How my story begins: It was a Thursday morning in October 2013 when I was at my gynecologist for a Pap test. The last time I had a Pap was 3 years prior, when I had been told that the recommendation was no longer to have a Pap annually but every 3 years. So, I had waited 3 years. Unfortunately, I didn't understand that a "well woman exam" and a Pap are two different things. A really, really unfortunate misunderstanding.
As soon as the exam began, my usually calm and collected gynecologist freaked out! She called a nurse in and was kept repeating something about so much necrotic tissue and blood loss and asking for assistance. Another doctor came in and, although she wasn't as freaked out, she was clearly horrified at what she was seeing.
In the meantime, I was just getting pissed. I kept asking, "What is going on?" They kept telling me to "Stay calm." Finally, they told me that I was essentially internally bleeding to death and had a large mass that they were certain was cancer - but they didn't know it was coming from my spine or somewhere else. The next day, I was scheduled to have surgery to get the bleeding under control and to get a biopsy. The following Monday, I met with a gynecologist/oncologist/surgeon. He told me that I had cervical cancer and need a radical hysterectomy, immediately.
Life before my diagnosis: Life before my diagnosis was full! I had a 50 hour a week corporate human resources job and a busy household comprised of my two teenage daughters and husband. I was involved in my church and community. I served on boards and volunteered. I loved hiking, camping and bird watching. I never said no and was the first person to raise their hand. I also worried a lot about finances, career choices and whether my kids were prepared for future opportunities. I had insomnia frequently, I was stressed out most of the time, and I was frustrated and angry a lot of the time.
How I felt after diagnosis: A vivid memory I have is standing in an exam room waiting for the gynecologist/oncologist/surgeon to come into the room to deliver my diagnosis. I was staring out the window thinking that I could just walk out, head to the airport and leave all this behind. Silly thought, but that was what I was thinking. Instead of walking out, I reached out to Jesus and I prayed the most pure, sincere prayer. For the first time in my life, I literally gave whatever was about to happen to Him. I thought that I had done that with things before but the peace that instantly washed over me made me realize that this was truly the first time. I was blessed with that peace for the entire time of my treatments and recovery.
Telling my family and friends: Telling my two daughter was the hardest thing I have ever done. My oldest had just started her freshman year in college and my youngest her junior year in high school. We took them out to dinner at a college town restaurant and I just blurted it out with the most positive outlook and steadiness that I could muster. My message - we would survive this as a family and that was that.
My husband, parents, sister and close friends were rock stars! They surrounded me with love, prayer, protection and compassion. I was and am a blessed person. Unfortunately, I didn't do a good job informing extended family, old friends and some colleagues which made it tough later on. Some were hurt that I hadn't let them know, and others were just plain mad. I lost a close friend somewhere throughout my diagnosis and treatments that to this day, I'm not sure why. I think that is just life. People come and go, hurt and anger, stay or leave. It happens with or without cancer.
My treatment: I had the standard radical hysterectomy followed by 6 weekly rounds of chemo (cisplatin), 8 weeks of daily radiation treatments and several rounds of internal radiation. I quickly shed any vanity or modesty that I had! I think most gynecological cancer patients have to do the same - because as a patient you are frequently lying naked from the waist down with a tiny towel to "cover" you while medical personnel are adjusting equipment or drawing lines on you or moving your body parts to contort to some position to fit into a particular machine or have the right angle for a treatment. Fun stuff!
How I felt after treatment: I was determined to get back to normal! But, I soon learned that normal is relative. I had a new normal. My brain and body were different. My brain was suffering the effects of the chemo that had saved my life. I didn't think as fast as I used to and I had trouble thinking of the right word to use. I was slow, weak and had frequent hot flashes and night sweats. Yet, I didn't worry as much. I was more patient, understanding of others and kinder. I was a better human resources professional, friend and mom. I was joyful! My heart was full and I was alive!
What was most difficult for me: The most difficult thing for me was the impact my diagnosis and treatment had on my family. Specifically, my daughters, husband and parents. They were all there for me and were troopers and rock stars! But, they were also hurt, scared, burdened and changed too.
What I did to help myself: For myself, I held tightly to the peace I was blessed with. I let people help me and take care of me for literally the first time in my life. It was hard but necessary and because I did, I was able to give my body the fighting chance it needed and we won!
My life after cancer: My life after cancer is slower. I'm not physically able to do as much as I used to do although I give it a try from time to time. I miss hiking the most. I have lymphedema in both legs now and a rare disease called lymphangiectasis. I also have some sort of unidentified reoccurring infection that I control by taking a daily antibiotic. I'm a pretty high maintenance gal these days.
In October 2016, I was diagnosed with breast cancer - 3 stages 0, 1 and 2. The doctors tell me that the cancers are not related but I'm skeptical. That diagnosis stole my peace and joy for a short time but I was able to regain it, which I'm grateful for. I'm joyful, peaceful, happy and blessed beyond measure. What more could you ask for!
Where I am today: Today, I am an alum of two of the most incredible organizations ever! I'm a Cervivor Ambassador and an alum of A Fresh Chapter. Both of which I have cancer to thank. My life is full of love and purpose. It's not all rosy. The physical issues are frustrating. The fear of reoccurrence is always there and its seems like a new side effect pops up every now and again. But, overall, I think fighting cancer made me better in a lot of ways and it certainly introduced me to some of the most amazing people that I am so grateful to have met. Cancer is an evil, evil thing but surviving cancer is a powerful, powerful thing.
What I want other women to know: Take care of yourself. You can't fully take care of others if you don't first take care of yourself. If you find yourself facing cancer, know that you are not alone. Ever. You must find your community, tribe or sisterhood. I found mine through Cervivor and A Fresh Chapter. I love my Cervivor sisterhood and my Fresh Chapter Tribe. They hold space for me. They teach me. They appreciate me. They understand and can identify with me. They don't judge me. They provide a safe place. Find your community. It is vital for your survivorship and recovery.
How I will try to help others: I want to help women battling cervical cancer find Cervivor and women battling other gynecological cancers find their community. I want to help them heal the emotional scars and fears. I am doing that as a Cervivor Ambassador and through RingsForHope.com. I have started RingsForHope to provide women with gynecological cancer something pretty in the form of a ring - a circle, like love is supposed to be - unbreakable. When I had cervical cancer, I felt a little forgotten and isolated in the cancer support community. When I had breast cancer, the cancer community found me and I was constantly getting something pink. My goal with my Cervivor advocacy is to reach women going through gynecological treatment and give them something pretty in teal with a message of hope and an introduction to Cervivor. I'm accomplishing this by getting the gifts to nurse navigators around Indiana and beyond, through my blog (www.RingsForHope.com) and sharing my story publicly any chance I get.
Any additional information you'd like to share: I have a blog and advocacy work at RingsForHope.com. It is through that work that I hope to lead women to Cervivor or to a community that can meet their needs (i.e. LymphieStrong, A Fresh Chapter, Hold Fast). It is imperative for cancer patients especially cervical cancer patients to find their community. Thank you to Cervivor for being mine!