How my story begins: Before my diagnosis, I was a regular old mom, raising 3 kiddos ages 4, 3 and 1. I taught 4th grade and was getting excited about putting an addition on our house. Despite having just had 3 children, I made time for myself to exercise. I was fit and ate really healthy.
At the beginning of my pregnancy with my 3rd child, I had an abnormal Pap. Since they don’t do much about it while you’re pregnant, I just waited. I was even led to believe any wacky cells may go away with delivery. However, my Pap at my 6-week postpartum appointment was also abnormal. I had a biopsy that led to a LEEP. They told me they got clear margins with my LEEP and to come back in 6 months. Another bad Pap. At that appointment, I remember asking, “Is there something else I can do, or are we just waiting around for cancer?” During my biopsy in early January 2019, my doctor saw something on my vagina wall. He biopsied it. You could feel the air deflate in that room. On January 15th, standing outside the Kindergarten room at my school, my doctor called and told me that the biopsy of my cervix came back clear, but the biopsy of the lesion on my vaginal wall was cancer.
Life before my diagnosis: .
How I felt after diagnosis: Numb. In shock. I had just spent 5 years creating 3 precious little humans, and now my biggest fear - not watching them grow up - was at the forefront of my mind. All I wanted to do was “get it out” and there was nothing harder than waiting to learn more about my disease and what my treatment plan would be. I was angry. I had been diligent about my care. How did I end up here? Due to the stress, my body created all sorts of strange symptoms (a cold left arm, shooting pain down my legs). Once I had a treatment plan, it all went away.
Telling my family and friends: When I couldn’t get ahold of my husband at work, I called my bestie because I couldn’t be home alone with my kids. At some point, I called my mom, who has overcome cancer a handful of times. She was so positive and continued to be through all of it. After that, I started a Caring Bridge page. No one needs to tell this story 100 times over. A week after diagnosis, I told my young children. That was relieving as I then felt allowed to cry and be sad in front of them.
My treatment: I lived in northern Nevada when I was diagnosed. But I temporarily moved my family back to Chicago (where I’m from) for treatment. I learned that I had an HPV-related squamous cell cervical cancer that was 90% in my vaginal wall (a 4cm tumor). Therefore, a hysterectomy was not an option. It had also spread to 3 lymph nodes. I had 29 external radiation treatments, 6 rounds of Cisplatin, and 4 brachytherapies.
How I felt after treatment: During treatment in Chicago, cancer and making it go away became my whole world. And then when I came back to Nevada, I was thrown quickly back into being a mom and teacher. I was still tired, still suffering from some radiation-induced gastrointestinal issues, and beginning the world of menopause. But seeing my friends and getting back in the classroom a little did make me feel more normal again.
What was most difficult for me: The most difficult part for me has been the waves of fear that come over me about recurrence. It always happens when I’m spending special time with one of my kids. I worry about not seeing them grow up. Staying mentally, emotionally and spiritually positive all of the time is a full-time job!
What I did to help myself: I saw a therapist all through treatment. I do yoga and stay active. Writing on my Caring Bridge site has been really therapeutic for me. I have a friend who had an HPV-related anal cancer several years back and she has been a huge source of support. I don’t keep anything inside. Whether it’s positive or yucky, I’m talking about it.
My life after cancer: I’m still navigating life after cancer. My first PET scan post-treatment was June 2019. I’m starting to plan things a couple of months out, whereas before I was nervous to do that.
Where I am today: I’m enjoying the little moments with my family and kids more. I’m looking at the clouds and listening to the birds. Everyone says it, you get a new and better perspective on life. I’m saying no to things that don’t fill my cup.
What I want other women to know: Obviously be diligent about your gyne care, but even doing that landed me with stage 2B. I realized after seeing gyne oncologists, that my OB-GYN was never doing a manual exam to feel around down there. Sometimes I wonder if he had been doing that, would he have felt my tumor at an earlier appointment?
How I will try to help others: I want to go big here. I want to talk. I want to stand on a stage and tell the story about how when I was 25, I begged my doc for the HPV vaccine and she told me I was too old. And then 12 years later I got cervical cancer. I want to do my part to increase the vaccination rate. Why isn’t it 100%? Already, since I’ve been diagnosed, I’ve known 3 other young women (35, 37, and 42) who have been diagnosed with different cancers. It felt good to reach out to them in those first scary days to help validate all of those awful feelings.