A letter to my mother 20 years after she died from Cervical Cancer

Dear Mom,

I often think of you as my guardian angel and that you can see me. You can see me driving a car fast like you begged me not to do so many times. You see me laughing. You see me with my friends. You see me making a tough decision, and having to be assertive. And when you see me and my brothers, you smile. It’s your big wide, gapped tooth smile. You smile and you put your head down, like I do when I smile. Sometimes with the smile you shake your head. You approve of what you see. You are pleased with us.

Do you know that January is Cervical Cancer Awareness month? Sometimes I really wish that I didn’t know that.  I really wish that the day in 1992 when you told me that you had cervical cancer never happened. Your smile was not there. You were sitting in a chair in your bedroom and you told me that you had cervical cancer. When you said it, your eyes closed and you grabbed your hands together. At the time, to me it felt like you were confessing something. I was too young and naïve to understand that you were scared. You said that there was an 85% survival rate. Because I thought this was a confession, I was relaxed. I relaxed during the whole conversation. There was no way that you would die.  My young, naïve mind said death happened to other peoples’ moms, not my mom.  Besides, I thought to myself, there would be no point of your death. You were too much of a good person.

I remember in 1995 coming to see you in the hospital and I was still relaxed.  My grandma was not. She pulled me into the hospital hallway and said that you were not going to get any better. In that moment, my heart went from the 8th floor of that hospital to laying on the ground on the street below. You were not supposed to die.

But in 1996 you did die. And I was left with a myriad of questions about the thing that took you from us. I did not hear many people talking about cervical cancer. What was HPV? How come you were not part of that 85% that lived?

In 2006, ten years after your death, I met a woman who explained all of this to me. Her name was Tamika and she was on a journey. She was racing to beat the clock to eradicate Cervical Cancer. When I learned about her journey, I saw Tamika and Friends as an army with soldiers. You always taught me to fight. I picked up my weapon and joined ranks with these cervical cancer soldiers. I was never going to let another woman get cervical cancer.

I have learned so much since you have been gone mom. I have learned about Henrietta Lacks, the different strands of HPV that cause cervical cancer, and how it is incredibly important to go to the gynecologist. And I have learned that sometimes bad things happen to good people. It is sad to admit this mom but your death has taught me just as much as your life.

Mom, I am faced with the cold fact that this year, you will have been out of my life for the same amount of time that you were in it.  I hope that you see that the world has changed and that I have changed. You always taught me to help other women and I have been doing that. I once met a girl who was in a job training program. I was doing a group counseling session with her and other young women. We talked about ultimate life goals. The girl had been quiet for most of the group. When it was her turn to say what, she wanted most in the world, she replied, “I just want to make my mother proud.” I touched her hand and I said, “Me too.”

I cannot see you, but the thought that you are smiling at me motivates me on my darkest days. It makes me want to talk to people about cervical cancer, organize communities, be a better mental health provider and be a servant of the Lord.  I do not know if you can really see me, but I have realized that I see you every time I do an act of kindness.

Hugs and kisses.

Your only daughter,

Lilly

The Fight for Teal and White

Every October, we are reminded to have our annual breast exam and bombarded with pink products, everything from apparel to yogurt cups! Pink is EVERYWHERE in October! Prior to my cervical cancer diagnosis, I was totally on board with pink and had relatively no issue with all the awareness although, I will admit, at times I thought it was too much

Having been diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2016, I changed my perspective on awareness ribbon campaigns and it got me thinking why is pink the only one that everyone recognizes and is on board with? Why is everyone so willing to do the walks, fundraise and wear pink all month long? I mean it wasn’t always this way, was it? This ribbon had to start somewhere and while I was in Iowa attending Cervivor School, I learned some of the history of the pink ribbon and breast cancer awareness. What began the global breast cancer movement with $200 and a shoebox full of women’s names who had or were going through breast cancer turned into a global community of scientists, advocates, neighbors and friends, working together to make breast cancer a distant memory.

I wondered, can this be done with my cancer too? Why are there no big walks, fundraisers or even much awareness of the teal and white ribbon? I mean, I wear my ribbon and frequently I am asked what it represents. Is it because not enough women in this country die from cervical cancer? Surely that can’t be the reason. Or is it because not many women are willing to talk about cervical cancer? Sadly, I believe this is one of the main reasons. You see, cervical cancer has a stigma attached to it as most cases are caused by HPV (Human Papillomavirus), one of the most misunderstood viruses known to man. People do not realize just how common this virus is and how it accounts for many types of cancers as well.

Every October I hear the frustration by many women about the lack of awareness for our cancer and I too am guilty of feeling the same. Then I realized, I never even knew what cervical cancer was until I was diagnosed. How could that be? Well, for one, no one talks about it. If we want more awareness then we need to be willing to talk about cervical cancer and the HPV virus. We need to be out there sharing our stories, advocating for the HPV vaccine, and reminding women to not miss their PAP/HPV tests.

Imagine if all women who were diagnosed decided to share their story with others and kept on sharing and kept talking about cervical cancer and the HPV virus. When women are willing to put themselves out there, we too could grow in numbers and we could be the “Teal and White Brigade.” We have to put feelings of shame aside and not be afraid to talk about our cervix and our cancer. We matter ladies, and our stories need to be told!

January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, let’s turn it Teal and White.

Paulette Apostolou resides in Illinois with her loving husband and two Min Pins Roxey and Zoie. She is the owner/designer of TheDeevaShop.com and founder of Operation Teal; an awareness ribbon campaign she started in 2016 after attending Cervivor School Louisville.