How my story begins: In my early thirties, years after an HPV diagnosis during pregnancy, I began experiencing strange symptoms. My period had an irregular pattern, I noticed heavier than usual discharge and, most alarming, I experienced bleeding after intercourse with my husband. I hadn’t been in for my regular Pap in years but I did seek answers to my symptoms. I was brushed off by many as having “some kind of hormonal issues.” Eventually, the bleeding got so bad that it didn’t stop at all, and produced large clots. I also had a low grade fever I couldn’t shake. At this point I knew for sure this wasn’t normal and sought out another gynecologist. A colposcopy, cone biopsy, and PET scan later, it was revealed that I had cervical cancer that had metastasized to my nearby lymph nodes.
How I felt after diagnosis: I went through a range of emotions from terror to anger to deep sadness. One day I was ready to fight and the next I would wallow in pity.
Telling my family and friends: I had been keeping family in the loop already because in the beginning we didn't realize how serious it would all become. After I got the worst news, I delegated my sister-in-law and husband to tell our immediate family. Telling the children was much more difficult but predictable: my teenage son was adamant that I would get through it and be fine and my younger daughter put up a front, her way of protecting herself.
My treatment: On my 34th birthday, I underwent a laparoscopic pelvic and para-aortic lymphadenectomy. This was followed by 6 sessions of cisplatin chemotherapy, 28 daily external radiation sessions, and 5 rounds of internal radiation (brachytherapy).
How I felt after treatment: Treatment took a huge toll on my body and mind. During treatment, I was on autopilot. I didn't feel human; I felt like a body with a job and my body's job was to show up for treatment. After treatment was over I was finally able to exhale and take in what had just happened, and the tears came. I didn't stop sobbing for two weeks straight.
What was most difficult for me: The fear of not growing old.
What I did to help myself: I allowed myself to cry when I needed to, sleep when I needed to, and be kind to myself on the days when I couldn't get out of bed.
Where I am today: So far, the news is good with No Evidence of Disease. However, treatment took a toll that I didn’t expect. I manage many side effects from it daily. I’m menopausal, I deal with chronic pelvic pain, my diet is severely limited as I now have IBS-D, I have lymphedema from surgery, peripheral neuropathy in my feet, and PTSD. I use a dilator regularly to keep radiated scar tissue from permanently closing my vagina. These are my daily struggles, and yet I have more gratitude in my life than ever before. Cancer gives you a new perspective on what matters in life. My setbacks only fuel my resolve to live purposefully.
What I want other women to know: If your doctor doesn't take your concerns seriously, find one who will.
How I will try to help others: I tell my story to show other women that their gynecological health needs to be prioritized, and that HPV Immunization is cancer prevention. I am a proud Cervivor Ambassador, member of the Virginia Immunization Taskforce, and 7th Congressional District Lead Volunteer for ACS-CAN Virginia.