How my story begins: Before my cancer diagnosis, I lived a pretty normal life. I was in my 20s and working towards a Bachelor's degree like many young women my age. I traveled a lot, was active in the gym and spent most of my time outdoors.
I had a normal Pap test in January 2014 and later that year, I had benign cervical polyps removed. Before and after having the polyps removed, I was experiencing bleeding after intercourse. I was with a new partner and had a lot of stress in my life at the time so I didn't really think much of it.
In fall of 2015, I went for my annual well-woman exam to get my birth control pills refilled like many young women my age. At this time, I had new health insurance so I figured, "Why not get a Pap test done since it'd be paid for even though I wasn't due for a Pap test for another 1.5 years." Well, my Pap test showed high grade abnormalities. Over my Thanksgiving break, I had a colposcopy which came back as adenocarcinoma in situ.
How I felt after diagnosis: I was absolutely devastated. I never imagined I would have cancer at such a young age. I couldn't understand why I deserved this or why it was happening to me. I immediately imagined having to put college on hold for chemo or radiation. I soon realized that after surgery, I would not be like most 23 year old women. I would never be pregnant and have my own baby. Thankfully, I still have my ovaries so I can choose to have a surrogate later on in life if the time comes.
Telling my family and friends: My mom has always been my number one supporter and was present at all of my appointments and surgeries. The rest of my family was supportive but I'm not quite sure they really ever understood the magnititude of my diagnosis and the consequences of surgery. My friends tried their best to cheer me up but having a friend with cancer really isn't something most people know how to deal with.
My treatment: One week after my 23rd birthday, on December 22, 2015, I had a LEEP under general anesthesia. The biopsy came back as 1A1 invasive adenocarcinoma with clear margins. My OBGYN wanted to see me in 4 months for a repeat Pap test, but I pushed for an oncology referral. After my initial consult with the gyn onc, I had a PET scan that showed cancer was still in my cervix. During my Spring break in March 2016, I had a cold knife cone biopsy done. To my doctor's surprise, the margins were positive. At only 23 years old, I was told I would need a radical hysterectomy.
On May 20, 2016, I underwent a radical hysterectomy, which removed my cervix, uterus, fallopian tubes, the upper third of my vagina and 22 pelvic lymph nodes. At my post op follow-up appointment, I was told even more cancer was found in my cervix, bringing me to having stage 1B1 invasive adenocarcinoma. But, all of my lymph nodes were clear, meaning no further treatment!
Three surgeries in less than 6 months, however, really took its toll.
How I felt after treatment: Physically, I felt great. My oncologist assured me I would heal quickly since I was young and otherwise healthy. The challenges of physical setbacks were upsetting, but each week after surgery I was able to do more. I felt so relieved that my lymph nodes were clear and that I was now cancer free. Even though this should be such a happy and exciting time, I am still working through my emotions and trying to process what has been a whirlwind in the last year.
What was most difficult for me: I think being so young was most difficult for me. Surrogacy and not being intimate like I was before aren't things anyone should ever have to deal with, but especially not at only 23 years of age. No one really understood how someone my age could have this happen to them. Everyone my age really didn't get what was going on. Staying enrolled full time in college was also hard. I saw my grades slipping and I lost my focus and motivation during the semester I was sick.
What I did to help myself: I surrounded myself with people who cared. I did my best to keep a positive outlook and I kept myself distracted with school.
My life after cancer: My life after cancer has only just begun. I'm still in the healing process from my last surgery but I am moving forward in a positive direction!
Where I am today: Today, I am only a few months post op from my biggest surgery. I am finally in my last semester of college and will graduate in December 2016 with a biology degree. I'm getting back in the gym and am learning to deal with the physical aftermath of surgery (bladder and bowel issues, lymphedema, and nerve damage in my left leg). I'm still sorting through my emotions and am trying to come to terms with the loss of fertility and other changes I have experienced. It's a long slow road but it's certainly going in the right direction.
What I want other women to know: I want other women to know they should listen to their bodies! I wish I would've paid more attention when I was experiencing bleeding after intercourse. I hope young women and girls are not afraid of pelvic exams and Pap tests. Girls in college should not be shamed for having HPV. More importantly, they should be educated on what to do next and how to be in charge of their health.
How I will try to help others: I want to tell my story to let people know that cancer does not care how old you, it does not discrimate. My main goal for advocacy is educating and informing young women on college campuses about regular well woman exams, Pap tests, HPV tests and the HPV vaccine.