How my story begins: Before my diagnosis, I was happily married (still am!), and I'd never had children. At 38, I was getting older and had never really been sure I wanted a baby. I wanted a child one day, but I felt no particular drive to give birth to an infant. My husband and I had talked about adoption, but we were both busy with our jobs and other creative ventures that we put parenthood off. I'd always had difficult periods, so when I started spotting between periods, it almost seemed par for the course for me. Maybe I was going into early menopause. Maybe my fibroids were back. Even when I developed chronic lower back pains, I attributed it to sitting too much at work. I had no idea that this too could also be a sign of cancer.
In 2009 after moving back to my hometown, I was happy that my new primary care provider told me she could do my Pap test during a routine check-up. This would save me a trip to another doctor and another humiliating weigh in, something I've dreaded since childhood. When she completed my exam, the doctor noted that my cervix was "speckled" but said we'd wait for the Pap test results. I'd never had any abnormal results in the past, and I'd been married for almost 10 years, so I wasn't too concerned. Still the doctor's comment about my speckled cervix stuck in the back of my head. In fact, when the nurse called to tell me my Pap test was normal, I wanted to ask more questions. But it was so embarrassing so I let it go.
The next year when this same provider tried to take my Pap, I bled when the swab touched my cervix. I was referred to a gynecologist and, soon enough, to a gynecologist-oncologist. Even though my Pap test had come back normal just a year before, I was diagnosed with a stage 1B2 adenocarcinoma.
My treatment: I had a radical hysterectomy that involved the removal of my uterus with cervix, surrounding tissues, and some lymph nodes.
What was most difficult for me: Facing the idea of having cancer at all was most difficult, of course, but next to that I think the social aspects of having my type of cancer impacted me the most. Because people couldn't see a change in me on the outside (I didn't have chemotherapy or radiation), I felt like they thought I should be "over it" quickly. While I did well recovering physically and emotionally, as time went on, I came to resent how some people treated me like I'd had "cancer lite." People's lack of understanding about cervical cancer and its often invisible side effects made me feel isolated and frustrated, so I didn't talk about it much for a long time.
What I did to help myself: During recovery, I wrote a lot. I knew that reflective writing could help me process and heal (there's actually evidence to support that!).
My life after cancer: I am still married to an awesome man and we now have a son whom we adopted as an older child through the foster care system. He's the best thing to ever happen to me, the super silver lining of my cancer journey.
Where I am today: I am a six-year survivor and have not had any recurrences.
What I want other women to know: It takes a long time to heal, both physically and emotionally, especially when we have to face a ridiculous stigma based in other people's ignorance on top of having cancer. Give yourself permission not to rush. In fact, for me, much of the emotional trauma didn't surface until I felt like I'd healed physically. It was over a year after my surgery that I started experiencing anxiety that stemmed from all the emotions I'd suppressed just to get through the surgery, etc.
How I will try to help others: I testified before the South Carolina Subcommittee on Medical Affairs in support of the Cervical Cancer Act. I helped host a screening of the documentary 'Someone You Love' and shared my story in front of medical and other healthcare students. And recently, I conducted a reflective writing workshop for other survivors at the Charleston Cervivor School!
Any additional information you'd like to share: I have to say that although I did a good bit of research on cervical cancer, I've learned more about the illness experience from other survivors than I've learned from any journal article. Thank you, Cervivor!