How my story begins: I was diagnosed with cervical cancer the week the world shut down to "stop the spread" of COVID. Within 1 week, I was diagnosed with cancer, my children were sent home from school, and I was sent home from work. I had to become a teacher, cook, work-from-homer and fighter all within days from each other. To top it off, I was in the middle of a major bathroom remodel too. It was hectic to say the least!
Prior to diagnosis, I had abnormal Paps, but never needed a biopsy. After having my last child, I skipped a few years of Paps. To be honest, I never understood the risks associated with an abnormal Pap and my doctor never sat down with me to tell me how dangerous this was. This type of cancer did not run in my family so the thought of cancer never crossed my mind. Only after requesting my medical records for my oncologist, did I notice my OBGYN had tested me for a tumor suppressing test where I tested positive for the suppression. Lesson learned - always advocate for yourself and request a copy of every test result. Also, do your homework on the abnormalities!
In January 2020, I had a really heavy menstruation. I mean really heavy. Since it had been a few years since my last pap, I went ahead and scheduled one. It took a few weeks to get the appointment, and, in the meantime, I had another menstruation. This one was just as heavy. I really started to worry as I have had my period since I was 10 and knew my body pretty well. Most menstruations lasted a few days and were pretty light. When I got in to see the OBGYN, she calmed my fears and told me I was probably "just getting older".... I was only 38 but thought ok, I'm getting old! The pap came back abnormal, and I had to have a biopsy.
I remember getting the call from the OBGYN's office. When I answered the call, the nurse right off the bat wanted to transfer me to the doctor. I thought that was odd, but cancer was the last thing on my mind. When I spoke to the doctor, she said my biopsy did come back showing cancer, but it showed in situ, which meant it is just on the surface of the cervix. She did, however, express concern that every biopsy came back cancerous which was concerning to her as she took biopsies further up the cervix which is not a common finding for in situ. I would need to see a gynecological oncologist to have them take a look.
Finding a doctor was a nightmare due to COVID. Since I was showing in situ, no one wanted to take me at that time and wanted me to wait until May so we could we learn more about COVID and its risks. My oncologist was the only doctor who would see me. I was seen within a few weeks. During the visit my doctor spent a ton of time with me and explained everything in great detail. At the end of the visit, I needed to have an exam. Once she took a look at me, she immediately asked if the previous doctor had ordered an ultrasound. The answer was no and so she said I needed to have a procedure where she would put me under general anesthesia and take a deeper look. After waking up from that procedure, I was informed I had a large tumor that was pulling my cervix up and would need to have scans to stage me. She could tell the tumor was too large to perform a hysterectomy so that would not be an option. In the end, I was stage IIIC. The cancer grew out of my cervix and was also in my lymph nodes.
Life before my diagnosis: My life before diagnosis was very normal. I am a mother of 2, a wife, a daughter, sister and business leader. Like many, life was busy and hectic, but you learn to pivot and fit it all in.
How I felt after diagnosis: I felt an array of emotions after diagnosis. Obviously, I was devastated, and I was worried. I had 2 children and the thought of life without them was too much to bear. I spent numerous nights googling everything under the sun to try to learn more about cervical cancer which led to additional worry. I felt extremely lonely every night as I cried myself to sleep. I also felt shame that I let so many years go by without seeing an OBGYN. This took me quite a while to forgive myself. This decision could have cost me a life without seeing my children grow up. But after a ton of tears the fighter eventually kicked in and I was ready to go. This was not going to take me down.
Telling my family and friends: Telling my friends, family and co-workers was hard. I tried really hard to be calm when informing them to try to help lessen the blow. I was worried most about telling my children. We kept it simple and tried not to make it a big deal (they were young) which helped a lot. Since I wasn't going to lose my hair from treatment, mommy didn't look sick, and I think that really helped ease their nerves. When telling my best friend, we just cried on the phone for hours.
I told everyone when they saw me next to please not feel sorry for me and look at me with sorry eyes. I didn't want to be the downer of the group and only talk about me having cancer. I was going to fight this and, move on with my life.
My treatment: Treatment honestly was not that bad. The worst part about it was I had to do it alone due to COVID. You could not bring anyone with you which was sad. I had 25 rounds of external radiation, 5 rounds of chemotherapy and 3 rounds of brachytherapy. I wanted to work throughout treatment, so I went in for radiation every morning at 8 am... don't do that. I had to have a full bladder for radiation treatment and therefore had to chug water every morning prior to treatment. When you are sick from chemo, this is awful to have to do when you first wake up!
Monday through Friday I had radiation (it only takes ~ 5 minutes) and every Monday I had chemotherapy. The chemo did not make me lose my hair which was a plus! Honestly, the worst part about chemo for me, was the medication they give you for side effects. I had to have a steroid prior to treatment which has always made me feel weird and hungry. So, I was nauseous from chemo, but hungry from the steroids and it was a strange combination.
How I felt after treatment: After treatment I felt empowered and grateful. I was going to do everything in my power to move on from this and get back to my life as it was before cancer. I finished treatment the first week of July 2020 and I threw the biggest 4th of July party for my neighborhood (socially distant of course). I wanted so badly to get back to who I was and not let this define me. I worked the entire time, so things went back to normal for me pretty quickly.
What was most difficult for me: The most difficult part for me was doing this alone due to COVID. I am a strong person, but I remember seeing patients very upset their spouse could not be with them during treatment or diagnosis. Throughout this process, I had to meet with doctors all alone, get diagnosed in a room by myself, and once I completed treatment, ring the bell with just me. It was very lonely.
What I did to help myself: I am a believer that your mindset is everything. People always tell me "You are the strongest person I know" and I always reply with "no, I'm not. I have no choice but to be strong." There are going to be days you are sad or sick or don't want to do anything. But I never let those days last for weeks. I cried when I needed to and rested when I could no longer go on. Allow yourself grace!
My life after cancer: Life after treatment was going great until October 2020 when I started seeing blood and mucus in my stool. I was devastated and thought I now had colon cancer. After a slew of tests, and a colonoscopy it was found I had radiation damage to my colon. I needed to go through hyperbaric therapy for treatment which included 40, 2-hour rounds of oxygen therapy.
Within 2 weeks of completing this treatment, I started seeing blood in my urine. After months of pain and doctor appointments, I learned the radiation damaged my bladder so bad it was dying and turning to stone. I eventually went into kidney failure, had bilateral nephrostomy tubes, and in February 2022 I had to have my bladder removed.
Where I am today: I am doing great today! I am 2.5 years cancer-free, have a new bladder and am living life. I have had some hiccups along the way, but I am alive and that is literally all that matters to me. I didn't realize the impact this had on my children until later, but my son would like to be a radiation oncologist to help people like me. A very proud momma moment!
What I want other women to know: I want women to know they are not alone. This diagnosis can be lonely and scary, but you will get through it. Keep a positive attitude and outlook and it will help get you through this.
Take the time you need to get through this - everyone feels and handles things differently. Allow yourself grace. Listen to your body and do what makes you happy. Also, advocate for yourself and family members. Learn about your diagnosis, ask questions and always get copies of your labs and tests. You've got this!