Cancerversary: September 2021

Age at diagnosis: 48

Diagnosis: Squamous cell carcinoma

How my story begins: 2020 came and the whole world could not go anywhere, so I decided to officially move to Washington. This was a time when binge eating, depression, illness and what next came and so did the weight and gynecological issues AGAIN. I'd have my period months at a time, cramps were just a part of my life. Heating pad and Ibuprofen were my best friends. But once I decided AGAIN to take charge of my health, the symptoms subsided. I had lost over 25 pounds and felt great. Until August 2021, when we took a vacation back to Southern California to celebrate my daughter's birthday and my grandmother's 99th birthday. I decided to schedule all my medical appointments during this time since I missed them all in 2020.

It was during my routine pap exam, that I hemorrhaged on the table and my gynecologist did a biopsy right after and scheduled me for a pelvic ultrasound before I flew back to Washington. On September 3, 2021, I got the, "You've got cervical cancer" call.

Life before my diagnosis: I was born in Chicago, IL, and lived in various parts of the world in my younger years as my dad was a Navy doctor and we would travel every three years to different locations. In the early '80s my dad decided to leave the military and start his own private practice in Long Beach, CA. I have been a Southern California native for many years but since 2020 (thanks to the pandemic) have been residing in the Seattle, Washington area.

I have been a caregiver in the past for both my mother, who died from Multiple Myeloma in 2013, and my mother-in-law who died from Pancreatic Cancer in 2018. There are NOT many things I hate in this life but, CANCER is definitely one I hope no one ever has to deal with or cope with. I hate that word.

But would I ever think that after four years of being a caregiver, I'd actually hear the words, "You've got cancer"?!? Never! They say life happens when you least expect it. But when you actually hear those words directed towards you, I think most don't ever think it could happen to them.

Before being a young mother in my early 20's, I was never really "educated" on paps, screenings, or vaccinations. Coming from an Asian (Filipino descent) family, it's often taboo to talk about sex or issues "down there". If you do, you're frowned upon and labeled as "wild" or promiscuous". As if being a single mom and not marrying my daughter's dad wasn't enough "shame" for my family, I never really brought up my gynecological issues with my parents or anyone. I took it upon myself after my daughter was born to get my pap screenings done on a regular basis.

I was diagnosed with endometriosis and dsymennorea in my 30s. And, I'm what you call an "abnormal is my normal" patient. My first abnormal pap was in 2009. But within three months it would go back to normal. That was pretty much my history. And since my chronic symptoms mirrored some of the cervical cancer symptoms, my doctor never thought to test for cervical cancer. After my mom passed away in 2013, my menstrual cramps and heavy bleeding worsened and I would develop huge endometriomas and uterine fibroids. I was given birth control pills to control the symptoms but it didn't seem to work. From then on I started on a health journey to lose some weight and be healthier and educated myself on ways to improve my health, wealth, and peace of mind. It was working and for a couple of years, my abnormal pains would stop and my paps were normal.

In 2016, a 10cm endometrioma grew in my ovaries along with other fibroids so my gynecologist recommended a Laparotomy and Hysterectomy. I opted for the Laparotomy to remove the growth. There were other fibroids and endometriomas growing at the time but I guess I was so used to decades of pain that I thought I could just "deal with it". And for the most part, I did.... until the pandemic happened in 2020.

How I felt after diagnosis: I honestly thought my gynecologist was going to say I've got another endometrioma that needs to be removed or recommend a hysterectomy. I never thought of the "C" word. After the call, I literally ran to the bathroom stared at myself in the mirror, and just cried. Then, I prayed and felt a calmness in my spirit. My husband was at work at the time so I called him to come home.

When people ask me how I felt after diagnosis, truly my mind processed it; I cried about it but I immediately went into planning mode and thought of a lion. A lion symbolizes courage and strength. It also has a roar so loud and is never defeated. I've worked hard these past years to evolve into a better person and being positive and to control what I can control has been one thing I practice. Yes, so I got CANCER but, CANCER AIN'T GOT ME. Now it was time to get solutions and to FIGHT THIS!

Telling my family and friends: For a whole month, I kept this a secret from most of my family and friends. I only told my immediate family and a few friends. Since I did not know my staging or treatment plan yet, I didn't want to be open about this and tell the same story over and over again. Truthfully, I thought that it would be a quick fix. I could get a hysterectomy and no one will ever know it was cervical cancer.

There is a stigma to this cancer, especially coming from Asian American culture. Growing up we don't talk about "issues" like this in public. Everything is always "good" and if there is a problem we keep it within our household and keep it "hush-hush". Even when my own mother was terminally ill, many of our family and friends were shocked when she passed away because we never disclosed she had terminal cancer.

There is always "talk" in our Filipino communities and you did not want to be the center of the "bad" news. I believe that is why many of us Asian-American women are very shy or timid to speak up because they feel ashamed their family will blame them or disown them. I had some family members ask me, "What did you do? How come you got this type of cancer"? I felt like I was in my 20s again telling my family I was having a baby out of wedlock. I've been the one in my family who breaks boundaries and is never afraid to speak up. But somehow with this news, I DID feel like that sad, hurt little Asian girl from many years ago.

My treatment: I was diagnosed with Stage 1B3 Squamous Cell Carcinoma with about a 5cm tumor localized centrally in my cervix. I got three different opinions before I decided to go with the Oncology team at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. I was a bit sad that I could not have a hysterectomy so I waited a while before I made my decision because I wanted to do alternative, natural treatments at first. I saw how much my mother declined with chemo and radiation so I was afraid that it would have the same effect on me.

Because of an ER visit in October and the circumstances, I decided to go for the chemo/radiation and they had to move my start date a week earlier because of the constant blood loss. My treatment plan consisted of 25 external radiation sessions, five chemo sessions and four Brachytherapy sessions. I started my treatment a few weeks after my 48th birthday on October 25, 2021, and my treatments ended on December 15.

During the entire treatment, I could say I was okay. I would, of course, get tired during the long chemo days and did have two blood transfusions. I had occasional bowel issues and could not eat on certain days. But, I knew that nutrition and mindset were a big part of the process. So, I forced myself to eat healthily and drink lots of water and keep my mind at peace. I was also able to walk around my neighborhood for the first few weeks. The only issue I had was the bleeding regularly during and after my treatments but that subsided come January 2022.

How I felt after treatment: I am currently in my three month waiting period. My follow-ups are scheduled for March 2022. I feel positive that this treatment plan worked and claiming to the universe that I will get the GOOD NEWS in March of NED. From my last MRI, my radiation oncologist stated that the tumor had shrunk by more than half.

What was most difficult for me: Most of my family and friends are in California so it has been hard not being able to have physical human touch and communication. I loved meeting people in person and attending parties, celebrations, and events. Although, I am blessed with Zoom and it has been a tremendous blessing to my personal and business life.

I know that this cancer has brought about symptoms that I will have for my entire life now but I count my blessings every day. A few symptoms and hard challenges now and then are nothing because every day I wake up with a gift called LIFE and that alone is precious. My attitude is gratitude, all day every day!

What I did to help myself: Being able to maintain healthy habits and a positive mindset and outlook in life has helped me. I believe that your associations and your environment also play a big part in this journey and healing process. Instead of focusing on the negativity of "cancer", I began to find ways to turn my trials into triumph.

My life after cancer: This cancer is only a part of my story, it's not my whole life. But what am I learning or evolving from it? How can this help others? I am a big advocate for Long Term Care and Financial Literacy so, during my treatments I was still able to help people secure and protect their loved ones' lives from the "what ifs" in life. By sharing my story, it has been an eye-opener for many people and my business has grown and I've been able to empower more women on health, wealth, and wellness. I want to live a life of purpose and I've been able to impact many lives and also change the trajectory of many Asian American family households.

What I want other women to know: It is hard for some women to speak up about cervical cancer because of society and being part of the "norm". It's not a pretty cancer or an easy cancer either. All CANCERS matter to me but, the support for cervical cancer is rare because it's the one cancer out there that can be prevented if found early if tested routinely, etc. But because of the stigma of the disease, especially in Asian cultures, some women feel dirty or at fault so they don't speak up. I'd like to be one of the new faces for cervical cancer in our community. I don't think I've seen or read more than three Asian American women's stories about this disease so I am sure it's because they are still afraid to speak up about it. By sharing our stories, it brings us closer together and able to communicate the right messages more effectively.

How I will try to help others: I believe that it is important to spread awareness for cervical cancer. When I was diagnosed, I was trying to Google support groups online and found very few. Thank goodness for the women of and other cervical cancer support groups on Facebook, I was able to find that support, and a lot of questions and concerns were answered. But there needs to be more awareness for sure and more women need to speak up when they have concerns or questions.

Any additional information you'd like to share: As much as I am a firm believer in spreading awareness for cervical cancer, it's just as important for individuals and families to be prepared when the "what ifs" in life happen to them. One big part that is also not spoken about much is the out-of-pocket COSTS for cancer care and how it affects families financially during and after. I am a big believer in spreading that information out there so we can empower more people and bridge that gap. Health and wealth building should be taught in schools and I'm a big advocate for that. My motto is, "My purpose in life is to live a life of purpose"!