How it all started: I started noticing some vaginal discharge and went to my primary care doctor. He diagnosed me with a vaginal infection and prescribed medication but the infection didn’t go away. Months later, I started bleeding profusely and noticed some very distinct blood clots – and it wasn’t time for my period. The OB/GYN who examined me saw a mass and wanted to take a closer look – but my insurance wasn’t covered at his hospital. At the hospital where my insurance was covered, the ER doctor told me I was most likely having a miscarriage. I was given a 7-day prescription to stop the bleeding. The day I finished the medication, I started bleeding again. I went to the ER, ended up needing a blood transfusion, and finally had a biopsy performed.
Hearing my diagnosis: A week later, I heard the scariest words – “You have cancer” – followed by my worst nightmare – “the treatment will be aggressive and you will not be able to have children.” I cried inconsolably for hours on end and hurt for my mother and myself since I’m her only child; I thought the cancer meant a death sentence and my mother would die of a broken heart.
Surviving the stigma: If the diagnosis was a nightmare, so were those first appointments at the medical school where one of the attending doctors told me that I “most likely got this disease from sleeping around… Nuns don’t get this disease… You probably slept with one person in the morning and a different one in the evening.” I was completely shocked by his words and realized that whatever cancer this was, I was going through it without much support or compassion. This was a cancer only “bad girls” got and there was nothing I could do to convince anybody otherwise. At that point, I decided to swallow my pride and just do whatever I was told to try to cure the disease, if it was curable. Weeks of appointments, scans, consults and hopelessness followed.
Complications: Before my treatment began, I had severe chest pain. I went to the ER and was later hospitalized while the doctors tried to figure out what was wrong. At first, they thought my cancer had spread. But a few weeks later, after many tests, I was told I had a pulmonary embolism and a blood clot in the right atrium of my heart; I was lucky to be alive. Once the diagnosis came, I was put on blood thinners and stabilized; a week later, I was ready to start radiation therapy and a week after that, I was sent home.
Treatment: I completed 30 courses of radiation, followed by 3 days of intracavity radiation, and then 8 courses of chemo. A year later, I was told my tumor was completely gone!
Side Effects: I had to deal with some side effects like colitis due to radiation and peripheral neuropathy (in case you are wondering about my “marching band” style of walking), but they were nothing compared to the cocktail of complications I had within the first month. The cancer is gone and so are most of the side effects (except that funny walk).
How I got through my treatment: Realizing I have survived the worst, I was determined to beat this cancer and live my life to the fullest. I surrounded myself with positive people and took comfort in my newfound faith, which surprisingly I put in a loving God and not one that punishes people with cancer like some people tried to make me believe.
Why I didn’t have a Pap test: It didn’t occur to me that it was time to get my first Pap smear. I knew I wasn’t pregnant after all and due to cultural and religious concerns, I didn’t want anyone to know I was sexually active. Additionally, my health insurance at the time required a referral to see any type of medical specialist so I didn’t even want to bother going through the process of getting a referral to the OBGYN.
*Notice that I didn’t mention HPV in my story; I did not learn about the link between HPV and cervical cancer until approximately 2 years later. Once I did, I’ve told anyone that would listen about this virus and encourage them to get tested.
Life today: Facing cancer was the biggest battle of my life, literally! I lost my fertility, some friends, and part of my dignity. But I was left with something more important: Life! Since my diagnosis, I finished a bachelor’s and later a master’s degree; I moved to the US, became a vegetarian, got married to an amazing man and gained 2 wonderful stepchildren. And somewhere along life’s road, I find myself in a better place: Happy.
Life after cancer has been so incredibly wonderful. Strange as it may be, it has actually been so much better. Faith, happiness, passion, friendship, hope, love, purpose; those are some of the things I discovered after cancer, and finding those things made it all worth it.