“Your cervix looks different this year”

“Your cervix looks different this year,” said my primary care doctor several years ago, as she performed the pelvic exam part of my annual exam. I remember chuckling to myself, not fully grasping the severity of her comment yet. Instead, I laid on the table thinking, “How does she remember what my cervix looks like from year to year?”

My doctor referred me to a gynecologist when the exam was over. I didn’t understand, but I also didn’t ask any questions. I visited the gynecologist two days later. She performed a colposcopy and referred me to an oncologist. Two days after that, I met with the oncologist and he told me that I had stage 2B cervical cancer. What started out as a routine exam had quickly turned into a life-threatening diagnosis.

What if…? What if…? What if…?

How could I have cervical cancer? I didn’t feel sick. I had no symptoms. (Cervical cancer symptoms can include, but are not limited to, abnormal vaginal discharge, bleeding between periods, or pelvic pain during intercourse.) I went to my doctor every year for my annual well-woman exam and the results of my Pap tests always came back normal. But somehow, in the span of only one year, a 4 cm tumor had grown on my cervix. In one year, I went from having a normal Pap test result to having cancer. What a difference one year can make.

I started chemotherapy and radiation treatment to save my life. Doctors declared me cancer-free after I completed these treatments over the course of a few months. Today, I am a seven-year cervical cancer survivor. But my story could have been drastically different if I had skipped my well-woman exam that year.

What if I had used an excuse, like “I’m too busy”, to justify putting off that appointment? Or what if I had told myself that skipping one year wouldn’t hurt anything because I’m a generally healthy person? What if I had assumed my Pap test results would continue to be normal like they always had been? How much longer would my cancer have gone undetected? How far would my cancer have spread without my knowing? Would my prognosis have been different if my cancer wasn’t detected when it was? Would I even be alive today?

The importance of annual visits and cancer screenings

A cancer diagnosis is life changing. A cancer screening is lifesaving. Scheduling my annual exam saved my life. My cancer was detected early enough to be effectively treated because I went to my doctor every year.

If I had not scheduled my exam that year, my cancer would have continued to grow undetected and my life would have been at risk.

Preventative care exams are a breast exam, pelvic exam, and a Pap (and HPV) test. A Pap test looks for abnormal cells. If needed, these can be treated before they become cancerous. The HPV test looks for high-risk HPV that can cause abnormal cells. This lets your healthcare provider monitor you more closely for cell changes.. When the Pap test and HPV test are both performed during an exam, it is referred to as co-testing.

What are you waiting for?!

  • Reduce your risk for cervical cancer through screening tests, like the Pap test and HPV test.
  • Take care of yourself by scheduling your annual well-woman exam.
  • Raise awareness for cervical cancer detection and prevention by telling your family and friends to schedule their annual well-woman exams.
  • Benefit from Iowa’s Care for Yourself program, which provides free or low-cost cancer screenings for Iowans. Many other states have free or low-cost cancer screening programs too. Be sure to visit your state or county health department’s website.
  • Make a resolution to protect your health all year long.

About the Author

Emily Hoffman is a seven-year cervical cancer survivor who was diagnosed with stage 2B cervical cancer at age 30. She is a patient advocate and Cervivor Ambassador who shares her cancer story to raise awareness for cervical cancer and educate others on the importance of cancer screenings and prevention. Emily is the recipient of the 2020 Cervivor Spark Award. She is currently pursuing her certification to become a cancer registrar.

Without Patient Stories, We Walk into a Firefight with a Calculator

Storytelling is powerful. Storytelling is compelling. In this age of social media, stories have evolved from words and pages to photos, memes and videos. Unfortunately, “anti-vaccination activists have weaponized stories and weaponized misinformation” and have used their stories to undermine the broader adoption of the HPV vaccine around the world.

Dr. Noel Brewer, chair of the National HPV Vaccination Roundtable, shares why patient stories are essential to combating the anti-vaccination movement.

“Antivaccine activists rely on story telling. We scientists come back with statistics and numbers. While our statistics and facts may be true, they have little power in this arena. We walk into this firefight with a calculator.”

“In the real world, statistics and data don’t hold power, except on pages of a medical journal. What matters is people and their lived experience. Having powerful stories cuts through to what matters.”

Cervivor stories can help fight against the anti-vaccination narrative.

The power of the story in the hands of Cervivor can be used to grow cervical cancer awareness and expand HPV vaccination.

“Vaccine hesitancy is one of the global threats of public health. Legislators and policymakers increasingly seem to think vaccination is waning. That isn’t true. It’s just that the few anti-vaccine people are so loud. They have an outsized voice that is dangerous to the public’s health and well-being.” Their voice can cause people to hesitate, rather than to move forward with HPV vaccinations for their daughters and sons.

In the U.S., HPV vaccination is in fact drifting upward – around 66% of teens have had at least a dose, if not the full course, Dr. Brewer reports. “This is a big accomplishment. But our goal at the National HPV Vaccination Roundtable is to reach 80% having all the recommended doses. This vaccine will save tens of thousands of lives. It’s remarkable that people say ‘no’ to a cancer vaccine. The antivaccine movement and the stories and falsehoods they share play a role in that.”

We have to make our stories as loud and compelling as the stories of the anti-vaccine activists.

Dr. Brewer’s Advice to Cervivors: Have an Elevator Speech

“One thing I would encourage survivors to do: have the elevator speech of your story. There will be many many opportunities to tell your one minute version. It is not so often you have 20 minutes, or even five minutes. But when you introduce yourself, when you meet someone, when the opportunity arises, have your one minute story. Have a few different one minute versions of the different parts of your story. Talking about your lived experience is powerful, and you can have huge impact even in a short time frame.”

In fact, Dr. Brewer many times shares some of the one minute Cervivor Story videos on the CervivorTV Youtube channel. He and his colleagues have shown Lisa Moore’s video hundreds of times, at meetings all around the world, to focus audiences on “what really matters” when they are discussing the HPV vaccine. Lisa lost her life to cervical cancer in 2017, but her story has lived on in a hugely impactful way. All of our stories can have this impact too.

Do you have your elevator speech?

What will you share?

Tap in to Cervivor’s videos, resources and trainings to shape your story, enhance your advocacy and use your voice to end cervical cancer.

A professor of Health Behavior at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public, Dr. Noel Brewer studies health behaviors. He examines ways to increase HPV vaccine uptake, and his research led to the development of “The Announcement Approach” to train providers to communicate more effectively about HPV vaccination and other vaccines for adolescents. Dr. Brewer chairs the National HPV Vaccination Roundtable, which brings a wide cross-section of stakeholders together to raise HPV vaccination rates and prevent HPV-related cancers.