What I wish I'd known before having a laparoscopy to remove an ovarian cyst
A laparoscopy is one of the most common surgical procedures performed in the U.S., but I hardly knew anything about them until December 2017. I was on the beach in Jamaica in a teeny-tiny bikini, talking to my gynecologist on my dad’s iPhone, and I was crying.
My gynecologist told me the cyst that had been on my left ovary since 2012 had grown to three times its original size and needed to be removed immediately. The recommended method was through a laparoscopy—or a laparoscopic cystectomy, to be specific. My gyno explained to me that laparoscopies were done with cameras and would require three tiny incisions around my midsection.
I had been doing copywriting and social media for a local gynecologist’s practice at the time, and I remembered writing about how minimally invasive surgeries were his specialty. Laparoscopies, it turns out, are one of the most popular minimally invasive surgeries. But like any 20-something with trust issues (especially when it comes to authority figures), I didn’t want to hear what the doctors had to say about the surgery I was going to get.
I wanted to hear what girls who had actually gotten laparoscopies had to say.
Naturally, I turned to the internet. While photos of small scars were reassuring, lots of the other information I read was not. Because laparoscopies are such a general surgery that can be used for anything from alleviating endometriosis to removing a burst appendix, it was overwhelming to sift through all that information.
Now that I’ve gotten the surgery, had tons of complications, and am now (mostly) back to living my normal life, I wanted to let other girls know what they can expect—and what not to worry about.
1Don’t stress yourself about the scars
I’m not sure what this says about me, but my biggest concern from the get-go was the impending scars. When I was crying on the beach in a bikini, it was because I thought I’d never look the same in a bikini again. I resolved to take as many swimsuit pics as possible for my “last hurrah” before the surgery. Yes, another person probably would’ve been concerned about infertility, or losing an ovary, or any other medical complication, but not me—and you might not be either.
That’s why I’m here to tell you that the scars should be the least of your concerns.
Of course, you will want to make sure you take care of the incisions properly post-op (lots of moisturizing, rubbing, and no sun exposure), but assuming nothing major goes wrong during your operation, your incisions will be super tiny. As an added bonus, swimwear is in a great place right now where you’ll easily be able to find tons of suits that cover your tiny incision marks if that matters to you. Otherwise, own them!
Because of the location of my cyst, my gynecologist was able to make one incision through my belly button (therefore making it invisible), and the other two slightly lower on either side of my stomach. Below is a photo of me on the beach, seven months after my surgery.
You may notice that I have a ridiculous tan line due to the suit I’d been wearing that covered my incisions without covering my entire stomach (it’s important to keep scars out of the sun for a full year), but you can probably barely see the marks from the surgery. They’d be even less noticeable if I didn’t have a silly tan line highlighting them, but even so, they don’t bother me.
2You might end up adding at least a week to your expected recovery time.
If you’re the perfect patient that has the perfect doctor and the perfect circumstances, your recovery time should only last for about a week. Dr. Nadim Hawa, the amazing gynecologist I worked for who specializes in these surgeries, told me that if everything goes well, women should hypothetically be able to run a marathon less than two weeks after surgery.
Unfortunately, in real life, things aren’t always perfect.
And this doesn’t mean that your surgery didn’t go well or that you’ll have future problems, it’s just means it’s better to expect some difficulties rather than get overly confident that you’ll be back to your regular routine in just a week.
In my case, I had major complications from the cyst removal. I actually had to go under the knife twice and spend the night in the hospital. My recovery time jumped from two weeks to four weeks in a matter of hours. Thankfully, I work from home so I didn’t have to worry about taking leave from work. But because I had anticipated a shorter recovery time, when I couldn’t even get up from the couch on my own during my first week post-op, it was extremely demoralizing.
Now, it’s important to note that my recovery experience was much, much worse than the average woman’s post-laparoscopy, but I feel like I was so worried about the scars that it hadn’t even crossed my mind that something like this could happen. I would have been better prepared emotionally and mentally had I learned more about the rare but possible complications.
3Don’t expect to get anything done on painkillers, even if you work from home.
If, like me, you’re lucky to have suffered minimal medical issues prior to your surgery, you may not realize what painkillers can do to your brain. When I could finally sit up about a week into recovery (or more accurately, slump myself up in a reclining chair) I over-confidently decided that I was going to get some work done. The good thing about working from home is that you don’t have to call out from work; the bad thing is you still have clients and deadlines and contracts that need to be completed if you want to get paid.
I quickly realized that if I was going to attempt to get anything done, I would have to cool it on the Oxy and make do with Tylenol and some ice packs.
Of course, even if you don’t have any work to get done, it’s important to stop relying on painkillers as soon as you physically feel you don’t need them. It’s better for your body and your brain, and unfortunately, many cases of painkiller addictions start with a prescription; many doctors give you way more than you need (which is definitely what happened in my case—I threw out half the bottle after explaining I no longer needed it, and I was still offered a refill at my first follow-up appointment).
4Your body won’t feel like yours for a while—expect swelling for at least a month.
Sorry for getting back to aesthetic side effects, but sometimes they really affect us mentally. When I finally felt well enough to head out to dinner or drinks with friends, I was disappointed to realize that I didn’t have many items of clothing that would fit over the dramatic swelling of my lower belly.
My wardrobe is probably not reflective of the average person’s since my closet is filled with crop tops and mini dresses. I would’ve felt a lot more comfortable with a shift dress or baby-doll top with some leggings during my month of swelling.
Other small, but important things to note post-op is that your doctor might instruct you to sleep on your back for a good few weeks as the abdominal incisions heal. There’s also a good chance that you’ll have a significant loss of appetite—I wouldn’t eat anything but vegan chocolate chip cookies for weeks.
5Don’t fear your first period or first sexual encounter post-op.
I was actually on my period when I got my surgery, so my next period was expected to arrive a month post-op when I was finally getting back on my feet. Based on what I had been reading online, your first period post surgery sounded like absolute hell.
I was dreading Aunt Flow’s arrival, but when she came, I miraculously felt that my cramps were actually less painful than my pre-op periods. This may have been because the surgeon also removed endometrial tissue from my uterus, or I might have just gotten lucky. Either way, it goes to show that every woman is different. Just because the majority of people have one experience doesn’t mean yours will necessarily be the same. It’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor about what to expect for your body and conditions. Don’t just rely on the internet—including this article.
Leading up to my surgery, I also worried about having sex again. But to be honest, I’d been so horny after being walled in my house like a recovering Rapunzel that I hardly worried that much when the time came. Keep in mind that for many laparoscopic operations (including mine), the surgeon will never touch your actual vagina. But because the vagina is so closely connected to the uterus and ovaries, it makes sense that some of us might have concerns.
I attempted masturbating three weeks after my surgery (you should be able to sooner if you have a complication-free operation), and that was fine and dandy. Sex turned out to be just the same. I did feel a bit of pain during my first sexual encounter after recovery, but this seemed more like the pain you get when you haven’t been penetrated in a while, rather than pain from my surgery.
Of course, it’s always good to clue your partner in to what you’ve just been through so they know to take it slow, but having a laparoscopy shouldn’t have any negative effects on your sex life once you’re recovered. In fact, if endometriosis or cysts made sex painful for you previously, there’s a good chance that your sex life post-surgery will be better than ever!
Once again, every person and every body is different. My experience having a laparoscopy may be completely different than yours. However, I hope that my story has cleared away some of the internet clutter to give you an idea of what it can be like for a real person (specifically, an otherwise health woman in her early 20s) to undergo a laparoscopic surgery.