How my story begins: Before my cancer diagnosis, I lived a pretty normal life. I was in my 20s and working towards a Bachelor's degree like many young women my age. I traveled a lot, was active in the gym and spent most of my time outdoors.
I had a normal Pap test in January 2014 and later that year, I had benign cervical polyps removed. Before and after having the polyps removed, I was experiencing bleeding after intercourse. I was with a new partner and had a lot of stress in my life at the time so I didn't really think much of it.
In fall of 2015, I went for my annual well-woman exam to get my birth control pills refilled like many young women my age. At this time, I had new health insurance so I figured, "Why not get a Pap test done since it'd be paid for?" - even though I wasn't due for a Pap test for another 1.5 years. Well, my Pap test showed high grade abnormalities. Over my Thanksgiving break, I had a colposcopy which came back as adenocarcinoma in situ.
How I felt after diagnosis: I was absolutely devastated. I never imagined I would have cancer at such a young age. I couldn't understand why I deserved this or why it was happening to me. I immediately imagined having to put college on hold for chemo or radiation. I soon realized that after surgery, I would not be like most 23 year old women. I would never be pregnant and have my own baby. Thankfully, I still have my ovaries so I can choose to have a surrogate later on in life if the time comes.
Telling my family and friends: My mom has always been my number one supporter and was present at all of my appointments and surgeries. The rest of my family was supportive but I'm not quite sure they really ever understood the magnititude of my diagnosis and the consequences of surgery. My friends tried their best to cheer me up but having a friend with cancer really isn't something most people know how to deal with.
My treatment: One week after my 23rd birthday, on December 22, 2015, I had a LEEP under general anesthesia. The biopsy came back as 1A1 invasive adenocarcinoma with clear margins. My OBGYN wanted to see me in 4 months for a repeat Pap test, but I pushed for an oncology referral. After my initial consult with the gyn onc, I had a PET scan that showed cancer was still in my cervix. During my Spring break in March 2016, I had a cold knife cone biopsy done. To my doctor's surprise, the margins were positive. At only 23 years old, I was told I would need a radical hysterectomy.
On May 20, 2016, I underwent a radical hysterectomy, which removed my cervix, uterus, fallopian tubes, the upper third of my vagina and 22 pelvic lymph nodes. At my post op follow-up appointment, I was told even more cancer was found in my cervix, bringing me to having stage 1B1 invasive adenocarcinoma. But, all of my lymph nodes were clear, meaning no further treatment!
Three surgeries in less than 6 months, however, really took its toll.
How I felt after treatment: Physically, I felt great. My oncologist assured me I would heal quickly since I was young and otherwise healthy. The challenges of physical setbacks were upsetting, but each week after surgery I was able to do more. I felt so relieved that my lymph nodes were clear and that I was now cancer free. Even though this should be such a happy and exciting time, I am still working through my emotions and trying to process what has been a whirlwind in the last year.
What was most difficult for me: I think being so young was most difficult for me. Surrogacy and not being intimate like I was before aren't things anyone should ever have to deal with, but especially not at only 23 years of age. No one really understood how someone my age could have this happen to them. Everyone my age really didn't get what was going on. Staying enrolled full time in college was also hard. I saw my grades slipping and I lost my focus and motivation during the semester I was sick.
What I did to help myself: I surrounded myself with people who cared. I did my best to keep a positive outlook and I kept myself distracted with school.
My life after cancer: My life after cancer has been a whirlwind of learning about myself and growing as an individual. I try my best to not dwell on the fact that my life is completely different than it used to be. I still have some nerve damage in my left leg, lymphedema in my lower legs, occasional bladder spasms, bowel problems, and night sweats, and I am easily fatigued. I have slowly learned how to ask for help when I need it and I try to be present and enjoy even the smallest things in life.
Where I am today: I was able to finish college and graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in Biology in December 2016. The day before I graduated, I accepted a full time position in a surgeon’s office and am still currently working there. I have accepted that my life is drastically different than I imagined it would be. I’m discovering my new normal and have been trying to lose weight and get in shape again as I have gained quite a bit of weight since my diagnosis. I have spoken at a few events pertaining to my cancer story and educating people about the HPV vaccine and raising awareness for cervical cancer. Most importantly, I have found various groups that cater to supporting young adult cancer survivors and I have met some incredible people who truly understand what I have been through.
What I want other women to know: I want other women to know they should listen to their bodies! I wish I would've paid more attention when I was experiencing bleeding after intercourse. I hope young women and girls are not afraid of pelvic exams and Pap tests. Girls in college should not be shamed for having HPV. More importantly, they should be educated on what to do next and how to be in charge of their health.
How I will try to help others: I want to tell my story so people know that cancer does not discriminate against anyone, no matter your age or life plans. My main goal for advocacy is educating and informing young women about regular well woman exams, Pap tests, HPV tests and the HPV vaccine. As a medical professional, I constantly share my knowledge and encourage providers to learn more about HPV and its related cancers so their patients are more informed.