How my story begins: Prior to being diagnosed with cervical cancer, I was living my dream life. I had an amazing husband and a beautiful 2 year old son and 4 year old daughter. I worked out regularly and ate healthy. As a stay at home mom, I spent my days chasing my kiddos and planning adventures for our family. My biggest worries in life revolved around my kids and my family. What schools would my kids attend? What family vacation would we take next?
In 2015, I went in for my Pap test. A few weeks later I got a call from my OB's nurse letting me know that my test came back showing I had HPV. She assured me that it was totally normal and in most cases your body fights it naturally; there was nothing to be concerned about. She mentioned that I did have a higher chance of cervical cancer, but that it was still very rare.
The following year (2016), I again went in for my Pap. Again, my OB's nurse called. She let me know that it had come back abnormal and that they would want to do a colposcopy to see what was going on. I scheduled it immediately.
When I went in for the colposcopy, my OB assured me that everything was fine. She let me know that my Pap had come back with the lowest number of abnormal cells that they would call me in for. Even as she was doing the exam she said "Yep, super boring, nothing to see here. I will see you next year, although I am going to biopsy this one small spot I see."
The next week, I got a call from my OB's office. When I saw the number, I assumed it was my OB's nurse calling to let me know that everything was fine. But, when I answered the phone, I heard my OB's voice. In that moment I knew it wasn't. In that moment, my whole world changed.
She let me know that I was being diagnosed with adenocarcinoma in situ, a type of cervical cancer. She asked me if I knew if I wanted anymore children, because I was going to need a hysterectomy and relatively soon. She assured me that it had been caught early and it was completely treatable. I was hearing the words that she was saying and it all seemed overwhelming, but I was taking it in. It was when she told me that she would no longer be treating me and referring me to an oncologist that I lost it. Suddenly it was real. I suddenly, out of nowhere, had cancer.
How I felt after diagnosis: I felt overwhelmed; it completely consumed me. There was a month long wait from the day I found out that I had cancer to the day that I was staged. That was the longest month of my life. I did as much research online as I could about cervical cancer and the more research I did, the less optimistic I felt. I started to wonder if my doctor was right, that it had been caught early. What if they do more testing and it had actually spread? The first word that ran through my head when I woke up each morning was "CANCER." I hated the idea that there was cancer in my body and I wasn't doing anything about it between doctor's appointments. I would see family photos in our house and wonder if these were going to be the only memories my kids would have of me. My husband would be in a different room with the kids and I would think, "Is this what it will be like when I am not here anymore?" I held back tears each night as I put my kids to bed. I would wait for my husband to fall asleep at night, go into the bathroom and just cry. This was the only time I felt safe enough to let it all out. Then I would wake up the next day and go through it all again.
Telling my family and friends: Telling people was harder than I thought it was going to be. I really felt that there were certain people that I had to tell in person. My husband and I actually had a road trip to visit our families planned for the day after I was diagnosed. We had dinner the first night with my parents, brothers and sister-in-laws, so we were able to tell everyone at once. I kept waiting for the perfect time in the conversation to bring it up. Unfortunately, there is never a perfect time to tell your family that you have cancer. I finally told them that we had some news and that it wasn't good. But from there, I couldn't say another word. My mom who was sitting next to me just looked me in the eye and asked, "Are you sick?" It killed me that I had to say "Yes."
The following night was my husband's parents. I will never forget the look in my father in law's eyes. He is typically a very hard, unemotional person, but that night his face softened and I could see genuine pain in his eyes.
One of my favorite stories out of this whole experience comes from telling my close group of girlfriends. I hosted them over for a wine night, which is something we did regularly. I told them as we sat in my living room, and we all cried together. One friend asked if she could give me a hug. As I got up to hug her she said "Just kidding, I'm going to pick you up." And then she literally picked me up and carried me around. Suddenly, we were all laughing again.
My treatment: Once I was diagnosed and referred to my oncologist, my treatment started. I had to have two procedures. The first was a conization to stage the cancer. This is where they remove as much cervical tissue as possible to see how much the cancer has spread. That was done one month after I was diagnosed. One week after the procedure, my oncologist contacted me and let me know that all of the margins came back clean and that the cancer was contained to the tissue that they had already removed. I would still need to have a hysterectomy to ensure that no new cancer cells developed and spread. A few days later, I started having some extremely heavy bleeding that landed me in the ER. After being stuffed like a turkey full of gauze, they were able to get it to stop, but decided to schedule my hysterectomy for as early as possible. That was June 1st. I spent one night in the hospital after my procedure and from there, it was on to recovery for me.
How I felt after treatment: The first week after my hysterectomy was hard physically. My parents took my kids, so I hated being without them. But there is no way I would have been able to care for them during that time. When I went in for my post op appointment, my oncologist let me know that I was completely CANCER FREE! That was amazing to hear. After recovering from the procedure, I really felt great. I started working out again as soon as I possibly could. I was focusing on my kids and my family again.
What was most difficult for me: I was so lucky that my cancer was caught as early as it was and to not have to go through any chemotherapy or radiation because of that. I feel like what I went through physically as far as treatment was not that difficult. What was hardest for me was the time waiting between appointments with no answers and the places my mind would go during that time. I was so full of anxiety that I would get physically sick. I was on edge with my husband because he didn't understand what I was going through. I cried at the sight of my children because I couldn't bear the thought of them losing me. It was during that time that I felt completely alone. I didn't know anyone else that had gone through this. I looked for comfort from medical websites and found nothing more than more anxiety. That feeling of the unknown and being alone in the unknown was the hardest for me.
What I did to help myself: During that time, I started meditating. I found a few apps on my phone that I could do a guided meditation with that were directed at anxiety. These seemed to really help. I found my center in those moments, I felt connected in those moments. I would work out, until surgeries no longer allowed me to. In those moments, I loved reminding myself of how strong I was. I surrounded myself with loving, supportive people who would help me to take my mind off of what was happening in my body. Mostly I clung to my family. I snuggled my kids as much as humanly possible. I hugged my husband constantly. I surrounded myself with positive love and tried my damnedest to let the rest go.
My life after cancer: Life went back to normal pretty quickly. I remember a few months after my surgery, a neighbor asked how I was doing. At first, I didn't remember what she was referring to, and that felt amazing. I loved that I was able to really let that stress go and be happy again. I am so fortunate that I have been given the gift of more time with my children. I knew that eventually I wanted to use this experience to help other. But for that first year after cancer, I really just wanted to give myself time to heal. Both physically and emotionally. In that process, I really did have to find myself again.
Where I am today: Today, I am stronger. I have scars that remind me of what I have been through and remind me of truly how strong I am. My marriage is stronger. My husband has seen me at my absolute worst, and been there to pick me up and carry me when I needed to be carried. I love my kids a little bit harder than I did before. I hold them a little bit longer each night as I put them to bed because I can. I am more honest, mostly with myself. I have learned to give myself grace when need be. I am finding my voice and I am learning where my voice needs to be heard in the conversation about cervical cancer and HPV.
What I want other women to know: I want other women to know that this is the time in life when this cancer can take effect. And it can do so with no symptoms. It is so important for women to not only take care of themselves, but to also be educated about their own bodies. You are your own best advocate, but you can only be that if you understand your own body. Knowing what is normal and what is not and feeling comfortable enough to talk about it is so important. Ask your doctor questions, call your doctor if you think something isn't quite right and of course, have your Pap and HPV tests done.
How I will try to help others: I was diagnosed in spring of 2016, and as spring of 2017 came around, a lot of memories were jogged from the past year. I started to realize that it was time to do something positive with this experience. My OB once told me that I am the poster child for how the system is supposed to work. Get checked, find problems early and deal with them in a semi noninvasive way. I feel like I need to share my story to inspire women my age, who start to focus on their families more than themselves and forget to have their Pap and HPV tests done, to take care of themselves. Get checked. Make time for yourself. If I had decided I didn't have time for that appointment, who knows where I would be now. You have to be proactive in your own life.
Beyond that, as a mother, I feel like I need to be an advocate for the HPV vaccination. There is a cure for this cancer and parents are choosing not to take it for their kids. There needs to be more education for parents about this vaccine, what it can do and what the real consequences of not having it done are.