Pilates Pro, Jenna Zaffino shares insights into the story of her hysterectomy and how it changed the way she approaches Pilates.
When a woman under the age of 50 is preparing to have a hysterectomy, it is suggested they write out a list of their worst symptoms. The list is an act of grace and is there to be read in the weeks after the surgery, should one feel doubt about whether the right choice was made. It is also there to help affirm the decision to let go of a major part of the body, its pain, and also its potential. Because if there’s one thing about women’s health, it’s the fact that for every woman making an empowered decision for her body, there will be another human ready and willing to question it. To be sure, women who undergo hysterectomy surgery do not enter into this process lightly and it is often seen as a pure act of self-compassion in an effort to improve their quality of life. This is my story.
At age 41 I was at the peak of my teaching career, but behind the scenes, I was enduring one of the most painful episodes of my physical life. Grimaces hid behind smiles during movement demonstrations and if I grunted or groaned, clients thought I was just sore from my last workout. I let them think that because, while I was proficient at helping them with their pain, I felt shame about failing to manage my own.
The worst episodes happened when I let my guard down. Perching my sitz-bones innocently on the edge of an equipment shelf or sitting down without bracing for impact would unleash my pain with a vehement rage. Nerves zinged, breath gasped, muscles cramped, tears sprung, and shame sweat out of my pores. It was all I could do to keep my composure. I had been to a number of medical and pseudo-medical professionals who had all pointed to perimenopause as the cause. This is the catch-all for “You’re getting old – it’s all downhill from here.”
In all honesty, I was angry. I was still young enough and Pilates was supposed to make magic pelvises, wasn’t it? What was I doing wrong? Pelvic tilts and rolling exercises had begun to produce railroad tracks of fire that flanked my spine. Sometimes it took days to recover from the pain. But I was a Pilates Teacher, so I kept doing the Pilates with pain in tow, feeling alone, damaged, and losing hope with every move I made.
People know what a pulled hamstring or a sprained ankle feels like and Pilates teachers can often describe the exact degree to which their alignment is off and which fascial train needs lubricating to alleviate the pain – we’re a special bunch, no? But talking about pain “down there” is not in the normal conversational zeitgeist.
Sometimes in a trusted conversation, I might ask “Do you ever feel like you’re sitting on nails when you do Stomach Massage?” only to be met with crickets…. “Ok,” I would think, “We’re not doing this here….”
From time to time, I would hit the right combination of movement to release work and feel good for a day or two. Just as I started to revel in the satisfaction of “healing myself,” a monster menstrual cycle would hit, lasting 20 long days or 4 unbearable ones – I never knew what to expect. The absolute worst that ever happened was unexpected, profuse bleeding in the middle of teaching a session (my endo sisters know this one well!) Abruptly ending the session and running out of the room was not only jarring for my clients but poison for my confidence.
Looking back, I wonder if my journey would have been different, or shorter if I had taken all of these obvious signals more seriously. I wonder if it would have been easier if more women stopped seeking health perfection and started getting real with each other about what it takes to truly care for a woman’s body throughout its lifetime. This is one of the issues I believe we face as a profession: We hustle hard for our clients, the movement, and the method, but forget that our health and wellbeing is one of the most important factors in our teaching. We downplay, persevere, and in many cases, suffer. I share the story of my pain in case someone is experiencing similar symptoms. I share so that we can normalize the complexity of women’s health and the toll a missed diagnosis can take on one’s life. In Part 2, I’ll share the serendipitous sequence of events that led me to meet my “savior surgeon” and how I chose to navigate my recovery from a hysterectomy.