more possible to develop that necessary sense that what we choose—and that we are choosing—when we have explored our options more thoroughly.

Anesthesia fears

It's common to have a deep fear of losing control when faced with the idea of anesthesia. That's reasonable and protective, so long as it's not disabling. But if you have a deep-seated belief that it's not going to work for you, then don't go there. Talk with your doctor and anesthesiologist about other options, like spinal anesthesia. With that method, you are numb and indifferent but not totally unconscious. Maybe this would let you feel less cut off from your life, make the whole experience more survivable. It's a viable option if it reduces your fears.

Fears about after the surgery

What comes after a hyst is such an unknown for most of us. I'm doing what I can by posting on this website to make the experience a little clearer, give women a few more practical details of what they may expect. I've posted before about pain, and how you can help control your fears about it by making plans beforehand.

But that same technique applies to other aspects of healing. If you are having your ovaries removed and sudden menopause is your fear, don't let your doctor brush off your worries with the classic "you'll just take this little pill and everything will be fine." You've heard stories from your relatives and co-workers; you have been reading; maybe you've already looked at my recommended hormone/hrt resource, the Survivor's Guide to Surgical Menopause and their mailing list--you're not sure it's going to be that simple. Well then, don't let your doctor brush you off. Ask for details of his plan: when will you begin hrt, what if you experience symptoms before then, how will you know if it's not working, when will you change things if there is a problem, what will you change to? Or, even better, let your doctor know what you want for hrt and when you want to start it and how you want it to work for you.

Work together with your doctor(s) on a plan that covers all your worries and lays plans out for any contingency you are bothered about. Maybe you'll need those plans and maybe you won't. But pre-op fears are eased when we regain a sense that even if we don't know exactly what will happen, we're prepared to deal with it. And for that reason alone, it's worth the time and effort because we'll have a happier, healthier surgical experience when we're not facing featureless doom. It's okay to be nervous, but if you're seriously disabled by fears, you're not ready until you've laid them aside.