How my story begins: In October 1993, I had an abnormal PAP come back indicating pre-cancerous HPV cells. My doctor performed cryo-surgery to freeze my cervix and I had clear PAPs from 1994 going forward. In 2008, I had a hysterectomy to relieve heavy, painful periods - I had 3 children, Corey who was 33, Justin who was 26 and Allie who was 23, so I was fine with the hysterectomy decision. I was diligent in having my PAPs and annual exams even after my hysterectomy. In 2020, with COVID raging, I lost my job due to budget cuts, and therefore lost my insurance, so the last PAP I got was in fall of 2019 and everything was fine.
Flash forward to May 2022, I started passing large blood clots in my urine that initially was diagnosed as a Urinary Tract Infection (UTI). I had had several UTIs in my lifetime and never experienced the symptoms I was experiencing, so I contacted a Urologist. The urologist ordered a CT scan and a 7.5 cm mass was detected on that scan. My urologist did a biopsy of the mass and a PET scan was ordered. I was diagnosed with Stage 4a cervical/vaginal cancer that had also invaded my urinary bladder.
Life before my diagnosis: Prior to being diagnosed, I taught middle school English, Language Arts and Bible at a small Christian school in Summerville, SC. My son Justin (27), daughter Allie (24) and Allie's fiance' Kayden lived with me in South Carolina. I loved cheering on the Georgia Bulldogs (my Alma Mater) in any sporting event and spending time with my friends and family.
How I felt after diagnosis: It took a couple of weeks for the shock of the diagnosis to actually sink in. I was scared and worried about leaving my 3 kids without a mom. I lost my mom when I was 33 and that was the same age as my oldest son.
Telling my family and friends: I sat down and told Justin, Allie and Kayden (Allie's boyfriend) and I remember collapsing to my knees in the middle of the living room floor crying and I just kept saying "I don't want to die - I can't do this!". I called my best friend and told her and we cried together on the phone. I lost my mother in 2004 and lost my brother in 2011 so I didn't have to tell them, but I did make a call to my brother's daughter Brittany and that was just as hard as telling my own children. My friends were very supportive.
My treatment: My treatment plan was 25 rounds of external radiation, 6 rounds of Cisplatin chemo and 5 rounds of internal radiation, also known as brachytherapy. To add complications to my treatment, my kidneys started to fail and I had to have bilateral nephrostomy tubes placed in each kidney.
How I felt after treatment: I didn't experience any of the nausea or vomiting that I was expecting after my treatments but I did drop about 80 pounds because I had no appetite. My body was so worn down and I just curled up in a ball in the middle of my bed day after day. I felt exhausted and broken.
What was most difficult for me: It was very difficult for my kids to see me sick - so I tried to do everything myself. I drove myself to the majority of my treatments. Justin went with me to a couple, Allie and Kayden went to a couple and even my niece Brittany drove 12 hours to surprise me and stayed with us for a week and took me to an appointment and treatment. I felt so broken. I felt like I just laid on my bed and watched the clock tick away. We had moved to South Carolina two years before, so any support system I had was back "home" in Georgia.
What I did to help myself: I joined a cervical cancer support group on Facebook at the encouragement of a friend who had battled breast cancer. She was a huge resource for me. Through the support group, I met a variety of ladies who were going through the same thing that I was and they were so knowledgeable. They were just like me and a lot of their advice and experiences were so helpful. I became very close to one teal sister who lived outside of Boston and our treatments were mostly on the same days, our scans were at the same times and we started calling each other our cancer twin. I would have never made it through my battle without her friendship and her support.
I did a lot of listening to audio books, music and binge watched TV on Hulu or Netflix. I kept a journal that helped me express my feelings and thoughts,
My life after cancer: On December 24, 2022, I was diagnosed with pulmonary embolisms in both lungs and spent three days in the hospital after having surgery to clear the clots. Then on December 29, we moved back to Athens, Georgia where I had lived prior to moving to South Carolina. On January 12, 2023, I had a PET scan and a physical exam that showed that I was NED (No Evidence of Disease). It seemed that treatment had worked.
Where I am today: I went for my six month checkup on June 27, 2023 and had a PET scan and it was confirmed that my cancer had returned and spread through my pelvic area to my abdomen, as well as having an inseparable mass on the back on my bladder. My kidneys started failing again, but fortunately the urologist was able to get stents put in both kidneys and I began a new battle against cervical cancer. I started chemotherapy (Carboplatin, Taxol, Keytruda and Avastin) on July 24 and I am scheduled to have 6 treatments every 21 days and then the plan is to remain on Keytruda immunotherapy for 2 years,
This second battle has been much harder than the treatment last year. I have lost my hair, and I have the nausea and vomiting and pain that I didn't experience last year. I still have my cancer twin, Kellie supporting me from Boston and I found this amazing organization Cervivor, that I have joined and am learning so much about navigating the world of cervical cancer.
What I want other women to know: You are stronger than you think. Cervivor has an amazing support system and the organization can be a wealth of knowledge. You've got this!
How I will try to help others: I hope that my story and experiences can help others become more diligent in following up on getting their annual PAPs and learning about HPV related cancers.