How my story begins: I was a busy 31-year-old mother of two (3 year old and 9 month old) and a first grade teacher. Life centered around my family and students. I felt fine other than what I thought were c-section recovery issues. I was not a smoker or drinker. I was not overweight and I took pretty good care of myself other than being sleep deprived as a mother. I had never been through any real life-threatening illness.
I went in for my annual check-up as I never missed one and had a long record of perfect Pap tests. When the doctor did my pelvic exam, he noticed what he thought was a "fibroid" bulging from my cervix and he called his partner to take a look. As tears were flowing down my cheeks, they both assured me it was NOT cancer and told me to come back in 8 weeks unless it were to burst and bleed. They did not want to biopsy it that day because it was very vascular and it would cause a lot of bleeding. Since it was summer and I was a first grade teacher, I asked if we could take it out sooner than later. It was as if an angel told me "Get this out of your body!"
So glad I listened to that Angel Voice in my head. Within a week, I had the mass removed at our local hospital. It fell apart in the doctor's hand. He decided to send it to pathology even though he STILL thought it was not cancer (adenocarcinoma does not look like typical cervical cancer).
The next day, I got the dreaded call to come in to speak to the doctor and the nurse would not elaborate any further. I was told to bring my husband as well. My heart was beating out of my chest as I knew this was not a good sign. The next thing I remember was hearing, "You have cervical cancer. You will need a radical hysterectomy, possibly chemo and radiation."
My world was forever changed and I began my journey through the unknown territory of cervical cancer. Life would never be the same again and I did not realize how much I would grow and change over the course of my journey. As I type this, that memory still makes me tear up. It was a defining moment for me--the day that my life went from B.C. (Before Cancer) and A.C. (After Cancer). As I heard the doctor sharing the bad news, my life flashed before my eyes. The doctor's words seemed to echo as I was swallowed by the reality of my cancer diagnosis. What started out as a supposed "fibroid" that was "not cancer" ended up being diagnosed as "Adenocarcinoma Cervical Cancer 1B2."
This same day, my Pap test results arrived in the mail. My Pap test was still NORMAL even with a 4 cm tumor bulging from my cervix. Had it not been bulging, they say I would have gone home and been dead within a year. That pelvic exam saved my life.
How I felt after diagnosis: I was afraid of what my body would go through. I have a low pain tolerance. I was very sad because I wanted more children. Don't get me wrong, I am beyond blessed to have my two babies already. By the grace of God--they were born before this ugly tumor inhabited my body. I just didn't like cancer taking away my fertility or my female parts. It felt so unfair. I was not embarrassed about the HPV factor because I did not even know how I got this disease and it seemed the doctors really didn't know either. HPV was hardly discussed in 2005. I was clueless as to what was in store for me and I felt so fearful of the unknown. I did not have anyone to lean on that had experienced this disease at this point and I felt like the only person in the whole world going through this. My mind wandered and imagined the worst.
Telling my family and friends: I have a pretty good sense of humor, so I used this to my benefit. I joked with medical professionals and friends to lighten the seriousness of the situation. But deep down, I was very afraid. I did not hide from it and in some ways, I went inward-inside my head to deal with my fear. My kids were too little to know what was going on and soon I would be facing surgery and treatment. I had to focus on me and that meant passing my children off to family for a while. This was so hard to do. I used to cry in the basement in a pillow so nobody would hear me. I was keeping much of the sadness to myself.
My treatment: I was diagnosed in July 2005. The next three months were a blur to me. We sought out 4 different opinions as to how to proceed with my treatment. I had my radical hysterectomy on August 19, 2005. They removed my cervix, uterus, 1/3 of my vagina, appendix, and 44 lymph nodes that all came back clear. I went home with a catheter hanging from my lower abdomen. I had to retrain my bladder as the surgery cut very close to the nerves.
This was a very difficult time for me, as my two young children had moved in with family since I was too sick to care for them or even lift them. I spent many nights crying in the baby room, missing my children. After I healed from the surgery, it was time to receive five weeks of IMRT guided external radiation. The radiation is what put me in a surgically-induced menopause, which I truly hate. Our hormones do so much for us! Radiation made me sick, but I made it through with the help of pharmaceuticals, wonderful medical professionals, and family/friends. I felt like someone had stuck a knife up my behind and stabbed me and my bladder felt like my urethra was on fire. Sorry to be so graphic, but the pain was terrible. I was so grateful for the medication to ease the discomfort. I wanted to sleep through all of this and life seemed to stop for me. I became depressed.
How I felt after treatment: I would like to say that once I beat the cancer---it was over; however, the hard part came later. As I share my story, I want very much to emphasize how important it is to deal with the emotional/hormonal/spiritual side of being a "Survivor." I marched right past the survivor desk in the Cancer Treatment Center of my hospital. Perhaps I was too busy or maybe I thought I was strong enough to keep marching forward. That was a mistake for me. Soon it would all come undone and I would hit a brick wall.
What was most difficult for me: Finding the NEW Shawna was very hard because I missed myself. I missed being healthy, energetic, and happy. I did not know how to deal with all that had happened to me in such a short time. Three years after the cancer treatment, I suffered a breakdown that can be attributed to a variety of things. Was it Hormones? Was it Exhaustion? Was it Depression? Was it ADHD? Why was the old Shawna not the same?
My marriage was in shambles and I felt I had failed in so many areas. I just was not the same person I used to be. My body was having accidents due to radiation damage and I was extremely tired. I was not able to roll with daily life as I had before the cancer--it all felt too hard and too complicated. I was exhausted. I had no sex drive and wanted to trade my body in for a new one. I wanted to feel normal again, whatever that meant. I wanted to love myself again and feel confident in myself as a wife, mother, teacher, and friend. I was literally walking around as a shell--a fraction of who I used to be. And I needed to deal with it all. I don't remember this time of my life very well because I was just trying to get through each day.
What I did to help myself: After meeting with a wonderful doctor, who was the lead oncology psychiatrist at a very prominent hospital (specializing in cancer survivors)--the puzzle began to make sense. At the crux of all of this adversity was a diagnosis that often mimics Depression/ADHD---I had PTSD due to the cancer experience. Discovering this was the beginning of my healing. I worked feverishly to overcome the issues I was having. She told me, "You have to dig down deep. You know your dress size does not matter. That is not important. You have to look within yourself to find what is important. You have to find the NEW Shawna and love her. You need to stop waiting around for certain people in your life to tell you it was okay that you got cancer because that is NEVER going to happen." She told me I would make a complete recovery, but I had to work hard to attain that goal.
After reading many books, working diligently through therapy, taking a year off from teaching first grade, using bio-identical hormone management, getting support from people who could embrace the "new" Shawna, and praying a lot---I have rebuilt my life as something more beautiful than I could have ever imagined. The NEW Shawna is much like the old one, but I am stronger, wiser, and more empathetic, and I know the pain of adversity. I remember what it feels like to want to pull myself up by my bootstraps, but realizing I didn't even have any boots at the time. I will never forget what that felt like to be clawing at the walls trying to overcome my struggles. I did not give up. I wanted to heal.
My life after cancer: After a very difficult divorce in 2008, I feel my prize at the end of the cancer struggle was reconnecting with my high school sweetheart, Aaron. We got married in 2011 and he loves me for who I am--cancer or no cancer. He says "If they have to sew me up and my female parts are completely broken someday, he will love me anyway." We chuckle about my bowel issues and I don't get triggered with every little cancer reminder. I know these reminders are to remind me of how far I have come. I am an OVERCOMER and that makes me one amazing CERVIVOR. I worked so hard to find her and become the person I am today.
Where I am today: My life is so different compared to BEFORE the cancer. I used to be much skinnier and took hardly any medication to feel my best. Today I take Bio-Identical Hormones, meds for menopausal acne, vitamins for heart palpitations, and a variety of vitamins to promote wellness and energy. I have found what works for me to keep my sexual health in top shape. I am kind to myself and I still allow myself to grieve when I need to do so. The loss is still there, but it does not hurt as badly as it once did.
I have been able to become the survivor (Cervivor) I am meant to be. I am 100% the mother, teacher, friend, and wife I want to be. I have a story to tell and a mission to eradicate this cancer through education and HPV awareness.
What I want other women to know: Ask questions of other Cervivors. Don't go through this alone. We have all been through similar issues through our CC journeys. Knowledge and networking will EMPOWER you. Please know the value of networking with other survivors. While many of you may not experience PTSD or any psychological issues from your cancer, be on the look out for those who may develop these symptoms. And please know that time, support, and prayer will help you truly be a survivor with a story to tell.
How I will try to help others: I have always been a Chatty Cathy. I like to share my story and my passion for sharing the good news about the HPV Vaccine and the importance of preventative care in relation to female health. I want to eradicate this disease and prevent anyone else from losing their fertility or hearing the words, "You have cervical cancer." It does not have to happen. As I recently learned at Cervivor School, this is a human issue. We have to change the narrative about HPV and cervical cancer. Using our voices to spread the word about our experiences and the news of a vaccine that prevents cancer is an exciting mission!
Any additional information you'd like to share: Sex can be amazing again after cancer. It can be 100% fulfilling with a supportive and patient partner who loves you in spite of any issues you may have with your sexual health. Don't let any man shame you for your issues or belittle you in this area. You are beautiful just the way you are (scars remaining and pieces removed). You have experienced so much and you should be celebrated by a partner that loves and validates your experience. Without a supportive partner, it is very hard to celebrate your new version of sexuality. I consider myself: Shawna 4.0! My husband gets me on all four levels: Spiritually, Intellectually, Emotionally, and Sexually. What a wonderful place to find love and acceptance in my husband, lover, and best friend. I still think I have it going on and he celebrates me for the woman I am today.
Don't get me wrong, I hate cervical cancer and I wish I had been able to receive the vaccination when I was a preteen; however, I am extremely proud and humbled to be able to call myself a CERVIVOR.
Attend CERVIVOR SCHOOL and find your voice. Every story matters and every life we can save through advocacy is a life changed.