At first it felt like a bruise. I thought maybe I’d sat on something without realizing and that was why I felt so sore. Over the next few days, though, it didn’t feel like it was healing like a bruise should. Instead, it was becoming much worse. On day two I had to lay in the child’s pose on my boyfriend’s bed to draw. On day three I went out with friends only to find myself hiding in the restaurant’s bathroom because sitting on the bar stool was too painful. I reached under my skirt to discover that I had a huge bump under my skin on my vulva. I was shocked. It was literally the size of a big grape. Later that night I finally told my boyfriend, and upon research we determined that it was probably a cyst. I had never even been to a gynecologist before and the idea of showing up with whatever it was that I had was terrifying. But, at least I knew there was something there. I was finally beginning to accept that something was really wrong and I needed to do something about it.
I went back home (my mom’s house, since it was over the summer) and spent the next few days either in bed using a hot compress or in the bath. Both of my parents were traveling for business and it had gotten to the point where I could no longer walk more than a few feet. I felt so alone, but based on my waddle I didn’t want anyone to see me. I didn’t know exactly what was wrong but I was absolutely petrified of what they’d do to me or tell me at the hospital. Despite this, eventually I was in so much pain I was just laying in bed crying for hours. I called several hospitals hoping they’d give me some advice that I hadn’t found during my own research but they all told me to check myself in to the ER. My mom called my boyfriend to come get me from and take me to the hospital. I begged him not to come, locked the door, turned off all the lights and hid so he wouldn’t be able to take me because I was so scared of dealing with it. Overall I made it very, very difficult to accept his help and when he found the spare key I still refused to go to the hospital, but I did go with him to his place.
The next day my dad returned home and went with me in a taxi to the ER. Funny side note, he actually had to check himself in too. I felt a little less alone, and at this point I could not stand up for more than a few seconds because of the constant pain. They diagnosed it as what I thought it was, a “Bartholin cyst.” Bartholin cysts occur when one bartholin’s gland produces too much lubrication and it is blocked from exiting the body. The lubrication builds up with exercise, sex, etc. and can become extremely painful due to size and/or infection. I probably had the cyst for a couple of weeks and didn’t even know it because I simply hadn’t looked. Because I was unaware of it and waited for so long once I was aware, they had to perform a simple emergency surgery while I was there. I had to consent to be strapped down in restraints just so I could let them numb me with local anaesthetic and then cut me open! I felt ALL OF IT. It was so gross and stressful and overall one of the most traumatic experiences I’ve ever endured. During recovery in the weeks following I had to take baths five to seven times daily. I couldn’t have sex for a month and a half. I had to stay home from my internship. The entire ordeal was a total nightmare. It’s so crazy to think that then I didn’t even know yet that it wasn’t even the half of it.
Since then, I have had three more cysts and three surgeries total in attempts remove them and prevent them from coming back. Fortunately, I was asleep for the other two as they did a "marsupialisation," where instead of draining it they removed the entire cyst itself from my body and stitched me back up in layers. These cysts have kept me from completing classes. They took wrestling away from me last season. They took over four months of my sex life away from me in the last year and a half.
But the thing is, I am not alone. Things like this can happen to anyone. In fact, there are a ton of different kinds of cysts that both women and men can develop for absolutely no reason at all. Using condoms, keeping it clean or even practicing abstinence can’t protect you from them. So here is my advice for you. Get a handheld mirror, (if you don’t have one, I’ve found it helpful to use your phone’s front-facing camera) sit on the floor and feel around on the outside of your vagina. Really look, embrace and become familiar with what your vulva looks like. Feel around, take note of anything that looks out of the ordinary or any questions you might have and give a gynecologist a ring if you haven’t yet. Trust me when I say that if feels soooo much better to know that everything is working the way it should. Because I have a couple of small (supposedly harmless) cysts now, my doctor recommended that I check on them only once a month to prevent them from growing. Unless your doctor tells you otherwise, though, I would recommend that you check more often. Many women who get surgeries to remove bartholin cysts experience pain from sex, as repetitive physical trauma in such a sensitive area can last a lifetime. So while checking may not always fix things, it is definitely worth taking a look as a preventative measure. This experience brought me from vehemently refusing to go to the doctor when I knew I needed to, to rushing over to my gynecologist anytime I thought I might have felt a little pimple.
My goal with these shirts is to spread awareness and encourage people to become familiar with themselves, even though it can be kinda weird or scary sometimes. The better you know yourself, the easier it will be to notice if something is out of the ordinary. Check yourself- it’s worth it.