Love, Life & Fibroids on Lockdown

Sossusvlei, Namibia - Helen in Wonderlust

How are you doing? I hope you are coping ok in the very weird and testing times we’re living in.

If anyone is in need of a chat, or some encouragement – feel free to reach out. We’re all in this together and if there’s any way I can help you, then let me know.

My lockdown experience has been pretty enlightening, to say the least…

A year and a half ago, I was diagnosed with uterine fibroids, which are benign tumours in the womb. An MRI in January revealed that I had two measuring 11cm x 6cm x 11cm and 10cm x 15cm x 9cm.

I actually discovered that I had them after developing strong pains in my lower abdomen whilst travelling in northern Namibia.

Back in Windhoek, a trip to the hospital and an ultrasound later, I received the news. I’d never even heard of fibroids before, so it was a bit of a shock. The crazy thing is, one in three women will develop fibroids in their lifetime (although many women never have any problems with them), so it’s a condition I want to raise awareness for.

From then until now, I embarked on a journey of scans, medication and holistic therapies (albeit not as much as I could have done in retrospect) in the attempt to cure myself of these squatters who had set up camp in my womb.

The warning signs had been there, but like so many women, I just ignored it. I just thought heavy periods and horrible cramps were my normal.

Besides, I was always so ‘busy’ – blogging, planning and running tours, socialising, scrolling social media mindlessly and doing all kinds of things I thought were important. I barely had time to pay attention to anything or anyone, especially not my own body. Work was all-encompassing.

Having fibroids is different for everyone. For me, they were annoying and occasionally sore, but nothing I couldn’t cope with. I mean, I climbed Kilimanjaro with these bad boys. But I felt self-conscious and I often looked pregnant and bloated, but I would just joke about them in an attempt to make myself feel better.

Climbing Kilimanjaro

For the next year and a half, I was put on hormone-blocking medication to try and shrink the fibroids and stop my period. Aside from the monthly blood tests to check my liver function it wasn’t so bad. But I felt heavy. Both physically and mentally. My body didn’t feel like my own anymore, I was tired and my emotions were all over the place.

But instead of looking after myself, I threw myself into work even more. I became a bit of a recluse when I was at home and worked far too much, which led to anxiety and feelings of not being good enough. I wasn’t productive, I was just exhausted.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago. I was in Benin running my Rock My Adventure tour when I started to develop severe pains in my womb again after a long day travelling on a very bumpy road, similar to when I’d first diagnosed – except this time I knew what they were.

The fibroids had started to affect my ability to travel. Not cool.

The day I got home to the UK, I developed a dry, persistent cough (one of the worst coughs I’ve ever experienced), a slight fever, and an upset stomach. The cough made the pains even worse.

I don’t know for sure what it was, but I presume it was Coronavirus. At that time (end of February), less was known about the disease and they were only testing people who’d been to a known infected area, so I’ll never know for sure (well, unless we get immunity testing soon), but I think it was COVID-19, albeit a mild case – picked up in Benin, from one of my group who caught it on the plane on the way there.

After a week or so, the cough disappeared and I began to feel better but the pains in my womb started to intensify. It got to the point where I was struggling to function normally or sleep and work was impossible. Some days I couldn’t even walk properly.

I was due to see a surgeon in late March to talk about an operation to remove my fibroids, but that, of course, got cancelled, but I ended up in the hospital from the pain two days later. Initially, they sent me home with some strong painkillers, but a week later, I was back. Codeine, paracetamol and ibuprofen just weren’t working anymore. I was in absolute agony.

Okavango Delta Botswana - Rock My Adventure Tours

They admitted me immediately and I underwent a number of tests.

It was frightening because I had no idea what was happening to my body, I was in so much pain and I was all alone and due to lockdown, no visitors were allowed in the hospital. But the wonderful doctors and nurses looked after me and thanks to modern technology I was able to talk constantly to friends and family, who all had time on their hands because they were on lockdown too.

A CT scan showed that the fibroids had had a growth spurt, outgrown their blood supply and started to degenerate (aka ‘the heart attack of the womb’). They were also pressing on my bowel and ureter and the doctors were worried about my kidneys being compromised. I also had a cyst on one ovary and the other ovary was MIA, obscured by the fibroid on all scans.

The pain on the right side of my womb especially was excruciating and every time the doctor touched my stomach in that particular spot, I would burst into tears.

I can’t even begin to describe what it felt like. Looking back, I’m not sure how I coped. But as with most things, we get through it and look back and realise that we are stronger than we ever imagined.

After the results of the CT scan came back, the surgeon and doctor came to see me. They would need to operate soon. But I could tell from their faces that there was more too it. My surgeon’s voice filled with sorrow as he told me that due to the position of the fibroids, I would most likely need a hysterectomy and they wouldn’t know what state my ovaries were in until they opened me up.

They said that they may have to remove them too.

I’ve never been one of those women who was desperate to have children. But I’ve never ruled it out either and having that choice taken away from me broke my heart. They left my bedside and I cried alone in the hospital.

I called my husband to break the news. He was incredibly supportive and told me we’d get through it no matter what. I tried to calm myself down before I called my parents but the sadness was overwhelming and I knew that they just wanted to protect their ‘little’ girl but couldn’t. We all just felt helpless.

Everyone assured me that the most important thing was that I got better.

The Robberg Peninsula Hike

I tried to stay positive. Life isn’t fair at the best of times but I am much more fortunate than most, so I focussed on how it would feel to be ‘well’ again and free from pain. I just wanted my life and health back and mentally prepared myself for the worst.

In the days between the prognosis and the op, I concentrated on positive thinking. I called on all my friends to send me their positive vibes before and during the operation. Two nights before my op, one friend even asked her sister to send me distance reiki, focussing on my womb and sacral chakra. It really made me feel better and the pain subsided for about 16 hours following the reiki – and I was able to get my first decent nights’ sleep in weeks.

When I went down into theatre, I was terrified (I’ve had an operation before, but not since my tonsillectomy 20 years ago), but I tried to focus on the outcome, and not dwell on the current situation.

I spoke to the anesthetists and met the surgical team, which consisted of gynaecologists and urologists (due to the position on the ureter), they explained what was about to happen and they fiddled with my canula and I smelled the anaesthetic (if you’ve had an operation, you’ll know the smell I mean). Before I knew it, I was under.

In what felt like moments (but what was actually around 3 or 4 hours later) I woke up in recovery. I remember speaking to the nurse. I’d lost a lot of blood and needed a blood transfusion.

Then my surgeon came over to speak to me. He broke the news. They’d been able to remove the fibroids, but save my womb and ovaries. This procedure is called an open myomectomy.

It was a bloody miracle.

Myomectomy - Helen in Wonderlust

The majority of this was due to my wonderful, talented surgeon and surgical team, but I have no doubt that the love, positive thinking and support from so many people around me had an effect and my womb and for that, I will be eternally grateful. ❤️

I am now looking forward to getting my quality of life back and hopefully being pain-free in the near future (not quite there yet). Below is a pic of my scar and swollen tummy on day 3. It’s getting better each day.

Being ill during this time has been strange, but in some ways, it’s kind of worked out for the best and I’m grateful for the experience.

Myomectomy Scar

Had the outcome been different, I may not feel so positive, but I’d like to think that I would have been able to keep strong through whatever came my way. But there’s no point in dwelling on what might have been and it’s time to appreciate everything I have.

This whole experience, whilst a bit traumatic has been life-changing. More so than any other event in my entire life.

It’s now been just over a week since my operation and I’m recovering well, albeit still quite tired and sore from the op, but I’ve finished my antibiotics now (thank God, I know they do a good job but they mess up your insides) and I’m still on iron tablets, as I’m now anaemic after having a post-op blood transfusion. Full recovery should take about 6weeks. 1 down, 5 to go.

But I’m feeling much better (I’m in much less pain than I was before the op) and I had the strength to get back on my computer and write today, which is a very good sign.

So I guess just the last thing to say is… ladies especially, look after yourself and pay attention to your bodies and intuition. Go for your smear tests (they do not hurt and can save your life) and if you feel something is wrong – seek help!! Don’t be afraid.

Victoria Falls - Victoria Falls - Botswana Itinerary

So what have I learned through all this?

I’ve spent most of my adult life in high-gear, burning the candle at both ends, always feeling ‘too busy’. I never switched off from work. And I’ve always been a bit of a party animal. No rest for the wicked, or so they say!

Don’t get me wrong, I love my job (blogging, organising and running tours) but I never stopped working. Like ever. My mind was always racing and I’d often work from the moment I got up to the moment I went to bed – not always productively. Scrolling social media, never being able to stop until I’d done ‘just one more thing’ – I had no boundaries.

In recent months, I’d started to resent time away from my computer, feeling as though I was falling behind in some imaginary competition. Even when I travelled, I was still always ‘on’, because it’s my job and I work for myself, so there’s no-one to pick up the slack when I’m not in the office.

But over the last few weeks, both the world and my body forced me to stop. It had had enough. This has given me a lot of time to reflect on all aspects of my life.

Time. Something many of us have a lot more of now right? I guess the question is how do we use it?

For me personally, I’m not forcing myself to be super productive. I’m just using this time to do a little bit of work, when I feel like it but mostly to rest, recharge and re-evaluate what I want from my life. I think that’s allowed after major surgery.

And if you also need this time just to be and rest, and you can do that (I know this is a major privilege), then do it. Take the opportunity whilst you can.

I’ve always tried to practice gratitude, but now more than ever I realise just how important this is for my mental health.

Right now, I am grateful for:

❤️ The NHS
❤️ All the wonderful nurses, doctors and healthcare workers who’ve looked after me these last few weeks
❤️ Blood donors
❤️ My wonderful friends, family and husband who were there for me every step of the way (even if they couldn’t be with me physically)
❤️ WhatsApp video calls
❤️ My body – especially my womb which has been a trooper these last 1.5 + years
❤️ Painkillers
❤️ Hot baths
❤️ Reiki healing
❤️ The power of positive thinking
❤️ Amazon Prime Video And Disney + for getting me through those lonely hospital days and sleepless nights (sadly Netflix wouldn’t work)

I’ve learned to appreciate my body. I’ve always been self-conscious, covering myself up and worrying about how other people saw me, but over this last few weeks, I’ve realised how amazing my body really is and how horrible it is when it fails you.

So my aim is to get back to health – when I can move a little better. Right now I’m still in the post-surgery rest phase. But I am trying to nourish it, even if I can’t move it.

I’ve been given another chance at this, so I need to make sure that I’m looking after myself, my body and my mind.

“Enjoy your body. Use it every way you can. Don’t be afraid of it, or what other people think of it. It’s the greatest instrument you’ll ever own.” (Mary Schmich)

Snow in the Atlas Mountains, Morocco

I think the most important lesson for me is that I need to prioritise myself and my own self-care.

Self-care is something I’ve flitted in and out of for years, attending the gym sporadically, the odd yoga class here and there, and of course, I’ve tried the celery juice craze. But now it needs to be a priority. That should go for all of us.

Whilst no-one knows what causes fibroids (hormones, diet, environmental, genetics are all thought to be a cause…), I truly believe that a lot of my stress, worry and lack of self-care manifested itself in my womb.

For the last few years, I’ve always felt this sense of urgency and impending failure. It was a feeling, I guess of comparison. It didn’t matter what I achieved, I always felt that someone else was better. So I worked harder and stressed myself out even more.

I also let other peoples’ negativity affect me. This is something I know I’ll still struggle with but I’ve come out of this a stronger human and feel more able to control how I feel about things, rather than letting other people bring me down.

Over the last few years, I’ve struggled to enjoy the moment, rather always looking forward to the next thing or concentrating on the things I wasn’t good at, or the things that weren’t perfect, rather than the things that were.

Done is better than perfect, right? And, perfect is kinda BORING!

Marrakech Travel Tips

Practicing gratitude and mindfulness now need to be my priorities. Or else I’m going to condemn myself to a life of self-induced suffering.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I was miserable all the time, I wasn’t. I’m a generally very upbeat, happy person. But I was fuelled by self-doubt and had an acute case of ‘imposter syndrome’. I could definitely do with stopping to smell the roses, appreciating everything I have and learning to trust myself.

On my first trip to Africa in 2009, I had this skill in abundance. I went into that adventure with an open mind and an open heart. I was the queen of living in the moment. It’s what made me fall in love with Africa and the reason I had the most incredible and serendipitous experiences.

When your heart is open and you take it all in, amazing things happen. The law of attraction is real.

My mission in life is to help people experience the amazing wonder of Africa travel that I first experienced. So why am I not practicing that myself in all aspects of my own life?

Lockdown and ill health have made me appreciate everything so much more. From the little things to the big things, I won’t take any of it for granted.

Going through this experience and taking some time away from social media (the worst place to stir up these emotions) has given me time to reflect and realise that I’m doing ok. In fact I’m doing more than ok. I’m doing great.

And so probably, are you. Despite what your negative self-talk tells you.

Africa Travel Tips - Everything You Need to Know Before You Go

I have a job I love (most of the time), I have a lovely home and so many wonderful friends and family around me and I want to spend the rest of my life appreciating all them.

Yes, things are tough (working in the travel industry is not great right now), but it could be worse. I have my health. And work will pick up again soon I’m sure.

I know it’s not always easy when the reality pulls you down, but we need to keep in mind that it’s just part of the natural ebb and flow of life and things will be ok if we continue to have faith in ourselves and humanity.

But the most important lesson I’ve learned both through my illness and lockdown, is that love, human connection and kindness are the most important thing for a happy life. Being successful is great, but loving and being loved is where true happiness lies.

Taking care of yourself and others, that’s the real joy of life.

I’m excited for things to return back to ‘normal’, or hopefully a new normal. And I can’t wait to get back to Africa and to experience travel again through fresh, more appreciative eyes.

But for now, I’m happy to be in this moment. No matter how challenging.

Helen x

ps. If anyone else if suffering with fibroids, or has questions about the surgery (I didn’t go into full details here) I am always here and happy to talk to you. Fibroids, whilst not usually life-threatening can be physically debilitating and also affect your mental health. I’m here if you need me.