How my story begins: After making a career change decision in my late 20's, I finally completed my goal of becoming a veterinarian in 2004 at the age of 35. I graduated from University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine in June and right away started an internship at an emergency and specialty center in Tampa, Florida.
I had always gone to my gynecologist appointments annually and had never had an abnormal Pap test. However, I hadn't had one in 2 years because when I went for my routine exam at the student health center at UC Davis, they told me that the recommendations had changed and that since I'd never had an abnormal Pap, I didn't need to be tested every year. So that one was skipped.
In August, I started having symptoms of abnormal bleeding. So I scheduled an appointment with a gynecologist. After much testing, I was diagnosed with high grade dysplasia and was going to have a LEEP procedure done. I was nervous and called a friend in California who had a friend who had recently been treated for advanced cervical cancer. This friend of mine recommended I get a second opinion from an oncologist even though the diagnosis was only high grade dysplasia. Although I felt a little foolish going to see the oncologist, something in my gut told me to go anyway.
After looking at my report, the oncologist started by assuring me that everything would be fine. Then he proceeded to do a full pelvic exam (which surprisingly had not been done prior), and his exact words are seared into my brain. "Oh honey, if this is high grade dysplasia, I'll be very happy for you. But in my experience, this is cancer. Get dressed and meet me in my office." Numb and in shock, I sat down in a chair across from his desk as he was on the phone with the original gynecologist. I heard him saying in a quiet but irritated tone to the doctor, "Did you even do a full pelvic exam on this woman? She's got at least a stage 2b. Get a biopsy and don't wake her up until you have a diagnosis." When he saw I had joined him, his demeanor calmed and he explained what would happen next. My other doctor would get a diagnosis then he would take over my care.
How I felt after diagnosis: Leaving his office, I was in shock, although for weeks I'd had this instinctive feeling that this was something worse than the original tests had shown. I headed back to work at my internship and decided I'd just move on with the day since I felt guilty leaving my colleagues to pick up my slack after all of these doctor's appointments. I really thought I'd just power through the day, but once I got back there, the tears came hard and fast. My mentor took me into a private room to find out what was wrong and then sent me home for the day.
Telling my family and friends: Alone in my apartment, my first worry was about telling my parents. I thought about postponing the news until there was an official diagnosis and plan but thought better of it since I'd be going under general anesthesia in a few days. For some reason, I found it much easier to tell my friends than to tell my family and boyfriend (now husband), who was supporting his father through cancer treatments at the same time. As I knew they would be, my family was supportive and wonderful, but it broke my heart to be a major source of stress and worry for them.
My treatment: My treatment lasted a total of 10 weeks and I received chemotherapy (cisplatin and fluorouracil) and both external and internal beam radiation. Chemotherapy had to be postponed once due to low cell counts and I received a blood transfusion and neupogen.
How I felt after treatment: I was ecstatic to be finished with treatments, especially because I had a group of friends from California waiting for me at a beach house. I'll never forget the feeling of my parents walking me out onto the beach to see my group of friends waiting for me. I was super skinny, pale, and very weak but seeing all those people that I love who had traveled across the country to see me filled my body with so much life and happiness. And as a happy side note, a love connection was made from one of those California friends and a local Florida friend. And as a result of that connection, today there are 2 more beautiful children in this world.
What was most difficult for me: In the immediate aftermath, I made the decision to leave the internship. I didn't feel good at all and the requirements of time and energy for the job were very demanding, so I made the decision to quit. In the long term, what has been most difficult for me is the loss of fertility. To be honest, I'm not even sure I wanted to have children and even felt some sense of relief at having the choice taken from me. I was comfortable with the idea of adoption since I have an adopted sister, but in the end my husband and I decided not to take that route. However, over the years, the loss of the ability to have children has haunted me at various times in my life.
What I did to help myself: About 2 years after my treatments were finished, I went back and restarted the internship even though at that point I'd been working as a general practice veterinarian for about a year and a half. It always bothered me that I didn't complete it and it turned out to be a very good career move to add that to my training. As far at the loss of fertility goes, my husband and I have designed a lifestyle of travel and freelance work that wouldn't be possible if we had a family and we enjoy this as a trade off to the joys children can bring.
My life after cancer: In my immediate life after cancer, I really felt the gratitude and sparkle of life. Surviving cancer has given me a better mental balance on letting things go, enjoying the now, and planning for the future. While I still tend to be a future thinker and planner, I'm acutely aware that there are no guarantees that I will make it there. So I tend to enjoy the present more than I used to. Truth be told, however, the years have dulled that genuine acute sense of appreciation as I fall into routine and old habits of letting stupid things bother me. But news of friends and family suffering from cancer or other tragedies snap my focus back to what is really important and I will reflect on the people, science, support, and luck that came together to allow me to walk the earth at least this much longer.
Where I am today: Today, I am a happy, healthy wife, sister, daughter, friend, aunt, and practicing veterinary professional.
What I want other women to know: As a cancer patient, I felt a lot of pressure to "stay positive," because there is a lot of messaging indicating that it's one of the ways you will "beat this." Having a positive, optimistic attitude certainly helps a patient and those around them feel better. But the problem with this message is that it implies that if you aren't "positive" and treatment fails, it is somehow your fault. My radiation oncologist brought this point home to me when he told me: "Cindy, cancer does whatever it wants. If you need to be sad, you are allowed to be sad. If you feel mad that this happened to you, that's ok too. It won't change the course of the disease." These may sound like harsh words, but in actuality they were very freeing for me. By allowing myself some time to feel depressed and to let the tears flow freely, I was able to immerse myself in the journey and the positives - yes, there are always positives. These gifts of cancer were more genuine and apparent to me once I stopped trying to manufacture a "positive attitude" to save the stress of others and my own life.
Some examples of how cancer enriched my life include the medical professionals I met along the way; the empathy I developed for them and for other patients by understanding their experiences more directly; discovering the depths of my support system; having time to slow down a super fast-paced life and reflect; discovering that my boyfriend's kindness, compassion, and ability to handle the stress of having both a father and a girlfriend with cancer at the same time went deeper than I ever would have known; finding things to laugh about in the medieval medical torture that is internal beam radiation; and learning how little hair really matters.
How I will try to help others: When time allows, I volunteer for Florida Cancer Specialists Foundation in patient support. I spend a few hours a week at the infusion center handing out warm blankets, drinks, snacks, and offering an ear and friendly conversation to patients who want to chat. Over the years, I have served as a resource for other women who have been diagnosed with cervical cancer.