How my story begins: I am a North Carolina native who grew up on a farm, attended a Christian grade school, and graduated from a historic women's college. After college, I worked at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida through the Disney College Program. Being the social gal that I am, most of my free time was spent hanging out with friends, traveling, reading, writing, and enjoying all things Disney.
Upon returning from Disney in May 2008, I began dating the son of a family friend. Around November 2008, he asked me if I had ever been to the gynecologist and I said no. Despite my four years in a women's college and, of course, having a mother around, I still neglected to seek out regular medical care unless it was an unavoidable trip to the Urgent Care. With the encouragement of my boyfriend, I found a gynecologist near the school where I worked and scheduled an appointment.
At the appointment, I had every test under the sun completed, from STD testing, to my first Pap, and of course an HPV test. It was an overwhelming experience, but I knew it had to be done, as I had been sexually active for 2 years at this point and had never even considered screening before. Once the appointment was complete, I went back on with my regular life, which involved traveling the Western part of NC by car and meeting with students at various high schools. While sitting in a high school cafeteria one day, my phone rang unexpectedly. It was the doctor's office. I quickly stepped outside of the noisy cafeteria to hear what they had to say. The nurse calmly informed me that I did not have any STDs or HIV, but I did have abnormal cells on my cervix and tested positive for HPV. I made her say it over to me again since HPV does sound like HIV to the untrained ear. I had no idea what this meant. Abnormal cells on my cervix? HPV? What did this mean for me?
How I felt after diagnosis: After diagnosis, I was terrified. My heart was pounding in my chest. How was I going to tell my boyfriend? The nurse informed me that I very well could have contracted the HPV from him and that he may already be a carrier of the STI. She noted that the abnormal cells were low grade and that it would be best to just keep an eye on them with regular Pap testing and possibly a colposcopy or biopsy if things got worse. I took it all in and shared all of the information with my boyfriend, who was fine with everything that I shared and nothing short of supportive. We married in October of 2010 and now have two beautiful children.
Telling my family and friends: I don't remember telling my family about my HPV diagnosis, but I did tell my friends. Once I shared the information with them, fearing judgment, many of them shared that they, too, had abnormal cells or that they had an HPV positive diagnosis. Some of them had already experienced a LEEP or a cone biopsy. It was amazing to know so many of my friends had been quiet about their experiences. Though I understood their fear, I was concerned that they had not spoken out about this. Perhaps I would have sought out screening sooner at the encouragement of a female friend.
My treatment: My treatment began in 2008. I don't remember how frequently I had things done, but I know that in those first two years, I had a colposcopy and at least two more Pap smears. It felt like I was at the doctor every 6 months for a Pap, colposcopy, or occasional biopsy. It was not until 2014 that I got my first normal Pap and became HPV negative. In May of 2016, I had another clear Pap and HPV test. Because of this, normal circumstances would say that I did not need another Pap until 2019. Since I had a long history of abnormal cells varying from low to mid grade, we decided it couldn't hurt to do another in 2017. So in May of 2017, I had a co-test done which showed that I was still HPV negative, but had high-grade CINIII cells on my cervix. We opted to have them removed by a LEEP procedure in June 2017.
How I felt after treatment: My LEEP was an interesting experience. My doctor, who has been with me since 2010 and delivered both of my children, is uniquely amazing. She always explains what she is doing and why and does all she can to educate me about my body. I am always involved in treatment decisions. After my LEEP, I actually went twice as long as usual trying to recover and get my period back due to high amounts of stress. She was fantastic about helping me cope with that and being supportive as I returned to a normal life. In February 2018, I returned for my belated 6 month follow up appointment and found out that I continued to be HPV negative, but my Pap showed atypical cells. We decided that I would return in May 2018 and run everything again and see what happened. I am hopeful that my body will recover and that I can get back to a normal PAP and negative HPV, but who knows.
What was most difficult for me: The most difficult part of my HPV diagnosis was trying to find what good could come of it. I was raised in a Christian environment where abstinence was expected and really pushed. Though I am now 32 and have two children, my Mom has yet to have "The Sex Talk" with me. My body was really something I had to find out about for myself. I endured a good deal of regret for not knowing things sooner and wishing I had made better choices as a young woman when it came to sexual experiences. I wished that I had thought more about my health and less about momentary pleasure. I also wished that there was an effective way for conservative Christians to feel like they could share honest information about STIs and gynecological health without making it scary or avoiding the conversations all together. I was also extremely thankful for my husband for being the one to encourage me to seek screenings. Without him, I may have had a very different result. I also wondered why other women had not been the ones to empower me to seek out the screenings. I was obviously left with a lot of unanswered questions.
What I did to help myself: After my second child was born in September 2015, I experienced a bout of Postpartum Depression. It was a terrible time for me and my family. Once I came out of it in November 2016, I began to feel called to do something new in my life, as I was struggling with the experience of being a Stay at Home Mom. I decided in May 2017 that I would participate in a pageant in 2018 - the Mrs. North Carolina International pageant. I have never done a pageant before in my 32 years, but I love watching them and really enjoy the ways that the right pageant systems can help empower women of many shapes, sizes, and backgrounds. Through facing the fear of the unknown and doing something competitive, which I usually shy away from, I could overcome some personal obstacles and work toward helping others along the way. Oh, and the crown and sash aren't so bad either.
Where I am today: My favorite thing about the International pageant system was that it was very focused on service to the community. At first, I chose mentorship as my service area, but while laying on the procedure table in May 2017, I decided that my platform as Mrs. Apex International 2018 would be Talk Teal: Spotlighting Cervical Cancer Worldwide. Today I am actively engaging in awareness activities in my community while preparing for the pageant through efforts like wardrobe selection, pageant coaching sessions, interview preparation, and modeling classes. In my free time, I continue to be a Stay at Home Mom and provide support to my children, ages 2 and 4, who both have sensory processing differences. My daughter, specifically, has 3 different therapies a week to help assist with her developmental delays. You could say I am a little bit busy.
What I want other women to know: I want other women to know that their voice matters. I want them to understand that they are not alone. I always want women to feel that they are not being judged for their past experiences or to feel any guilt for their diagnosis, whatever it may be. I want women to, honestly, feel a certain obligation to empower younger women by sharing this message with them even if it is hard to talk about these gynecological and sexual matters. I hope women find hope and peace in knowing the good they can do for others by simply being vulnerable and sharing their experiences. I hope they enjoy making new friends through sharing their stories and finding other women they can relate to through this. I also hope that through my TALK TEAL efforts, I can bring a special joy to cervical cancer survivors through my Crowning Moments initiative. This initiative is where I place my crown on the head of a cervical cancer survivor and take a picture with them. I want every survivor to know that my crown is theirs, too, and we are in this together. I want them to know that they are queens and that they inspire me with their stories. I also want them to know that they can do whatever they put their mind to and their diagnosis is not the end, but the beginning of a new chapter.
How I will try to help others: Through the TALK TEAL movement, I am educating, advocating, facilitating, and collaborating to bring awareness to cervical cancer prevention. I educate others through speaking engagements; advocate for the cause online and with government agencies; facilitate opportunities for those impacted by HPV, abnormal cells and cervical cancer to come together and share their experiences in a safe environment; and collaborate with organizations like Cervivor, NCCC, and See Test Treat, to help support their efforts for the various communities they serve.
Any additional information you'd like to share: You can learn more about Talk Teal by visiting my website www.italkteal.com. There, you can read about my experience as a pageant contestant and see what sort of activities the Talk Teal movement is involved in at this time. I often host Cervivor fundraisers so you can help me spread the word about those as well!