It’s funny the way life has a way of twisting and turning in unpredictable ways. I never imagined that I would have cancer, let alone cancer in my vagina. I also never imagined that my diagnosis would lead me around the world to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. But that’s exactly where I am heading in just two short months.
My adventure really begins with an abnormal Pap Test at the age of 34 after a routine gyn checkup. The moment the doctor told me I had HPV was something I will never forget. You could have knocked me over with a feather. I was surprised and mortified that I had an STI. Me? No way! But, yes, I am one of the 4 out of 5 Americans with HPV. Despite the several procedures my doctor tried to rid my cervix of the dysplasia nothing was working and I eventually had a total hysterectomy. HPV wasn’t done with me, however, and three years later symptoms returned and I was diagnosed with stage 2 vaginal cancer. This time surgery was not an option and I had two months of chemotherapy, external radiation and internal radiation. The treatment was successful and I have, very thankfully and gratefully, been cancer free for almost three years.
My cancer experience immediately brought life into focus and forced me to really examine what I was doing with mine. I rapidly decided upon 2 driving ideas….1) Although I was weaker and sicker than I had imagined possible, I was alive and recovering. I was determined to outlive my diagnosis and have as much adventure and travel as possible. And 2) I would dedicate my survivorship to prevent other women from living my experience and make my heartbreak count for others.
Since my treatment ended I have been working diligently on these two missions. I’ve learned how to whitewater kayak and paddled some of the most beautiful rivers and lakes in the South, and hiked the Rockies in Colorado and the Sierras in California. I met and was inspired by the adventure of an ovarian cancer survivor, advocate, and friend of mine to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Me? Sure, why not?! During this time I also became a passionate advocate for Cervivor and share HPV and cervical/vaginal cancer awareness and information at events and through social media.
Very quickly my two missions began to converge. My preparation and research of Kilimanjaro and Tanzania naturally brought me to global cervical cancer advocacy. I quickly uncovered the heartbreaking cervical cancer burden in Tanzania. Globally, more than 500k women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer and 270k of those women will die, 90% of them in underdeveloped regions. Women in Tanzania with the same diagnosis as me suffer from an astounding 80% mortality rate. A tragic combination of lack of reproductive health knowledge, access to medical treatment, trained professionals, and basic supplies usually means that women are diagnosed at more advanced stages than the typical American and often do not receive treatment.
The fact that so many women die at the hands of an almost completely preventable disease every year is a tragedy of epic proportion. There was no way I could travel to Kilimanjaro without trying to do whatever I could to help these women and communities. I pulled together a committed team of people, including my own gyn oncologist, to climb Kilimanjaro with me. We are dedicating our climb and have successfully met our goal to fund a cervical cancer screening clinic in Tanzania with the organization Cure Cervical Cancer. Our team leaves for Tanzania later this summer for the trip of a lifetime including a tour of a remote mobile cervical cancer screening clinic in Moshi, a 7-day hike up 19k feet on Mt. Kilimanjaro and a safari. We are training regularly, hiking a lot, and currently trying to coordinate our ridiculously long packing lists.
I came across a Steve Jobs’ quote the other day that struck me, “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.” This whole adventure began with a “crazy” idea and a passion to DO something. With the help of my family, friends and supporters, my dreams are coming true and I could not be more humbled and grateful. My cancer does not define me, nor has it held me back. It fuels my fire to live my life with purpose and adventure. I hope my experiences inspire YOU – what’s your next adventure?
Read Sarah’s Cervivor story here.