November is Native American Heritage Month. Cervical cancer affects American Indian women 2 to 5 times more often than women from other racial groups.
What follows is a personal story of cervical cancer survival from Beverly Bushyhead, MA, MPA, of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
How I Learned to Live for Myself
By Beverly Bushyhead, MA, MPA
When I learned at age 40 that I had stage III B cervical cancer, it sounded like a death sentence. I remember thinking, My children are too young to be left alone! Because the 10 cm tumor on my cervix was inoperable, I would receive lots of chemotherapy and radiation. The only survivor with similar staging and treatment to mine wouldn’t talk about it—the experience had been too horrible.
The survivor was right. It was horrible. At first, weekly chemotherapy and daily radiation were easily managed. But weakness and radiation burns caught up to me—showers became unbearably painful. Even baths hurt terribly, and black burned skin would float to the surface. I would sit in the water and cry. I apologized to my body. I thanked it for all it had done: carrying my children through pregnancy, feeding them and always serving me well. One day, I realized that my body was me—it wasn’t something separate going through this. All of me was experiencing this.
Immediately, I went into a series of traditional ceremonies with my community. During sweats, I pictured the tumor melting. My children sang healing songs. But I didn’t pray for instant healing—I prayed for strength and clarity. At the sun dance, where prayers were said for me, I received items like eagle plumes and prayer ties. The water ceremony was also very powerful—and the hospital showed respect for it. I can never forget the amazing change the ceremony brought to the lymph node surgery I had less than an hour later. My traditions are everything to me, and they were what I held onto during this time.
Some people avoided me. One relative had three checkups because she feared she could catch cancer from me! There was judgment and whispering. Folks didn’t know what to do. Others helped, though, donating food and time. Still, I drove myself to every radiation treatment and most chemotherapy treatments. It was exhausting and lonely.
Some people in the community felt I should refuse chemotherapy and radiation treatments and use only traditional, spiritual practices. Others thought I should ask for a miracle. Some said traditions wouldn’t work if I chose medical treatments. I was terrified to die. I had to do what I thought was best.
My final treatments involved the surgical implantation of radioactive material and the insertion of seven needles filled with iridium into my sensitive, burned skin. Radiation to the max. Lead panels were placed around my hospital bed, and radiation was measured every 30 minutes. I awoke with a button in my hand to deliver morphine, a governor preventing overdosing. It was comforting to push that button—the pain was excruciating. I was devastated to learn that the first of the two operations had perforated my uterus and would have to be repeated the next morning.
It hurt to stretch. It hurt to move. It hurt to breathe deeply. So I tried to lie very still. The sun shone through the window. I could feel the warmth on my arm. I was grateful for the distraction from the pain. I was completely enveloped in the growing warmth of the sunlight. I let my mind linger on how it felt. I closed my eyes. In that moment I was completely happy. It was a startling revelation: If I could be happy in the middle of a horrific experience, then happiness was a choice I could focus on.
Initially, I had been going through cancer treatment for my children—my son, age 13, and twin daughters, who were 9. One of my daughters said in the beginning that she’d kill herself if I died, so I’d started a support group for kids with a parent experiencing cancer to provide coping skills and information. But after many personal, humbling and painful parts of going through treatment, there came a time when I was doing it for me. I wanted to live! And no matter how it turned out, I was here now.
My sweet children ate meals by my bedside. Even after I returned to bed and was sleeping, it was the most wonderful joy to hear them talking and laughing near me. I always wanted to be with them if I could. As I recovered, I finished my bachelor’s degree because I couldn’t die without finishing it! Then, over the next 5 years, I went on to earn two master’s degrees. Now, whatever’s on my list, will not be ignored.
My children, now 24 and 20, are grown up. I am grateful to see them as amazing and wonderful adults. It is an honor and privilege to be their mother.
I continue to deal with effects of all that radiation. Perhaps it’s the price for survival. But I’ve learned to love myself. And I learned how strong I am.
American Indians say a people are not defeated until the women’s hearts are on the ground. Well, I am determined to sing my song until my last breath.