In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Team Cervivor recently reached out to our private online community, looking for cervical cancer survivors, who were also breast cancer survivors. We wondered about their perspective and wanted to highlight a voice that knows first-hand what it’s like to have these two devastating cancers. We were shocked that we had quite a few women respond to us that fit this description! Karen North replied and graciously gave us a peek into what her journey has been like as both a breast and cervical cancer survivor and what she wants others to know.
Tell us about your cancer diagnoses?
I was shocked to be diagnosed with very early stage left breast cancer at the age of 45 in 2014. I had no family history, no symptoms, nothing. I elected to have a double mastectomy because I didn’t want to ever worry about it coming back. I chose not to have reconstruction. I am comfortable with my surgery decision. Many other people have had great experiences with a respectable breast reconstruction surgeon in Pensacola but I am confident in my decision to forego the surgery.
When I was diagnosed with invasive endocervical adenocarcinoma early 2016 my world shattered. I was faithful with my well-woman exams (though late sometimes, sure). I had no idea that I had HPV. I didn’t have any signs or a single clue of any issues. Then my plans for a radical hysterectomy were derailed due to the growth in my cervix in just one month. I was detoured onto taking the chemo-radiation train. It’s a train that I will never de-board, I just change cars a lot.
Women’s cancer, men’s cancer…. it’s all cancer. Cancer education, prevention, and regular screening is the key. Without regular screening where would I be now? If I didn’t share my story many of my friends would not have done their screening. It’s okay to ask your healthcare provider about HPV immunizations. Showing embarrassment is better than being ignorant.
What has your recovery been like?
As if you can’t tell, I have a cruel sense of humor. I tell people that I’m a cancer overachiever and refuse to be a cancer trifecta. I still feel haunted by the cervical cancer. Dealing with the constant changes in my life after chemo and radiation is daunting every second of every day. The physical and mental toll can overwhelm me sometimes. The breast cancer doesn’t haunt me. I look at it from the perspective of not having deal with breasts or a bra is easy except for selecting clothes. (With the frequent Mother Nature heat waves, I don’t need any extra padding.)
What do you want people to know about breast and cervical cancer?
The lame excuse of being too ‘busy’ for screening is BULL. My reply to them is, “Normal busy life is chump change in contrast to cancer and post-cancer life.” I have even gone as far as telling people to pull their big girl panties up! I also want people outside of the cancer community to be mindful that their words matter. Using phrases like, “You don’t look sick” or “You’re over reacting” are not helpful and feel very dismissive of our experience. Many times, survivors carry scars that are not visible. Cancer doesn’t just go away. The fear is always there, sometimes louder on some days than others, but always there.
What do you want the cancer community, survivors and caregivers to know?
My wish for those with cancer, living with cancer, and those who are NED (no evidence of disease) is that they know they aren’t alone. Yes, it can be uncomfortable reaching out of the bubble. However, doing so allows you to vent those deep dark thoughts, fears, anger, etc. I like to picture a collection of bubbles and its unique connection between each one. What a beautiful display of what it’s like when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and reach out for support. My wish for the family and friends is just to be there and be in the moment. Don’t judge. Be ready for emotions to change sometimes every second. Listen, love and laugh. Create a caregiver network for the surprise emergencies, so you’re not doing it all on your own. It’s okay to ask for help. I would also tell family and friends, not to be afraid of being afraid. Don’t hide your emotions. Caregivers showing weakness can help the survivor understand that it’s okay to vulnerable.
Thank you Karen for being open and honest about what it’s like to face both a cervical cancer and breast cancer diagnosis. We appreciate you sharing your experience with us and giving us an up close and personal perspective.
Karen North lives in Liberty, Missouri. She is a retired registered nurse. Her world is her family, fur-babies, and friends. As of the writing of this blog post in 2018, she is a four-year breast cancer survivor and a two-year cervical cancer survivor.