How my story begins: Thursday, July 25th, 2016 was the day I heard the words that would change my life forever. It was as if I was having an out of body experience. The doctor was talking but I could not hear anything coming out of his mouth. My husband was pacing in the room. How could this be happening? I just had a Pap and an ultrasound 11 months ago for the same post-coital bleeding and everything was fine!
How I felt after diagnosis: Upon leaving the OB/GYN’s office that day, my husband looked at me with utter desperation and said, “Oh my God Shari, you’re gonna die.” I remember feeling so bad for him. Here was a patient that was diagnosed with Stage 4 Cervical Cancer by a provider that did not really know her or “much about cervical cancer and treatment,” nor did she really know him. The patient’s husband was given the impression that this was an automatic death sentence and there was no hope. However, this patient knew better; this patient knew that this was not the end of her story.
Telling my family and friends: Time to tell my kids; time to go home and crush their world. How does someone prepare for that? You can’t. I remember receiving a call on Friday from the OB/GYN that diagnosed me. He said, “We’re looking at 8 months…go on a trip with your kids…go see the Sequoias…” I just sat and listened, watching my kids laughing and joking around with each other as he was talking to me. Shortly after that call, I received a call from my urologist who said, “…well you heard the news…what do you think?” I told him I was going to fight. He responded, “Hell yes you are!” It made me smile.
That weekend was spent with my husband, my three kids (ages 19, 15, and 14) and me, supporting and loving one another; trying to wrap our heads around everything. I remember all along thinking, “I’m not going to die from this. This is not how my story ends.” That same weekend, as I rested in my usual hot bubble bath, I began to cry. I literally yelled out to God and told Him, “I am not going down without a fight. Your will be done, but it will be ugly because I will fight!” It was at that moment that I gave it up to God; I put all my faith in Him.
The weekend passed and Tuesday came, the day I would meet my medical oncologist. He explained more about cervical cancer and how even though my cancer was aggressive, it was something that could be cured. It was going to be a long, tough road of treatment: “We’re going to throw the book at you.” Ultimately, I was blessed to have a medical oncologist from one institution, a radiation oncologist from another institution, and a radiation oncologist and gynecological oncologist from yet another institution; I had an amazing team fighting for me.
My treatment: Treatment was tough but manageable. I had 5 of the 6 rounds of chemo I was supposed to have. I had 28 rounds of external radiation and 5 rounds of internal radiation, all at the same time. I was able to continue working through it all; I felt I had to as it was too hard to sit home alone all day, left alone with my thoughts. I had a nephrostomy tube placed in my left kidney due to the effects of the tumor on my urinary system. I now have a stent in my left ureter to help drain the kidney that now only has 10% function. Fatigue, nausea, vomiting, bowel issues, blood transfusion; yes, I had it all. All I focused on was surviving. Even though treatment was physically draining, due to my faith, I have never felt as much peace as I did while walking through this storm. I also had such an amazing support system surrounding me, not only with my husband and kids, but in the community I live in. I wanted them to hear a success story; I wanted them to know that cancer does not have to be a death sentence.
My life after cancer: Treatment turned out to be the easy part for me. There was comfort in being monitored on a daily basis as I went to radiation on a weekly basis for chemo. Then it stopped. I was not prepared for that. I felt as though I was on an island, all alone, waiting; the security was gone. Fear of the unknown tried to creep in; I fought to keep it out.
It was difficult to pick up the pieces and to try to figure out my new normal - our new normal. We all felt it, my husband, my kids, and me. I called it PTSD; the signs were there. We had to rebuild ourselves and it was going to take time; we were really not sure how to do it. I stayed strong in my faith and continued to leave it up to God; I knew He would see us through.
Where I am today: I am 3 years out from my diagnosis and “Medusa,” as I named my tumor, is still gone. I see every day as a gift and live life on my terms now. I continue to see my oncology team for follow-up care just in case Medusa tries to rear her ugly head again. As for picking up the pieces, I have realized that I have no control of what is to come; the only thing I have control over is my reaction to whatever life throws at me.
What I want other women to know: A cancer diagnosis does not have to be a death sentence; whatever is to come is between you and God. You will have your moments when it seems like the world is crumbling around you, but do not give up; stay focused and fight. You are not alone.
How I will try to help others: I recently graduated from Cervivor School. This experience was inspiring and empowering. It reminded me of the importance of sharing my story; it reminded me of the importance of advocating for cervical cancer. I have been inspired to educate individuals on HPV and work to debunk the myths; I have been inspired to stress the reality of eradicating cancers caused by HPV with a simple vaccination. (How amazing is that? I still get chills thinking about it!) I have been inspired as a registered nurse to impact care of cancer survivors, to ensure others have the resources they need to pick up the pieces.
Medusa, you did not defeat me. In fact, I am stronger than ever. I am moving on with my life and you are not invited.