How my story begins: Life before my cancer diagnosis was incredibly full. I was in a great place with my career (I work in Public Relations). My husband and I had been married for three and a half awesome years. Our fur baby Giada was keeping us laughing every day, my family was healthy, my friends were all happy, and my nephews and niece were all flourishing.
I was otherwise very healthy. I exercised regularly, and enjoyed running my food blog. At the time, I was getting my Master's Degree in Gastronomy at Boston University - which is the study of the food and beverage industry with a focus in communications to help further my career.
Life was good.
My story begins like other cervical cancer patients - with an HPV diagnosis. I remember hearing this from my gynecologist and being incredibly alarmed (I had gotten the vaccine in college). But she assured me that most women at some point get HPV and it rarely turns into cervical cancer. Keeping a close watch on it though, we remained diligent with my Pap smears. While they often came back abnormal, there didn't seem to be any major red flags.
Fast forward to May 2015 when I went off the birth control pill in anticipation of being my husband's kidney donor. He was in need of a transplant (he is stable now, but will still need a transplant in the near future). Being off the pill revealed various symptoms that were previously masked, such as irregular periods and bleeding after intercourse. After working closely with my doctor it was determined I had polycystic ovarian syndrome, which at the time felt upsetting because I knew down the road, I would be challenged when having kids. While most doctors would have called it a day after landing on this diagnosis, my gynecologist followed her gut and called me back and asked me to come in for a colposcopy. Something still didn't feel right to her.
After completing the colposcopy on a Thursday, she called me on Tuesday October 6, 2015 while I was home after work to tell me I had cervical cancer and that Dana Farber Cancer Institute would be calling me the next day to schedule an appointment with an oncologist. She didn't know the stage, just knew that I had cancer. Two agonizing weeks went by and I finally got in to see the oncologist. During that time, I had completed a PET/CT and MRI scan so she had all the necessary information.
Walking into the room that day with my mom, sister, and husband, we had no idea what to expect. Unfortunately, the test results showed the cancer was bigger than anticipated and it had gotten into one of my lymph nodes. She diagnosed me as Stage 2B and told me that a hysterectomy would not be effective. I needed to go through radiation and chemotherapy.
That was the day I started my war against cancer. A war that would last for one full year.
How I felt after diagnosis: Hearing "you have cancer" is an actual out of body experience, I remember practically levitating out of my body. The room started spinning. I was home alone with my dog when I got the call and I just collapsed on the floor sobbing trying to catch my breath. My doctor didn't know my stage when she first told me, so my mind of course went to worst case scenario. I just remember thinking, "I'm not ready to die. Please don't take me from my people."
What they don't tell you about cancer is that often times you're only given small bits of information at first. It doesn't all happen at once. I was told I had cancer but had to wait two agonizing weeks to know the stage, the prognosis, and the treatment plan. The doctors need all of the comprehensive information, which often includes scans, before they can lay everything out for you. This is a total alternate universe. That level of anxiety is often times paralyzing and you're just forcing yourself to put one front in front of the other. I lost about 8 lbs in those weeks. I went to work every day, telling only a few people on my team what was happening until I had all the information.
Telling my family and friends: Telling my family and friends I had cancer was the hardest part of the entire experience. Inflicting that type of pain on people I love was not easy. Telling my husband was the single worst moment of my life, and telling my parents and sister and brother-in-law was no better. My in-laws were heartbroken, my friends were stunned. There were a lot of tears. I cry just thinking about all of those brutal conversations. But I will say, everyone handled themselves like champs with an overwhelming amount of grace and strength. Everyone immediately jumped into "What can we do?" mode. We received an enormous amount of support from our network, which made a very scary time a little less scary.
My treatment: When I was diagnosed in October, I was told I would never be able to carry children after treatment. So if I wanted to have biological children at any point later, they were willing to delay my treatment just two weeks so I could go through a round of IVF to get embryos that could be implanted into a surrogate down the road. I started IVF immediately and finished on November 9, 2015. Two days later, I started my chemo and radiation regimen. This was 30 rounds of radiation (internal and external), along with six rounds of chemotherapy with a drug called Cisplatin to get my cells ready for radiation. This went on for six weeks and on December 23, 2015, I finished treatment. I was weak and tired, the radiation had completely turned my insides out and I had lost even more weight. My body was past the point of exhaustion, it was very overwhelming.
A few months later, we went in for my post-treatment scan thinking the cancer would be totally gone. The good news was that it was no longer on my cervix or in the original lymph node. The bad news was that it had spread to my two paraaortic lymph nodes - it was moving up my body. Not good. Less than a week later, I underwent surgery to remove the lymph nodes. I was given a two-week break post surgery and started back up with the radiation and chemotherapy. This time my regimen consisted of 25 rounds of radiation (just external) and five rounds of the Cisplatin again. This time though, my doctors were recommending a different kind of radiation called proton beam radiation given the location of the infected lymph nodes. Unfortunately, my insurance company refused to pay for this type of radiation, so we underwent an exhaustive battle with them which we ended up losing. My parents paid for my treatment out of pocket. Pretty terrible.
Luckily, all of the treatment worked. On June 2, 2016, I had my first clean scan! However, after a lot of deliberation my doctors decided to put me through an 18-week chemo regimen called "Outback Chemotherapy" to ensure we wiped out anything microscopic lurking in my lymphatic system. So we started that on June 13, 2016 and wrapped on October 3, 2016, almost one full year after my diagnosis. The three drugs in this chemotherapy were Taxol, Carboplatin, and Avastin. Taxol causes hair loss so I went through the experience of shaving my head and losing all of my hair. While it was very upsetting, I will say I kind of felt like G.I. Jane. Very badass.
How I felt after treatment: Going through treatment was incredibly physically and emotionally taxing. I didn't feel like my body was mine. It belonged to the doctors and the medicine. I just had to give it up to the science of curing my cancer and no matter how much pain I experienced, I kept reminding myself that I was a warrior and that it was all temporary to secure a bright future ahead. I rocked my bald head like a badge of honor. I had been through war and was lucky enough to come out the other side.
My side effects ranged from digestive issues to nausea to extreme fatigue and weakness. I was also post-menopausal as the treatment had shut my ovaries right down so I was managing hot flashes and all the joys that come with menopause. It took a while to build my stamina back up and get my hormones to level out.
What was most difficult for me: The most difficult part of my battle with cancer was the impact it had on my loved ones. I hated that I was inflicting worry and pain on people that I cared about. My husband had to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders while I fought the battle. My parents were constantly making trips up to Boston from Philadelphia to help take care of me. My sister was pregnant throughout the first half of my battle and I felt guilty that my situation was putting stress on her and her body. My in-laws were worried sick, and my friends were all putting their lives on hold to come and help take me to treatment. It was a painful experience for all involved and I felt guilty for casting the shadow.
What I did to help myself: I relied heavily on my network of family and friends to get me through this very difficult time. They gave me the strength I needed to fight and to wake up every day ready to take on my treatments. My husband and I went to a couples therapist throughout my battle as well to help us navigate this uncharted territory. I think that helped tremendously in helping us cope with the trauma. Further, I found solace in doing things such as coloring, knitting, and reading. These were the moments that took my mind away from what was happening and I would advise anyone going through this to find something similar.
My life after cancer: Cancer changed my life tremendously. When treatment first wrapped, I felt depressed. I was angry about what I just went through, and consequently what my loved ones went through as well. I also had survivor's guilt. I didn't understand why I had survived this war, but some others I went through treatment with didn't. It didn't make any sense and in some very odd way, I felt unworthy.
I was also hit with an enormous amount of fear. What if this comes back again? I felt extremely vulnerable now that something terrible had just happened to us. Further, I was so used to being under the constant care of my doctors. Suddenly, I was let go out into the world and I worried about what my body would do left to its own devices. I felt my body had betrayed me once before and I wasn't confident it wouldn't again.
Lastly, I had to completely rebuild my life. Cancer shatters your world, and you're left to pick up the pieces. It affects all of your relationships, your career, your finances, your everything. My husband was beyond incredible during my journey. He never complained and was with me every single step of the way. But we weren't able to be a husband and a wife, we were a caretaker and a patient for a year. We had to find our way back to being a married couple. This meant a very painful journey back to "dating" and of course, sex. When you're bald and have been through countless rounds of radiation that causes physical trauma and a ton of scar tissue, this does not come easy. At the time, this felt like climbing a very high mountain. Luckily, I married my best friend and favorite person on the planet so we got through it and have grown stronger than I ever thought imaginable.
Where I am today: From an emotional standpoint, it took me awhile to come out of the shadows of cancer. But now that I am, I feel like I'm made of steel. Through the help of fabulous therapists and my friends and family, I've learned to cope with the post-traumatic stress of the battle and have begun to feel happy and whole again. My body feels mine again, and my marriage and relationships are in an amazing place. My career is also completely back on track and I'm working harder than ever before. It's nice to stress about clients and not cancer.
Physically, I take the birth control pill as hormone replacement therapy to help manage the menopause symptoms and my digestive system is finally back to normal. Getting back to having sex was a very long journey that required physical therapy to help break up all the scar tissue, but all of that hard work was well worth it. I feel like a wife again, no longer a patient, to my husband. I'm working out 3-4 times a week, and I gained all of my weight back.
What I want other women to know: I want other women to know that this doesn't end the minute you hear, "You no longer have cancer." The effects of treatment and the trauma of this disease will take a long time to recover from. I want women to understand how important it is to build your "village" of friends, family, doctors, etc. that will help transition you back into the real world because it is very challenging.
How I will try to help others: Since being diagnosed with cancer, several other people in my life have gone through the same or have friends going through it. I have been and will continue to be a support network for these people as I feel like it's an exclusive club you can only belong to if you've gone through it.
Further, I strongly believe women's healthcare is not where it needs to be. My cancer should have been found earlier, and I want to educate women on how to be an advocate for themselves to get the right diagnosis faster. I want to advance women's healthcare so that cancer detection is more sophisticated and that all women have access to the incredible care that I did.
Lastly, I want to help raise awareness of cervical cancer - the signs, the symptoms, and the ways to prevent it. This is crucial to stopping the progress of this disease. Part of that is eliminating the stigma of HPV and having gynecological cancer. By being open about my battle, I want to remove these perceptions.