by Emma Olswing
On September 15th, 2018 I felt the worst pain I had ever felt before. I was getting ready to take a shower, when the pain hit and I crumpled to the bathroom floor. Over the next two weeks it would take one internal medicine doctor, two radiologists, and three gynecologists to finally diagnose me with a 10-centimeter dermoid cyst that had torsed my right ovary.
Before my diagnosis, all three gynecologists asked me questions about my symptoms to try and nail down the culprit of the pain. At first, I told them I had no prior symptoms. It wasn’t until one asked if I had been having painful penetrative sex did I go, oh. Ding ding ding. I had been having painful sex, for almost a year, but thought nothing of it. In fact, I ended things with a dapper photographer from Bushwick because I thought we weren’t, ahem, physically compatible. Did you know 60% of people with vaginas will experience painful sex in their lives? And we’re taught it’s totally normal! But guess what: Sex is not supposed to hurt if you do not want it to. “No matter the cause, [chronic] painful sex is not normal,” writes Lacey Welch, P.T., D.P.T., a physical therapist who specializes in pelvic health.*
I finally saw a gynecologist who took my pain seriously and recommended immediate surgery to remove the cyst. Because of its size and contents (it was filled with fluid and other fun things), it required a laparotomy, an invasive procedure that had a long recovery time and left me with a 6 inch scar across my lower abdomen. Although the surgery and recovery were intense, I was lucky that my (woman!) gynecologist was a brilliant surgeon, my cyst was cancer-free, and it was determined the cyst was not caused by endometriosis or polycystic ovarian syndrome. Truly the best outcome I could have hoped for despite having a giant softball-sized growth inside of me.
Recovery was rough. Due to complications I won’t get into in this story, one day in the hospital turned into three, and a few days off work turned into two and a half weeks. In addition to all the physical challenges of recovery, it was also mentally draining.
I had a giant gash in my lower abdomen that looked different every day as it healed - impossible to get used to as it morphed from bloody, to red, to pink. It was numb in some places and painful to touch in others. I already had a fraught relationship with this part of my body, and now I felt I would never find peace with it. I tried to imagine a lover going down on me, face to face with this new disfigurement. It felt futile.
4 days post-op
I was also told by my doctor not to masturbate for at least a week. My body needed time to heal. As someone who typically has a high sexual appetite, this was earth-shattering news. How would I relieve the immense stress I was under? How would I find physical pleasure in this time of seemingly infinite pain? But as I started to feel better physically, I realized my interest in masturbation had completely diminished. I felt nothing. I confided in friends, “Is this normal?” They assumed so, they said, think about what my body just went through. I supposed they were right, but still felt like a failure.
But eventually, my interest in, and ability to masturbate returned naturally as I healed. My friends and I celebrated my first orgasm post-surgery — I did it! Orgasming again felt really good, but it also hurt. The muscles pressed against my wound in a way I hadn’t expected. But before long (and with my doctor’s permission), I was knocking out orgasms like nobody’s business as I continued to heal.
Although my habit of masturbation had returned with fervor, after a couple months of recovery, I still found myself disinterested in– and scared of– sex with a partner. Again, I felt defeated. My lower abdomen was still distended from surgery, and on top of that I had gained weight from being sedentary for so long. My body was just… different. Before scar tissue started to form, my cut didn’t seem as bad. But two months later, it was deep pink, raised slightly from the skin, and no longer was it a perfect straight line. Even though it was a sign of healing in progress, to me it seemed like it was getting worse and worse. I feared I would never feel comfortable enough with my body to bring someone else into the equation again.
I was in the midst of an identity crisis. I mean, I work at a sexual wellness company! How could I fully participate in my work if I wasn’t having sex? I was asked if I wanted to test a beta version of a new couple’s toy, Pillo, that we were developing. By no fault of my coworkers, I felt ashamed that I couldn’t do it. I quietly declined to no repercussions except my own internal grieving.
For a while, I truly thought I would never feel good about my body again. That I would never feel ~sexy~ again. That this new ever-changing blemish would haunt me for the rest of my life. But a wise friend texted me during recovery, “...the most important part is your relationship to [the scar]. If you can see it for all of its power and magic as your body protects and heals itself all on its own, it can be something that you can feel immense pride and tenderness for.” Those words ignited something in me I hadn’t felt in months: admiration for my body. She was right. My body had done something truly incredible, and it deserved love and appreciation even more so now than it did before. This realization was the beginning of my reawakening - not only sexually, but in every other way. I began to feel stronger and more sensual than ever before.
6 months post-op
I slowly regained my ability to exercise – which helped with my body image but also with my anxiety. My scar began to smooth out and fade and I stopped regarding it as a blemish. Now I see it as a mark of honor. My inhibitions surrounding sex began to fade as well. I went on some dates and when I felt like I had found the right person, I finally, literally, got over the hump. I had sex again, and it was good. There was no discomfort or pain, and best of all I felt comfortable enough with them to tell them about the journey I had just been on. I revealed how nervous I had been for them to see my scar, terrified they would be disgusted.
“I didn’t even notice,” they said. And what response could be better than that?
Learning to fall back in love with my body, and with sex, was a major takeaway from this experience. But the most important lesson I learned was how to listen to my body when something wasn’t right. We shouldn’t be conditioned to ignore pain during sex - or any unusual symptoms in our nether regions. These days, with medical costs and anxieties at an all time high, going to the doctor can feel like a major burden. But when it comes to our reproductive and sexual wellness, we have to take a stand. Don’t settle for pain or discomfort. Whether caused by an underlying medical condition or just not enough lube - you deserve pleasure. We all do.
Emma Olswing is the Art Director at Dame Products. She has fully recovered and is living it large in Brooklyn, NY. To see more photos from her journey, follow her on Instagram here.
*If you are experiencing chronic discomfort or pain during sex (also known as Dyspareunia), we highly recommend seeing a physician to find out if you have an underlying condition causing the pain. We’re also partnering with OhNut this month, which is a revolutionary wearable that allows couples to explore comfortable penetration depths during sex. Check them out! <3