Finding My Cervivor Voice

It is day one of Cervivor School. I look around the room at 25 women who have all had the same diagnosis; cervical cancer. It feels like a family, but do I belong in this family? I mean, sure I was diagnosed with cervical cancer too; but mine was found early. I was easily treated with a hysterectomy. I didn’t endure chemotherapy or radiation. I haven’t gone into early menopause. I was lucky to have children before I had my fertility taken from me. This is a room of survivors. Women who have been through or are going through the real battle. Women who have lost their hair. Women who will never be able to have children. Women who are going into menopause in their 20’s. Do I belong in this room, with these women who I look at as warriors? I am no warrior. I was one of the lucky ones. This is not my place. I feel like a fraud.

Tamika, the founder of Cervivor, shows us women who have been in this room before us, some who were supposed to be here today; but cannot be because they are no longer with us. It brings me to tears. She tells us her story and it is heartbreaking. Tamika talks about our stories, and how every single one matters. We have all been through a cervical cancer diagnosis. We have all had different treatments. We have all made it to this room. She asks if anyone feels like they don’t belong here. I feel like I should raise my hand, but I don’t. I don’t want to call attention to the fact that I haven’t been through what all these women have been through. Maybe I can make it through the weekend without anyone figuring me out.

Now we take a break and reflect on what has just been said. We break into groups of four. I timidly walk around the room to find a group that doesn’t have four yet. I find a group with two women who are older than me and one much younger. I will let them do all the talking. Their stories matter, not mine. One of the older women starts to tell her story. It sounds familiar. Abnormal Pap, cervical cancer, hysterectomy, recovery. Wait, what? That is my story. The other woman begins to tell her story and again, it sounds familiar. Abnormal Pap, cervical cancer, hysterectomy, recovery. This can’t be right? These women’s stories are too similar to mine. And yet, as each of them tell their stories I feel connected. My heart breaks as they talk about being diagnosed. As they talk about all the time waiting between appointments, and all of the unknowns. These are all of the things that I went through. The pains and anxiety that I went through. The same surgeries that I went through, and the same guilt that I carry with me, as I feel unworthy of being called a survivor. Then there is the younger woman sitting across from me, I know her story is not like ours. I was with her the day before as she took off her wig and revealed her short hair that is growing back from her last rounds of chemotherapy. I do not know her story, but I know that it is not like mine. But here she is, sitting with the three of us. Listening to our stories and encouraging us to tell them. Asking questions about what we have been through and relating. She doesn’t tell us her story, and focuses on us. She is understanding and informative. She is passionate about what we have to say. I begin to feel like maybe I do belong here. Maybe this corner of the room with these 3 other women is exactly where I am supposed to be. Maybe this is precisely what I have been looking for over the last two years. Maybe my story is important, and powerful. Maybe my story can touch people’s hearts the same way these women’s stories just touched mine. And now our time is up. I walk back to my seat and a feeling of relief washes over me. I know that a shift has just been made. Something inside me has changed in these last 20 minutes with these 3 women.

Laura, the young woman who was just in our group walks to the front of the room to present her story to us. She is in her early 20’s. She is vibrant, and her smile lights up the room. Her story begins the same as many of ours. Cervical cancer, chemotherapy, radiation, no evidence of disease. But then her story changes. Recurrence, chemotherapy, terminal. My heart sinks. This woman is standing in front of us fighting a cancer that she knows is going to kill her. And I think, “What is her message to me?” That my fight is not as hard as hers? That I don’t belong here because I didn’t have to go through chemotherapy or radiation? No. Her message is that I need to tell my story. The world needs to hear my story. No one should have to die from this cancer, and the way to help make sure that happens is through my story. I do belong here in this room with these warriors, with these survivors. Not as an outsider, but as one of them. Chemotherapy and radiation are not what makes us a survivor. Cancer is what makes us a survivor. The fraud that was sitting in this same chair 20 minutes ago is gone. I am now sitting here as a Cervivor with a story to tell.

Keziah Corry is a 2-year Cervical Cancer Survivor. She lives in Seattle WA, with her incredibly handsome husband, two of the cutest kids the world has to offer and her sweet little pug. She spends most of her free time, with her feet in the sand and a glass of wine in her hand.  Read Keziah’s Cervivor story here.

The Incredible Feeling of Being the Last Runner

As most of you know, I was diagnosed with cervical cancer at the age of 27. My cancer battle wasn’t easy; actually, I don’t think anyone’s cancer battle is easy but it seems people think some of us had it easier because we didn’t die or we “look normal” now. Cancer is a life-threatening, life-altering illness no matter what the stage. Those of us who survive, often face life-long side effects that can make routine things quite complicated if not impossible.

I think most people don’t realize that cancer rarely comes alone and that the treatments that may cure you will leave you with a variety of problems you never even thought of. My cancer battle was complicated by blood clots to my heart and lungs that left me weak and fatigued for months; the treatments did their job but also left me with life-long side effects. Yes, as expected chemotherapy had me throwing up at all hours of the day and radiation did cause menopause (hot flashes and all) killing any chance of motherhood and other problems started popping up shortly after; but chemo had an extra gift for me: peripheral neuropathy.

The first time I noticed “my balance was off,” was at church while I was walking to the front after a pastor made a call; I remember swerving as I was walking down the aisle, it looked as if I was drunk… I simply couldn’t walk a straight line. Within a few days I started experiencing this weird sensation in my hands and legs, they felt as if I had gloves and high boots on, they were numb. And then, things just went downhill; my handwriting resembled that of my mother’s first grade students and I started to need help getting dressed because I couldn’t hook my own bra or button my own clothes. I needed support walking and driving was completely out of the question since I was unable to gauge how much pressure to put on the gas or brake pedal. I was falling all over the place; one minute I was standing right in front of you and the next I was falling down because my legs would not hold me. Things got so bad that I once cut my foot open while closing a screen door and didn’t feel the cut at all. The only indication I had of the cut was blood pouring out of my foot, I actually required stitches! After many tests involving lots needles and vibrating objects, the Physiatrist diagnosed me with peripheral neuropathy and told me it was not curable. He explained that the chemo acted as a poison in the body and it had affected my peripheral nerves and there wasn’t anything he could do to cure it. His only recommendation was to take a vitamin B complex daily and see if that helped. I bought the vitamins even though I was completely discouraged.

To this day I don’t know if I was misdiagnosed or if a miracle had happened (I lean towards this last one). But even though it took years, things did improve and the day came when I my handwriting was once again legible and I was back to wearing high heels (believe me, this is important for any Puerto Rican girl). The only reminder I have of those days when I was unable to walk without support are the scar on my right foot and a very firm and loud gait.

So, there you have it. THAT is why being able to run has been huge for me, HUGE!!! I mean, I never ran a day in my life prior to cancer. I used my asthma card faithfully to get out of PE all through middle school and high school. After what I’ve been through, after all that cancer did to my body, being able to run is extremely meaningful. It has been difficult, quite challenging, and even frustrating at times but I still love running it and the feeling of crossing the finish line after every single 5k and 10k I’ve taken on.

This year I took on the challenge of running one of The North Face Endurance Challenge half-marathons and I trained faithfully. For months, I woke up early for training runs, even on Sundays; but I was rewarded by cooler temperatures and incredible sunrises. I learned to love the feeling of running in the quiet hours of the morning when the neighbors are still sleeping and even though at times my body ached, I would summon the strength to pull through.

And so on the particularly hot morning of Sept 16th, 2018 I started running my first half-marathon. I knew early on that I would be the last runner to cross the finish line; but I also knew that no matter what, I would cross that finish line and I would celebrate it as if it was a 1st place win. I started on wave 4 with many other runners and somewhere around mile 2 or 3 every single runner had passed me. At some point I lost sight of all runners in front of me and I ran alone for miles. I must confess that I walked every rocky hill but I ran as much of the flat and downhill terrain as I could. I was slow but I was steady. The race crew encouraged me on every single aid station and reminded me that I was doing well. At some point I started hearing voices behind me, I thought for a moment there were other runners behind me, not such luck, it was the crew picking up signage and markings after I, the last runner, passed them, ha! I kept moving forward, one foot in front of the other; a slow but steady pace. I would eventually come across other runners and by that I mean all the runners making their loop back to the start/finish line; they encouraged me as they flew by. I kept moving forward, slow and steady… Eventually I caught up to the couple in front of me and was able to keep up with them for the last few miles; in the end, they finished 2 minutes ahead of me; they too worked hard to complete this run. I was so, so happy to see the finish line and I ran to it as fast as I could.  I can’t describe the pure joy that moment brought to me… how much it meant… I crossed that finish line 3 hours and 31 seconds after I started; I was in fact dead last but oh what a sweet, sweet victory!

As I look back I realize I have come a long way. My body has been changed forever and it will never work as well as it did before cancer but I have learned to live in it and try to keep it as healthy as possible. Every run counts, even if I’m the last one, my body is able to run. I am grateful.

Dear reader, you can prevent cervical cancer. Please schedule your Pap and HPV tests regularly and make sure you vaccinate your children against HPV and protect them against the virus which has been linked to 6 different types of cancer. For more information visit www.cervivor.org. To read more about Maria’s cervical cancer journey, visit the link to her Cervivor story here