How my story begins: I was newly married to my husband Todd, embracing motherhood as a stepmom. We were figuring it out, going on vacations, going up north, settling in our home and working. We were just enjoying our time and life together. It was simple, not chaotic or crazy!
My story starts in May of 2008. It was a Sunday morning. I woke up with a bad headache, took a shower and fell in the shower. Something was off, I kept saying. I just wanted to sleep. However, I ignored the signs and symptoms of a stroke. Yes, a stroke at the age of 32. My mom ended up taking me to the hospital because I was too stubborn to go with my husband. I sent him off to work. My mom heard something off in my voice and immediately took me to the ER. That's when it all started.
I was in the hospital and off work for a few weeks recouping from the stroke, when I had an appointment for my Pap test. I didn't want to go because I had been with a doctor so much, but I had a girlfriend say to me, "You don't ever miss this appointment - after all, you work for the American Cancer Society." So I went in July for my annual exam. I have never had a bad Pap, so I just needed to get it done. What I didn't expect was the results...
How I felt after diagnosis: I was sick, scared and fearful. Learning of my diagnosis was the scariest moment in my life. Honestly, I don't even remember the words. I remember being in a room with a friend of mine because I didn't plan to hear I had cancer. I received a phone call at first, that they found cancerous cells, so I needed to come in. I panicked and sat with girlfriends at work. We went on cancer.org to look it up. I felt like I couldn't breathe. I worked in the environment, but for a moment, I was at a standstill. My life stopped and I didn't know how I was going to tell anyone or who would help me.
Telling my family and friends: But I had friends who helped me. I am so thankful for my friends. They rallied around me at home and at work. They got to my mother-in-law first, knowing she would help with my husband. Then, we called my sister together so she could help with my parents. I was to go home and talk to my husband Todd. When I walked in the door, he knew on my face something was wrong and just held me. We cried a lot and every so often, we still do. But we did it together and he was the best person in my life for this. My work friends and dear friends and family also helped me through this entire process.
My treatment: I elected to do the da Vinci robotic-assisted hysterectomy, leaving my ovaries in place. I did not have to do any treatment, but had to follow up monthly, then every 6 months and I am now on a yearly plan. I did not have any complications and I can only sing the praises of my oncologist. She had to work with the neurologist and cardiologist from another hospital to manage my blood flow and protocol for the blood clots and make sure I did not get another stroke. I had learned I carried a Factor 5 gene and was throwing blood clots, which is what caused the stroke. The cervical cancer made my blood flow off and hence put me into risk. I also learned that I had a hole in my heart, another reason why I had a stroke. I never knew any of this! I was 32 years old, going to the doctor yearly for check ups and never knew any of these things. Though HPV caused my cancer, the cancer saved my life, or I would never had known about the factor 5 gene or hole in my heart!
How I felt after treatment: I was glad to be done! But I had a hard time adjusting to going back to work. This time I was a survivor. It took me time to get there and appreciate it. I was mad at the world and mad for not being able to have children. I felt cheated. It took me time to get past this and it took me years to find my place to be at peace. Then I realized - I have so much to be thankful for and so many people around me that helped me get through it. I was never alone. That in itself is a gift. My journey was with so many people - caring, loving, warm people who watched over me in prayer or in person.
What was most difficult for me: Trying to fit in knowing that I am different but still the same. Knowing that I have friends who talk about kids but I would never do that, knowing that I have never given birth to my own children. It's hard to still hold a new baby and think that I never got this opportunity. So I just don't do it. I say she/he is beautiful and move in a new direction. I don't think it's selfish - it is just real emotion. I am happy for people to have children. I have watched so many people around me have them and they are a blessing; it is just always the hardest thing for me.
What I did to help myself: I had to make myself a priority and talk to someone. At certain times, I would feel sad. I found a wonderful person to talk with and I still see her. She helped me build my confidence and still continues to build me up when I am sad or lonely. I try to keep my self preoccupied with positive projects and positive people. I know I can make a difference in my job with ACS and in the community. I also joined the patient family advisory board for the hospital where I was treated. I am now the chair of the committee. I can make a difference in someone's journey!
My life after cancer: My life after cancer is good and refreshing! I am making a positive influence in my job. I am using my voice with the HPV VAC campaign at the State of Michigan level. I am sharing my story. I am more in love with my husband than I was when I met him the first day. He is my rock and partner. I am supportive and loving to my stepson Brock, who is now 18 years old. He let me love him and be in his life as if he was my own. He was my gift. I celebrate every moment and cherish everyday I have with him. He is my heart.
Where I am today: Today, I continue to work for the American Cancer Society, over 20 years now. I am still advocating for cancer information at the time of diagnosis, working with the HPV VAC program and working with local hospitals in MI. I am celebrating the cancer survivor journey of my mom, now a breast cancer survivor, my niece, a Hodgkin's lymphoma survivor, and my nephew, a leukemia survivor. Cancer touched me first, but I was able to help so many people in my family with my connections at work, the information I know, and the resources I am aware of. No one has to do this alone. NO ONE DOES!
What I want other women to know: Get your sons and daughters vaccinated! We have a vaccine for cancer prevention! It has been tested through trials and it works! We should be lining up to get our kids vaccinated so no one has to get cervical cancer. We can eliminate this cancer!
How I will try to help others: I will continue to advocate for all cancers and share the American Cancer Society website and 800-227-2345 so that everyone knows what resources are available. I will continue to share my story about the HPV VAC program so we can eliminate cervical cancer with a vaccine! We have a vaccine to prevent cancer!