Location: Florida

Cancerversary: September 2021

Age at diagnosis: 43

Diagnosis: Squamous cell carcinoma

Stage of cancer: IB2

How my story begins: My story TRULY begins in 2007. This was my first bout with cervical cancer. Treatment was an in-office procedure with my gynocologist. I have to say the first time I heard the word CANCER I was in complete denial. It couldn't happen to me. I was healthy, made sure I had my wellness exams every year, along with a mammogram. See, my mother is a breast cancer survivor, so I made sure to have all of my scans done religiously. After that scare, life pretty much returned to normal. Over time I still had the memory of having cervical cancer, but was never informed it could return. And.....RETURN IT DID!

In 2015, I was having some pain in my abdomen, it was uncomfortable to sit for long periods, headaches, exhaustion. I made an appointment with my doctor, who had me complete routine bloodwork. I also made my yearly appointment with my gynocologist, seeing as it was time once again for that dreaded exam.

My pap came back abnormal. I returned to have a follow-up exam, this time with a colposcopy. Again, I sat in my doctor's office and heard those dreaded words, "You have cervical cancer". I cried. I don't remember walking out of the office. I don't remember calling my mom. I don't remember going home and hiding from the world. My partner told me that I spent three full days alternating between crying and sleeping. I was devastated. Lucky enough, I was referred to an amazing oncology team at UF Health Shands in Gainesville, Florida. Once I finally accepted my diagnosis I was prepared to fight. I met with the team of doctors, and a hysterectomy was the treatment plan. Although we were unsure as to how far the cancer had spread, my surgeon felt confident that she would be able to get clear margins. Once out of surgery, and after additional scans and tests, I was told that I had clear margins and was deemed CANCER FREE.

Now, let's fast-forward life to March 2021. I was outside doing some light yardwork with my daughter and came inside to get a drink and use the restroom. I had been having some odd feelings in my abdomen, including a feeling of "burning" in my vagina for a few weeks. It was never constant, and most of the time I never paid it any attention. However, this day I was bleeding. Since I had a hysterectomy in 2015, I knew this was nowhere near normal and placed a call to my OBGYN. I was scheduled to see Dr. Cook on a Wednesday, two weeks from that day and felt some comfort in knowing I at least had an appointment. As the days went by the bleeding worsened and I was having to wear a menstrual pad all the time. I was scared. I knew life was going to change once again.

My appointment that day was emotional, to say the least. I met with Dr. Cook and while performing my exam she felt a very large spot on the left side of my vaginal cuff that was not "normal" She and I talked at length about my symptoms: bleeding, exhaustion, and she referred me back to UF Health Oncology.

They called me immediately and set an appointment up for the following Monday. I can remember sitting in the bathtub, my daughter on the commode in the bathroom with me, and sobbing. Not just a quiet sob, but a deep down, in your gut, take your breath away sob. I kept telling her I was sorry that life was going to change again and that something "just wasn't right". She handed me a rag, helped me wash my hair, cried with me, and told me no matter what she would have my back. Still, I felt like I was letting she and her brother down somehow.

At my appointment with the Oncology department, I was informed that I did in fact have squamous cell carcinoma, stage IB2. There was a 3 cm mass on my left vaginal wall that encompassed my left ureter, and that the tumor was ultimately the culprit causing the "burning" sensation I was experiencing. I just sat there stunned. WHY ME? This was my third bout, my third time hearing the dreaded 'C' word, and for the life of me could not figure out what I had done wrong in my life to have to experience this three times.

As time passed waiting to start treatment, the tumor grew to 5 cm and completely closed off my left ureter. On a cool, dark night I was rushed to Gainesville hospital where an emergency surgery was performed to equip me with a new, state of the art, nephrostomy tube. I thought I was high class and special having my own Gucci bag attached to my back. I would tease my friends that I only had to use the bathroom once when they would have to go multiple times since I was only emptying one kidney. Humor was my way of dealing with the devastation and loss I was feeling.

The next almost two years have been a blur. I am now considered CANCER FREE, but lost a lot in order to say that. Two years, chemo, radiation, hair loss, weight gain from steroids, eight surgeries... what a whirlwind.

Life before my diagnosis: Life before my diagnosis... I guess I could say that life was peaceful. I just started a new job, my kids were grown, I was out enjoying life and doing things I didn't have a chance to do before. I always worked jobs that revolved around my children's schedules while they were growing up. We were involved in Girl Scouts and baseball, parties, and traveling. The kids and I would pack a bag with drinks and sandwiches and take off for the day to the closest spring, river, beach or even take in a museum or two. Life was filled with laughter and fun. Now everything is so much different.

How I felt after diagnosis: I felt like the air had been sucked out of my lungs. Like sand was what filled my lungs instead of air and I just could not catch my breath. I waited on the next hurdle, almost as if I expected this journey to take me completely. I was lost and felt very alone. My eight year relationship ended at the beginning of this journey, and I am thankful that my children, two biological and two bonus, stuck it out with me and held my hands on the dark nights. I cried. A LOT. One day I even walked straight into the woods, as far as I could go away from people, sat on a log and SCREAMED. I screamed until my throat was sore. I raged. I was angry. I picked up sticks and pinecones and threw them with all the strength I could muster.

Telling my family and friends: Of course, my parents were the first to know, in addition to my best friend. My children knew something was wrong, but I did not inform them until I had all the answers to their questions that I could provide. I remember telling my children and their reactions over anyone else. My son was MAD. He screamed and cussed and slammed his door. He eventually came back and laid on the couch with his head in my lap and cried. I'll never forget the sight of my son, 22 years old and a MAN, crying like a little baby in my lap. My heart broke. My daughter was silent. FOR DAYS. Almost as if she felt that if we didn't talk about it that it didn't exist. She too, after days of silence, came to me and wrapped her arms around me in the kitchen and held me. We danced to whatever song was on the radio at the time, holding on to each other and calming each other's fears. My bonus children don't live with me, but they would call every day or every other day to check on me. They would send me funny pictures or jokes and would even come down and stay at the hotel with me during the week while I was receiving treatment. These kiddos are what kept me going.

In addition to my children, I have a large network of bonus children that have always spent weekends in my home with my children. Those same kids, now adults, would come to my house every weekend when I got home and would cook dinner for me, laugh with me, and pray with me every time they visited. I was/am truly blessed.

My treatment: Treatment consisted of six weeks, five days a week, of external pelvic radiation. Top that off with a cocktail of Cisplatin once a week and I was one tired human. The nausea was awful, and the chemo heightened my RLS. I could no longer eat crunchy foods as the texture made me sick. Chemo was on Tuesdays, so I would gain my taste back after, but would lose it again by Thursday. Texas Roadhouse and my favorite waitress on Tuesdays became part of my treatment, if I'm honest. My sister makes custom tumblers and surprised me with a "Certified Badass in the fight against cancer" tumbler with personal words of encouragement and love from family and friends all over it. It was this cup that drew that waitress to my table, and every week my lunch there of steak, baked potatoes, and green beans turned into a therapy session for me. We still keep in touch to this day. I do feel in a lot of ways she helped aid in my treatment since to her I wasn't a cancer patient, I was just a cool chick with a story to tell and bad dad jokes to make her laugh.

Once I completed radiation and chemo, I endured 5 sessions of brachytherapy over a three-day period. I had two spinal blocks and was flat on my back for three days. I was miserable. Unfortunately, all this was happening when COVID was still a huge concern, and I spent all three days alone with a phone call to cheer me up every once in a while. Not even the TV was working in my room so Jerry Springer couldn't be a source of amusement!

After I completed all treatments, I made the decision to have my left kidney removed. This surgery was on July 19, 2021, and it was one of the hardest surgeries to recover from. Since then, I have had to have a hernia repaired that was surgically induced from my kidney removal and my gallbladder removed. I'm over surgeries, needles, hospitals, anything medical for a while.

How I felt after treatment: EXHAUSTED. MENTALLY, PHYSICALLY, AND EMOTIONALLY SPENT. Thankful that all of my treatment was completed, but still hanging on to the what if it's not all gone or has something been missed? Since I'm still receiving scans and exams every three months, I'm still living life as if the ball is going to drop any moment. I dread doctor appointments. Anxiety is higher now than ever before. For at least two weeks prior to any doctor appointment, sleep is non-existent and I'm on edge. I hate feeling this way.

What was most difficult for me: I think the most difficult part of this journey is watching the fear in my family and friends. I'm the one that was hurting, dealing with the physical part of this journey, but they were dealing with the emotional part. While I was trying to be strong and not show my fear, anger, confusion, they were also trying to hold it together for me. Watching my daughter tear up when I would get nauseated and couldn't eat was tough. She didn't exactly know how I was feeling, but she could see it all over my face and it scared her. My other kids too. Sometimes they would just sit beside me and say nothing, holding my hand. Sometimes, that was enough for us both.

What I did to help myself: I'm still working on this one. I struggle. I feel sometimes as if I'm the only one that has certain issues. I can say that music helps. I sing, write poetry that my best friend puts to music, and I have been journaling. Every day is a new day and I sometimes beat myself up that I'm not farther in my recovery journey mentally and emotionally.

During treatment I wrote something I was thankful for every day. One day it may have been no nausea. The next day it may have been the morning greeting I would get from the gentleman who received radiation before me every day. (I never learned his name, however his birthday is 3456. This may seem funny to some, but since my birthday is 5678 it makes sense. He would greet me with a happy smile and a "Good morning, 5678!" To which I would reply, "Top of the morning to you, 3456!". It was moments like that that would make me look forward to another day, a sense of normalcy if you will.

My life after cancer: LIfe after cancer. Where do I begin? I'm still waiting on the ball to drop. The anxiety is still high regarding medical appointments. I still feel overwhelmed at times. Every little ache sends me into a panic. I've learned not to trust Google for diagnosis purposes LOL! I still get tired easily. My body is still adjusting. I don't think I'll ever stop tasting metal when I eat brussels sprouts. My hair has started to fill back in... and it's CURLY! My hair has always been board straight, so this is a totally new experience!

Where I am today: Today. Every day is a new today. I am now working for a family law attorney and learning more than I thought I ever would about the crazy dynamics in some families. I still have a dream (yes, at almost 45) to obtain my Criminal Justice degree and become a juvenile probation officer in my small community. I'm working on starting my own business making personalized items out of spoons and forks, along with personalized stamped jewelry and keychains. I'm just getting started, but really enjoying learning all the neat things you can do with utensils. I guess most of all today, I'm finally finding my happy place in some sort of normalcy after cancer.

What I want other women to know: You are not ALONE. You are not a STATISTIC. You are WORTHY and LOVED. Cancer may be part of your story. It may even be a BIG part. But it doesn't define you. You are going to experience all sorts of emotions. Anger, fear, sadness, confusion, lost. Never let anyone make you feel as if your feelings are not VALID. Talk about your feelings. Journal. Face everything head on. It's hard. Some days are a struggle. However, you are a WARRIOR and no matter what you are amazing.

How I will try to help others: I always encourage women (and men) to have routine checkups. Speak up when something isn't right. I share my story every chance I get and offer to go with women as a support buddy to their appointments. I also advocate for the HPV vaccination to be administered. I share all the information I have on HPV, cervical cancer and the different types, and working on possibly speaking with high school students about my story. I've beat it three times. I'm still on this beautiful Earth for a reason. I'll continue sharing my story and being a support buddy for those that need it in their journey.