How my story begins: Three months after my husband and I married, through a routine visit with my gynecologist, I was told my Pap test results were abnormal and I had Human Papillomavirus (HPV). I had never heard of HPV and my doctor described it as a virus that thousands of women had which could sometimes cause cervical cancer. At that time, I went back for a biopsy and was told the abnormalities were low grade and we’d keep an eye on it. From there I had checkups every six months, many of which included more biopsies, and within a few years the abnormal cells had gone away on their own.
In time, I didn't think much about the HPV. But in early fall of 2013, a red flag went up. After making love to my husband, I was bleeding. Not a lot, but enough to make me worry. I went to see my gynecologist and discussed what had been happening. She ran some tests for infection and said it looked like my cervix was "sensitive," which could come with getting older. She said to watch the bleeding and see if it coincided with my menstrual cycle, which apparently was common in some women. Having faith in her thoughts on my issue, I went back to normal life. The bleeding didn’t seem to occur every time my husband and I were intimate, so I figured it was hormonal like my doctor had mentioned.
But in 2014, things started to get worse. I noticed I was experiencing a lot of watery discharge and I was bleeding a little every time we had sex. And one night, at the end of June, it was more than before. It stopped by the next morning, but I was getting tired of bleeding every time we made love and I was becoming scared. The thought of HPV and my previous abnormal cell issues crept back into my mind. I made an appointment with my doctor once again.
I remember being nervous as I headed to the office on my lunch break. But I figured I was worrying for no reason, that she’d tell me it was my hormones and she'd give me a solution. But the possibility of it being something worse kept ringing in my head. As she gave me an internal exam, I knew it was more than just a hormonal issue. There was a growth and it was bleeding the moment she touched it. She wanted to do a biopsy as soon as possible and I begged her to do it right then and, seeing the tears in my eyes, she did.
After the uncomfortable biopsy, my doctor tried to keep me calm. She reminded me that, yes, it could be cancer, but there were other possibilities too. She said she’d call as soon as the results were in.
I got the call while at work. “The biopsy came back cancerous,” she told me. Trying to keep me calm, she recommended I immediately call a gynecologic oncologist.
Life before my diagnosis: My life before diagnosis was simple and filled with love. I remember 2007 being an exceptional year. I graduated with a Master's Degree in Writing Popular Fiction in January, got married surrounded by loving family in May, and started a terrific career in October. Things just got better when we got pregnant in May of 2008 and then had our beautiful daughter in January 2009. Life was amazing, seeing our daughter grow, feeling an abundance of love all around us. We knew we wanted more children, but getting financially more settled took priority, so we focused on what we had and figured our family could grow when the time was right.
How I felt after diagnosis: The word cancer brought thoughts of death and despair to my brain. Thoughts that I wouldn’t get to see my little girl grow up and have a family of her own. Thoughts that I wouldn’t get to grow old with my husband. I don't remember ever being as scared as I was at that very moment.
Telling my family and friends: Because my husband was stuck at work, I went to see my mother immediately after my gynecologist did the biopsy; she'd been watching my daughter for the day. I tried to stay calm to keep her calm, but I wasn't successful. She called my father who immediately rushed home. They embraced me and reminded me how strong I was, even though I was having trouble believing it. My husband was terrified of losing me, but tried to remain strong to keep me from breaking down. Once we found out it was cancer, we told our families. They couldn't have been more supportive and loving. Everyone just kept reminding me to fight and that I could beat it.
My treatment: My gynecologic oncologist was one of the best around. He was straight and to the point and moved fairly fast on every step in order to get me cancer free and back to living again.
We started with a cone biopsy. There was a thought that this would remove everything, but there was a stronger possibility that it was just the beginning. The outpatient surgical procedure took a cone shaped portion from my cervix that would be used to see just how far the cancer invaded the tissue. Unfortunately, in my case, the tumor was too large. So at my follow-up appointment, as much as I prayed my cancer story was over, I was told I’d need a radical hysterectomy, leaving only my ovaries. I was heartbroken at the thought I’d never have more children, but knew I needed to be here for the one I already had.
The surgery was scheduled for the day before my 34th birthday. Leading up to my hysterectomy, I kept busy. I tried my best to cope with the realization that I had cancer and I was about to have most of my reproductive organs removed. And I grieved at the fact that I could no longer have more children like I’d always thought we would.
The surgery was quick - once under anesthesia, time sure does fly. My doctor performed the surgery robotically, which allowed for more precise incisions and faster healing. I was in the hospital less than 48 hours and returned home sore and with a catheter to allow my bladder to strengthen. The pain was bearable in my case; I barely took any of the prescription pain killers and stuck with over-the-counter pain relievers instead. The catheter was the most irritating issue, as was not being able to fully enjoy time with my daughter because it was uncomfortable to move around much for the first few weeks. But the doctor had said the surgery went well and they had high hopes that this was it. I wish that had been true.
When I returned for my follow-up two weeks later I was told that the surgery was in fact very successful, but unfortunately two out of the 19 lymph nodes they removed came back with microscopic traces of cancer. This meant my journey still hadn’t ended. I would have to undergo radiation and a low dose of chemotherapy. I was crushed yet again, worrying that it would only get worse from there, feeling like I wasn't going to overcome this. As much as my doctor said that my thoughts were not true, it didn’t stop me from fearing the absolute worst.
Before starting treatment, I was scheduled for a PET scan to see if the cancer had spread elsewhere in my body. And, finally, I got some good news. There was no sign of cancer in my body anymore at all. The radiation and chemo would be used to “sterilize” and rid my body of any tiny cancer cells that might have been lingering somewhere in my body. It gave me a larger sense of hope.
I had 28 rounds of external radiation and 5 rounds of Cisplatin. Chemo and radiation began on the same day in mid-October 2014. The first two weeks were not easy, but they were not horrible. By the third week I felt awful. It was hard to push myself to get to my appointments, and I thank God for my family for getting me through that time. Those final 3 ½ weeks of treatment were hell. I was more exhausted than I ever had been, food didn’t appeal to me at all, anti-nausea medicines were only helping slightly, and painful diarrhea became an everyday occurrence. But I set my eyes on the prize: ridding my body of cancer, growing old with my husband, and seeing my beautiful daughter grow into an amazing woman.
How I felt after treatment: When I was finally done with all my treatments, I cried. I thanked the nurses and techs that pushed me through. I rang a bell to signify I got through it and I got certificates telling me how brave I was to do what I had done. I never felt brave, but they certainly thought I was. Instead, I was relieved it was over.
What was most difficult for me: The most difficult for me was the mental aspect of the cancer. I'd never felt so helpless. I started having anxiety issues and the thought of dying was constantly on my mind. The physical aspects of surgery and treatment were no fun, but the mental for me was the worst.
What I did to help myself: I surrounded myself with people who loved me as much as I could. I looked at my daughter and thought about my daughter all the time. She was my biggest reason to push forward, even if she was too young to understand it. And I joined a group online for women with cervical cancer and made some amazing friends who understood everything I was going through.
My life after cancer: I'm now over a year cancer free and life is good. I still have anxiety issues, but they slowly keep getting easier to handle. I deal with some minor intestinal issues that stem from going through radiation, but nothing I can't handle. My memory isn't quite what it used to be; chemo brain is real and it can stay with you long after treatment has ended. Plus, because the radiation damaged my ovaries, I'm in menopause and on a low dose of hormones. But I am alive to see tomorrow and I am strong.
Where I am today: Two weeks after treatment, I went back to work. I'm working full-time yet again and living life almost exactly like I used to. I take better care of myself now and make more time for me when I need to. It's still difficult to realize that I can't have anymore children, but my daughter (who turned seven this year) is perfect and enough for me.
What I want other women to know: I want women to know that they know their bodies better than anyone else. If something doesn't seem right, go to the doctor. If you're not happy with what you hear, demand more tests or seek a second opinion. Cervical cancer is much easier to treat in the earlier stages. And if you're not seeing a gynecologist annually, start now!
How I will try to help others: I share my story when I think it will help or educate someone else. Cancer is extremely scary. It helps to talk to others who've gone through similar. I also try to remind women that they need to go to their yearly exams. Early detection can mean so much.