Pilates Pro, Jenna Zaffino shares insights into the story of her hysterectomy and how it changed the way she approaches Pilates.
It was teaching a chance session to a colleague that planted the first seed of the possibility to live with less pain. She described that she had been in pain from fibroid tumors and had sought out a specialist who was going to help her. My interest was piqued, but I quickly switched my thinking to “I’m happy that she has the help for her pain.” It’s always easier to invest in our client’s well-being, than it is for our own, right?
A few months later, after returning from a Pilates conference, I was exhausted and in the midst of a pain flare that was the most intense I had ever experienced. After a few visits to urgent care, 4 diagnoses and multiple ultrasounds later, I found myself sitting across from the same specialist who had helped my friend. When one of my ultrasounds showed what looked like fibroids I called her to get his number. She had been enjoying a new, pain-free lease on life since working with him and I held on to hope that he could help me, too.
He looked across the desk at me and said “Will you look at this list of symptoms and tell me if anything seems familiar?” I read down the list and nodded at each bullet point:
Heavy or prolonged menstrual bleeding – check.
Chronic pelvic pain – check.
Severe cramping or sharp, knifelike pelvic pain during menstruation – CHECK!
There were more symptoms, but it was the last one that broke me. That word – “knifelike” – made the tears flow. I saw myself on that paper. There was actually something wrong with me. But there was one piece missing.
“Dr?” I asked. “When I sit down, the pain is…hot – white hot. I would describe it as White. Hot. Asshole. Pain. (Crude, I know, but so accurate.) Is this part of it?”
He affirmed that this description was accurate with my diagnosis, which was not fibroids, but severe adenomyosis, coupled with extreme endometriosis. In fact, what we know now is that my bowel was “glued” to my uterus, resulting in the aforementioned W.H.A.P pain.
The diagnosis served as not only validation that I was not in some painful purgatory, but instead, that I needed help. The staff told me that I could schedule my surgery for 2 weeks out, but I needed a little more time. I knew that losing my uterus could liberate me from pain, but would also require preparation, both physically and emotionally. Taking some time to prepare my body, mind and heart for what was to come would be the best gift I could give myself.
I started the prep work by writing my own symptom list. I journaled about the W.H.A.P as well as all of the “fraudulent Pilates Teacher” stories that were tied to it. I thought about what it would mean to be in a female body, without female organs and started to become curious as to the ways to express femininity that lived outside of a monthly cycle. I started to consider how I would say goodbye to my uterus. Was there a ceremony for this sort of thing?
I also started to get excited for no more painful periods and no more periods EVER! This felt like the grand prize for what I had been through. Finally, I started moving with optimism, trusting that the pain I was feeling in the moment would soon be a memory. It was so hard, but somehow, moving with the pain to prepare for a new future began to create the space for a new relationship with my body. It was as if we were bargaining. She yielded to the preparation program and I promised to treat her kindly after the surgery.
The night before, I sat quietly and thanked my uterus for sustaining years of fertility treatments, even though she had been suffering too. I thanked her for the strength to carry my miracle child – the only pregnancy I had ever known. I said goodbye with grace and hello to a new future.
The morning after the procedure, I woke up in the hospital bed, feeling compression sleeves pumping against my legs. Habitually, I moved my hips into a pelvic tilt to stretch my back. I caught my breath. No back pain. Immediately, I wondered if I could do a pain free roll up? Or Roll over?!?!
My body gently reminded me of our bargain with a “Whoa Nelly!” and I regrouped. The most important part was that my back didn’t hurt. I could still feel the surgical pain, but my back felt….good!
As my recovery continued, I was introduced to a new state: The absence of pain. The distinct liberation that living without this pain offered my practice, my teaching and ultimately my life was a new experience. I had often heard that the Pilates work changes bodies. For a long time, I believed that statement was true for others, but not for me. Now, I felt the freedom to heal my pain, my relationship with my body and even my relationship with Pilates.
Being liberated from my pelvic pain made the impossible feel possible again. The absence of pain left a void, ready to be filled with freeflow movement and playful practices. Today, when I check in with my body (a constant practice) she does not always want to do a walkover on the Cadillac or long spine on the reformer. She is not really psyched about a daily mat practice, or some kind of 30-day Pilates challenge. She doesn’t want to film every damn workout for social media or don a crop-top to show her scars. She just wants to revel in the absence of pain and the pleasure of the small moments. Sitting. Rolling. Standing. Breathing. Pelvic Tilting. Walking. Dancing. I am committed to a practice that covers the spectrum from gentle to challenging, nourishing to problem-solving and everything in between. But in the driver’s seat is the grace to remember that my well-being is tied to my teaching, my teaching is more impactful when I am honestly connected to my movement, and that my pain gave me an opportunity for a second chance at it all.
Pilates can indeed be a vehicle to better quality of life. But if you’re struggling with pelvic pain or women’s health issues that aren’t improving with movement practices, I’m here to encourage you to seek support beyond the studio. Sometimes the greatest gift you can give to your teaching is the grace to seek the help for yourself that you so willingly provide to others. I believe the professional expectation that serves us most is that our evolution as women, movers, and as teachers requires grounded support. I hope that sharing my story helps you remember that you, too, are worthy of receiving help.