By Cervivor Ambassador Heather, Indiana
Eight years ago, at age 32, I was a cervical cancer patient. Surgery, chemo, radiation, fatigue is how you could describe my cancer world at that time.
I will always have a cancer world; there’s no going back. Although now, the following words are used to define it: passion, sisterhood, awareness, vulnerability, empowerment. Now, at age 40, I’m a cervical cancer advocate.
I didn’t set out to be an advocate at first. It just evolved into a significant part of my life.
It started with a little segment on the local news during Cervical Cancer Awareness month. Then a few speaking engagements in my city; usually during the month of January. A few years later, I found myself in Washington, speaking to the FDA and doing some work with Roche. Recently, I spoke to Indiana government officials. And now, I’m proud to call myself a member of Cervivor; Tamika’s vessel through which I can do even more.
Someone asked me recently what my Advocacy Philosophy is. I’d never really thought about it, but after some thought and reflection; here’s what I came up with … at least at this point in my journey.
DO WHAT YOU CAN, WITH THE NOTION OF PUSHING YOURSELF JUST A LITTLE
If you want to advocate, use the resources you have to “just do something.” Think about the time you have, if you want to spend money or not, the connections you have, and ultimately what you’re comfortable with.
- Do I have time to attend a local event?
- Am I comfortable asking my doctor to connect me with other survivors in my area?
- Do I want to spend some money to go to Cervivor School?
- Is there a social media group I could join or follow?
And then, when you’re ready, push yourself … just a little. When I first found myself advocating, I spoke locally. It was great, but I just waited for someone to ask me to speak. I realized that I could push myself just a bit. I was ready to step outside my comfort zone a tad more. I sought out even more speaking opportunities, I started posting on social media about HPV and cervical cancer, I went to see Someone You Love at a local film festival, and met Tamika Felder there!
Do something, and then push yourself:
- I’m attending a local event, maybe I’ll go up and talk to one of the speakers.
- I’ve joined a local support group, I’ll ask to see if anyone wants to meet up!
- I think I’m ready to send my story to Cervivor for them to publish.
- I’m going to share this reputable article about HPV on social media.
EVERY ADVOCACY STEP YOU TAKE WILL LIKELY LEAD TO ANOTHER OPPORTUNITY
This has proven to be very true for me. I told my doctor I was willing to do something, so when the local news asked him to do a segment; he recommended me to be the survivor for their story. When Kirk Forbes (his daughter and I had the same oncologist) asked my doctor for a survivor to speak at a local event, he recommended me. Kirk and I have gone on to speak at many more events together. At one event there was a doctor out of North Carolina who was working with Roche on their HPV screening test; she would later ask me to speak to the FDA. Speaking to the FDA led to more work with Roche. The people at Roche first told me about Tamika Felder, and the rest is history!
I can honestly say that being willing to advocate has led me to so many wonderful opportunities, which are usually a stepping stone to the next thing I do. One thing leads me to another. The most awesome piece about this is the amazing people I’ve met along the way; doctors, industry people, other survivors, and loved ones of some who have lost their lives to cervical cancer. My choice to advocate has opened so many doors as well as filled my heart with friendship and love.
THE LITTLE THINGS OFTEN MATTER MOST
I’ve found that it’s the little things that often have the most impact on me and others. Simply posting and sharing things on social media has led my friends and family to see me as a resource. I didn’t intend for this, but many have messaged me for advice and thoughts; usually on HPV and the vaccine. Spur of the moment conversations that naturally arise (in the lunchroom at work, when visiting with friends, or even in the dentist’s office) has cleared up a lot of misconceptions and confusion that exists in the world of HPV and gynecologic health.
At first when I found myself doing these “little things,” I didn’t even realize I was advocating. However, I think they are. Speaking to a room full of strangers is one thing, but helping friends navigate the confusing and controversial world of HPV or advising others what to ask the doctor at an upcoming visit is so much more satisfying for me; not to mention immediately helpful to those close to me.
I’m on a bit of a Brené Brown kick lately. If you haven’t listened to her or read a book of hers; you should. At least Google her! She is a research professor who has done a lot of work with vulnerability. One of the messages that I’ve gotten from her is that being vulnerable isn’t negative. Being vulnerable is positive and can be very empowering. From her book, Daring Greatly, she defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” She also says that vulnerability is, “the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity.”
In regard to advocacy, I take this message from her: In order to advocate for HPV and cervical cancer, we have to take the risk to emotionally expose ourselves and our stories in order to advance our cause. The uncertainty of where this will lead is hard to look past; however, it will lead us (and those we advocate for) to a sense of belonging, courage, hope and empowerment.
Advocating means being vulnerable, which isn’t a bad thing.
So, as of now, that’s my “advocacy philosophy.” I’m sure it will change and evolve as I do this important work with others.
What can you do to advocate? If you haven’t already, what is something you feel comfortable doing? If you’ve already taken steps, how can you push yourself to do something more? What’s something little you can do? Be vulnerable, do something! I promise it will lead you to amazing opportunities and people as well as fill your heart!