By this time tomorrow, a hysterectomy will have removed my uterus in a country that, just 27 years ago, was more isolated and insular than North Korea is today.

I’m in Albania and doctors tell me I’ve got several fibroids that have got to come out. Leaving the uterus in would just make it likely that I’d suffer all this again one day, so it’s only intelligent to pull that out too.

I’ve always meant to be childless, so this will simply ensure that remains the case.

The big surprise, though, is having major surgery like this while travelling. Not anticipated. Not wanted. I also never anticipated a major REASON why I’ve been so unwell for so long. Thanks to media and common wisdom, it’s easy to lapse into thinking “I’m overweight, that’s why I’m unhealthy,” but no, it turns out my blood is being devoured by invaders and my hormones are off the charts. In fact, it’s probably part of the weight gain from the last three years, and so much more.

And so, we’re doing this. Surgery. Real check-in/stay-two-nights/lose-an-organ surgery.

Whoa, That’s Private…

Why am I telling you something so “private”? Because we don’t talk about these things enough. It’s a big deal. It’s scary. And it happens every day. So many women do this and suffer it, but we don’t talk about it because, well, I don’t know. But we should.

This is Porto Palermo, Albania. You won’t be learning about it from me, because I’ll be in my apartment, not lifting more than 3 pounds, and knocking back painkillers like they’re candy. By Krzysztof Dudzik (User:ToSter) (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


And another reason it’s worth writing about is because it turns out that just because one is living the life of their dreams doesn’t mean one won’t wind up getting a surgery when they’re all alone 9,302 kilometres (5,814 miles) from home. Even better, surgery that, for a successful recovery, means never lifting more than 3-5 pounds for as many as eight weeks. How do you do that while all alone on the other side of the world? (With planning, it turns out. I hope.)

But that’s not even the big head trip. 19 years and 11 days ago my mother entered a hospital for the same procedure. She came out with a radical cancer attack plan and a colostomy bag. She’d be dead within six months.

This has been my experience with hysterectomy and I can tell you there is a part of me that is scared shitless to be confronting this.

On the flipside, what happened to my mother is something like a 1-in-10,000 probability, and I may be genetically inclined towards it, but the odds are very slim.

That Niggling Feeling

Intuitively, instinctively, I feel I’m not in that number. I feel I’ve caught this in time. I feel I’m on the verge of a healthier, more balanced life than I’ve had since my 20s. There have been way too many strange coincidences of fortuitousness and serendipity that have led me to this moment, this action, this country, this surgery, and I’ve been to the dance with serendipity on my arm far too often before to think it means anything other than: This will go well.

Butrint, Albania, has just a few of the country’s incredible array of ancient ruins. This is one of the oldest regions on the planet, where civilization’s ruins date back 6,000-plus years. By wstuppert (originally posted to Flickr as 100_3526) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


The whole thing has been very deus ex machina from the moment this ball started rolling on January 17th in Athens, Greece. Believe me, I’ll write about that later – hopefully for money. I have a whole lot of emotional processing to do before I conjure those words.

With hindsight being 20/20, I realize now I’ve been unwell for years, maybe since 2009. It wasn’t bad or consistent then, but in the last 5 years, I’ve had escalating symptoms that all jibe with an excess of estrogen and everything else that accompanies this condition.

They really don’t know what causes fibroids. Stress? Lifestyle? Dumb luck? All these? But you can name nearly any cause and I can probably say it’s part of my scenario.

Okay, But Then What?

But let’s talk completion: Uterus goes bye-bye, recovery goes well, time goes on.

In talking to women over the last three weeks, while I had “similar” issues but had a different diagnosis, they’ve told me more and more just how radically life can be transformed by a hysterectomy. “Best thing I ever did,” “life-changing,” “night and day” are all actual comments I’ve heard.

I’m ready for night and day. I’m down with the best thing I’ll ever do. I’m all over life change. Part of me was thinking “Screw endometrial ablation… a hysterectomy would be good,” but I knew the logistics of recovering for 6-8 weeks while abroad were just ludicrous.

Well, here I am. Maybe a changed life indeed looms for me.

Then there are the bunkers. Back when Albania was ruled by a nutty dictator, he insisted on at least 5 of these bunkers for every square kilometre. Their pre-’90s protectionism makes today’s North Korea look like a social butterfly. By ILMOTOREDIRICERCA (originally posted to Flickr as bunker option) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

First, I need to make it through surgery. I need a successful recovery. Patience, faith, perseverance are all critical for me. I believe I’ve got ’em all in abundance.

The “Unhealthy Because Fat” Generalization

Fact is, when I began my travels, I had many of the symptoms I have now. Chronic fatigue, back strain, moodiness, acne, distraction, anxiety, all of that. I figured I worked too much for too long, so I didn’t think much of it. But no matter how much I slept, how much I stretched, how active I got, how well I ate, things didn’t change. In fact, getting active had the reverse effect on me, increasingly so as my travels wore on.

We’re conditioned to believe overweight = always unhealthy, so I’m sure I’m not alone in blaming myself, or lifestyle choices I made for a while, for my lack of energy and health. We’re told we have to “prioritize” ourselves, and if we’re somehow not well, then we’re to blame for not setting the right priorities. People have told me this recently after I said nice things about their weight loss and they told me I had to “prioritize.” Well, maybe my uterus had different plans. Maybe, with it out of the picture, my body will be ready for change too.

It’s a classic catch-22. You have to become well to realize how unwell you’ve been, sometimes, and if you can’t become well, then you’re likely unaware of the extent of it all.

So here I am. Hours from my time of reckoning. My first real surgery in my life. 9,302 kilometres from most of the people in my world. Thousands of dollars on the line, mental baggage from the hysterectomy that got away and led to my mother’s death. It was a heavy day and I’ve got a scary night ahead of me, but I have done all I can to make this period easier on me.

The Plan, Stan

Like what, you ask?

  • I contacted my AirBNB host for someone to hire to check in on me. (Her mother-in-law was in recovery services in Greece for years and is reportedly available; still working it out.)
  • I made (and froze) over 30 portions of three different kinds of soup for easy meals for my first two weeks, plus bought some cookies and grissini (the dry, real breadsticks Italians use as crackers) and Greek yogurt, honey, and granola, plus some fruit.
  • I stocked up on anything pharmaceutical so far, as well as toilet paper and other amenities.
  • I organized my place so things like allergy pills, stuff I use regularly, clothing, etc, are all strategically placed to reduce movement and strain at the beginning of my recovery.
  • I found and booked another apartment so I’ll be in Tirana for a full six weeks (or even eight; TBD) for recovery, ensuring I’m able to handle the travel to Bosnia when I’m through here. The landlord says either he’ll do my shopping for me, or he’ll find someone who will.
  • My Kindle is fully charged, I have a plan of what to take to the hospital (I can only carry 3 pounds after the surgery, so I’m taking: Kindle, iPhone, battery charger, credit card, cash, underwear, toothbrush, and that’s it – probably more like 5 pounds, but what can a girl do?).
  • I cleaned a neglected window with a nice view, shimmied a chair up to it, and put my book next to it for when I’m ready to sit up and read.
  • I did the laundry so everything’s all clean for when I get back, because just unloading the machine would take me 6-8 trips to and from the washer, due to the weight of wet clothes (everyone uses drying racks in Europe).
  • Finally, I called the bank today to let them know I’d be charging a few grand on my credit card for surgery, so the transaction doesn’t get rejected at midnight back home.

But first, I need to pull through surgery. Something tells me I will. Still, some ghosts and memories are a reckoning for me tonight and I can’t tell you how glad I’ll be to be on the other side of it all.

Maybe I won’t see these gorgeous vistas of Gjirokaster, Albania. Maybe my story here is how I came to a foreign country, underwent the scariest experience of my life alone, and found myself helped by countless foreigners who had nothing to gain but living up to their country’s famous, amazing code of honour, “Besa,” which I look forward to teaching you about. By Llukman Ibrahimi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s Not If Life Gets Hard, It’s When

Life’s hard for all of us, but when one makes the choice to go full nomad, there can’t be any illusions. It is choosing a solitary life where there are no guarantees you’ll have help when you need it, or the means to save your ass when that day comes. Making the nomad choice needs to come with total awareness that anything can happen, anywhere, any time.

This is my moment. This is my challenge.

Whatever else life has taught me, whatever struggles I’ve learned, there’s really only one thing I know to do, and that’s:

In the face of fear, just make a plan.

Maybe it doesn’t go according to plan. Maybe shit happens. But you go in knowing you’ve prepared your best, you’ve done what you could, and that’s something. Hell, it’s a big something.

When I come home Wednesday night (because I’m coming home Wednesday night), I’ll have food, a safe place, anything I could need in the immediate future, the knowledge that I have humans available to help, and the determination to get past it.

Everything else, well, that’s when the lessons learned in Morocco come into play. Hopefully I’m meant to be well. Hopefully I’m meant to see this whole big damn beautiful world of ours. Insha’Allah. Maktub.

If all that is written, then sign me up, man, ‘cos I’m in.

Showing 27 comments
  • Janine
    Reply

    You sound awesome and have a great attitude. The fear of cancer even without the baggage is real so don’t fret about fretting 😉 I had my hysterectomy because I had a grapefruit sized tumour on my ovary and I was stressing and frightening myself with google. Until everything was out and biopsied I had that little voice freaking me out. All was good.
    You are inspiring. I could not be as brave as you are being. And it is all you; such strength.

    Warmly,
    Janine

    • Lacey
      Reply

      Wow! You are amazing! What a scary situation to handle so positively. I am inspired by you and your spirit in the face of a challenge!

      • Steffani Cameron
        Steffani Cameron
        Reply

        Thanks so much. 🙂

  • Cheri H.
    Reply

    This is as big a leap of faith as leaps get. You’re resourceful as hell, but I’d love to hear the backstory of why you’re choosing to do this there as opposed to going “home” for it where you could (presumably?) stay with friends or family in Canada’s comprehensive national health system, and then hot foot it back to Albania in two or three months. Or does the break the nomad’s code? I so hope it’s the most magnificent of healing experiences; one that steels you as a warrior, while opening your heart.

    • Steffani Cameron
      Steffani Cameron
      Reply

      Because Canada’s medical system is becoming a joke. I already blame it for my mother’s death in how many months her surgery took. I’m not fucking around with my life and returning home to casually wait months for surgery I can get here. It’s a private hospital. I had consultations from three gynaecologists. My gut tells me to do it here. People from US, UK, Germany, Italy, etc, fly to Albania for medical vacations. It’s a growing destination for care.

      • Leslie
        Reply

        Couldn’t agree more. Canadian health care has quietly gone down hill. We’re about the same age, so have watched that decline. I had an emergency c-section in Uganda 4 years back. It went very well. Better than many friends’ experiences back in BC.

        I loved this article. You prepared so well for this. You’ll rock your recovery. I can’t wait to read all about it here.

        Good luck and much love!

        • Steffani Cameron
          Steffani Cameron
          Reply

          Thanks, Leslie! I’m impressed to hear about care in Uganda. That’s reassuring for travels there later! So disappointing that we agree about BC, but how anyone comes to any other opinion is beyond me.

  • Robin Greene
    Reply

    Your comment about having to feel better to know just how bad you were rings true with me. Nagging health issues (including daily headaches for years) that were ignored by so many doctors that I lost count are now being addressed and I can vouch for the fact that there is better on the other side. Praying for your safe venture thru surgery and a peaceful recovery because…Well, you’ve got a lot.more to show us!

    • Steffani Cameron
      Steffani Cameron
      Reply

      I do have more to show. :) That was one of the last things I told myself as I was being put under: my work here isn't done yet. And thank you!

  • Victoria
    Reply

    I wish you nothing but the absolute best. This is an inspiring story in many ways, like your resourcefulness and your level-headed thoughtful approach to the whole illness and the positive way you’re trying to look at it despite what happened with your mom. Wishing you a full recovery and a new lease on life!

    • Steffani Cameron
      Steffani Cameron
      Reply

      Thanks so much, Victoria.

  • Catherine
    Reply

    I’m so glad that you are on the other side of the surgery, and now all that’s left to do is recover! You’ve got this, and we are here rooting for you.

    • Steffani Cameron
      Steffani Cameron
      Reply

      THank you! I’m so happy too. I’m more optimistic now and look forward to my future in a few weeks. 🙂

  • Erich Scharf
    Reply

    Waiting for the next entry. Any interesting compressed earth block houses? Any interesting net zero houses? Get well soon.

    • Steffani Cameron
      Steffani Cameron
      Reply

      I don’t write about architecture here. Heh. But thanks, Erich!

  • Sarah
    Reply

    Absolutely amazing story and I hope it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to you. Even though you are alone in Albania, you have lots of readers who are with you in spirit! I’ve never met you but I’m thinking of you & your recovery 🙂

    • Steffani Cameron
      Steffani Cameron
      Reply

      I think it IS the best thing that ever happened. I can’t wait for my future. Thank you so much. 🙂

  • Crazy Travelista
    Reply

    Wow, this sounds like a nightmare. I’m so sorry this is happening. This is one of my worst nightmares being away from home when something goes wrong. But it looks like you are super prepared and are going to kick ass!!! Good luck and please keep us posted!!! 🙂

    • Steffani Cameron
      Steffani Cameron
      Reply

      Hands down the best thing that could’ve happened to me. I was walking through travels half-dead. I have my life back now. Thanks for your words & support! 🙂

  • Jen Morrow
    Reply

    I am glad that you are sharing your story. Do you have traveler’s insurance? Was any portion of the cost covered?
    Great attitude and I am eager to read about your recovery and next adventure!

    • Steffani Cameron
      Steffani Cameron
      Reply

      Unfortunately because I visited emergency in January, they will not cover this surgery because it’s too far after the fact. I knew that and researched and it’s why I’m in Albania. The whole thing is under about $3500USD, including my drop-in care person at home that I found, 2 private room nights in hospital, pre-testing, and major surgery. They gave great care. They take American medical insurance but I’m Canadian, so. Bah. Great private hospital.

  • Jenn
    Reply

    I love the way you write! And your attitude toward the whole situation is so full of hope instead of fear — I applaud you big time! I couldn’t say I’d have the fortitude to approach it the same way you have (I’d be crying for my family I’m sure). Happy to hear it’s all turned out well and you’re on the road to recovery! Wish I was in Albania to help a sister out! Sending you love and healing vibes xoxo

    • Steffani Cameron
      Steffani Cameron
      Reply

      Aww! Thanks, Jenn! There were some scary moments but I’ve learned to listen to signs and stuff, and everything was telling me I’d be okay. I had no idea I’d improve this much so fast, but YAY. Heh. Thanks.

  • Jean
    Reply

    Thanks for sharing! Too often we stay silent on these issues. If only more of us travelling ladies spoke out about this it would be so less taboo.

    Loved your organisational skills for post recover. Can’t wait to see what you get up to in Bosnia!

    • Steffani Cameron
      Steffani Cameron
      Reply

      Heh. Thanks a lot, Jean! I appreciate it. Bosnia is very exciting to me but I’m a little saddened to leave Albania. I will return!

  • Tracey
    Reply

    All the best for your surgery and recovery Steffani. I know many people back here on the Wet Coast will be rooting for you.

    • Steffani Cameron
      Steffani Cameron
      Reply

      Thank you! Three weeks down, 4.5 to go before I resume travelling. Fingers crossed!!

Leave a Comment