48 Birthdays, 21 Post Cancer

Every year, as my birthday approaches, I go into reflection mode and start thinking about life. Life as it was. Life as it is. Life that almost wasn’t.

My life was forever altered by a diagnosis of cervical cancer at the age of 27. The days following the diagnosis were rough. Within a month of my diagnosis I landed in the hospital with shortness of breath and blood counts so low I needed my first blood transfusion. I spent exactly 30 days in the hospital, not sure if I was coming out alive. If you were around me at that time, you know how terrifying this period was, you know that my coming out of that hospital alive was nothing but a miracle (those were my pneumologist’s actual words). So here I am, celebrating #48 (or the 21st birthday I get to celebrate post diagnosis). 

Survival… Life after cancer… This is something that doesn’t happen to many of the women diagnosed with cervical cancer. Within the last year my Cervivor community lost 4 beautiful women in the prime of their lives as a consequence of cervical cancer. In the USA, where approximately 13,000 women are diagnosed with cancer in the last year, 4,200 women will die due to this cancer. Some people may look at these numbers and think they are small (I’ve been told that before); well let me tell you this: These numbers matter. These numbers matter to the women diagnosed with cancer, hoping they are on the right side of this statistics. These numbers matter to the families of the women who die each year, to the young children that will grow up without their mom… These numbers matter to those of us who survive this disease, because we know how close we cut it, how nerve wracking every follow up is, because the cancer may be gone, but the damage it did to our bodies is permanent (think of infertility, ostomies, lymphedema, neuropathy, bladder problems, just to mention a few). Most importantly, these numbers matter because we can change them. We can change the statistics because we have the means to prevent cervical cancer: The HPV vaccination is the #1 way to prevent cervical cancer. Plain and simple. A vaccine can prevent cervical cancer. I don’t think it can be any easier than that. 

We can literally protect our next generations from cancer-causing HPV strains by simply vaccinating our children (as early as 9yrs. old). It is an important vaccine because it would protect them from the high risk strains that are linked to cervical cancer (and cancer of the vulva, vagina, anus, penis, oropharyngeal (back of the throat). Cervical cancer will be like polio; gone, a thing of the past. I would love to see cervical cancer disappear and I believe that is possible with this vaccine. 

So each year, around this time, that sense of duty to those who did not make it demands that I tell you to vaccinate your children. That 27 yr. old Maria, terrified at hearing the news that would change her life forever demands that I tell you to vaccinate your children. It is imperative that you do because this is the one cancer we can basically eradicate. Every now and then I see these prayer chains pop up in social media asking you to share a prayer to find a cure for cancer; well, we now have a vaccination that can prevent a cancer and that is an answered prayer.

Celebrate my 48th birthday with me by scheduling your well-woman exam and vaccinating your children against HPV. Maria Franklin is a 20-year cervical cancer survivor who is also a part of Cervivor Leadership, and heads our Latina advocacy efforts. She was awarded our 2019 Cervivor Champion Award. Watch her story here.

Year Twenty

March 17th, 2019… St. Patrick’s Day for most, a totally different day for me. This year, more significant than ever before, because on this day I hit a significant milestone. Today marks 20 years since the day I heard the words that changed my life forever: “You have cancer.”

I know I write about it every year, but writing this, today, on year #20, is surreal. 20 years is a lot of time for any cancer survivor.

I was 27 years old when my world came crashing down. I had been struggling with some vague symptoms and suddenly the profuse bleeding began. Imagine yourself in my shoes. Imagine yourself rushing to the ER for the second time in a week because you are bleeding so much that blood is literally seeping through your pants. Imagine being seen by a doctor that within minutes of checking you decides to transfer you to another hospital because he realizes that what you have is serious and much more than he and that particular ER can handle. Imagine yourself being rushed to another hospital in an ambulance, knowing you are on the way to THE HOSPITAL, the one where all serious cases are routed. You now know for sure that something is terribly wrong. The attending sees you and knows exactly what he is looking at, he performs a biopsy, packs you to stop the bleeding (all the while you are screaming in pain) and admitted to the hospital. Imagine yourself, a generally healthy person, in a hospital bed after losing so much blood that you now need a blood transfusion. You are scared to death. You see the look in your family and friends’ eyes and know they are terrified for you. You are just 27 years old and have your whole life ahead of you but based on what’s going on, you don’t know how much life that will be. Imagine yourself returning home after a couple of days, albeit not able to work yet, you are too weak for that. Imagine yourself a week later, showing up to the outpatient clinic early in the morning for your follow up visit. Almost everyone around you is seen and you are still there, waiting. You hear someone say “they leave the bad news for last.” Suddenly you realize that you are the last patient.

You enter the exam room and are met by the attending and a couple students. The attending holds your hand and tells you: “I am so sorry, you have cancer.” You ask for a minute, you don’t want to hear this news while you are in stirrups. You sit up and hear the words again, you are fighting tears. He asks you if you have children and you answer “no.” He follows up with “I’m sorry, you will not be able to have children of your own.” You can’t hold your tears anymore, this is pretty much the end of your life. You are overwhelmed and scared and ask the only question that seems to make sense: “how much time do I have,” the doctor doesn’t know… you don’t know if that is good or bad. Amidst all this you are given tons of information, referrals and instructions; nothing makes sense, all you can think of is cancer. This is definitely the worst day ever.

Imagine telling your mother that you have cancer; you watch her breakdown in front of you and you are unable to comfort her because you are just as terrified. Imagine calling your close relatives and your best friend to tell them the news; you hear them cry even though they are doing their best to keep it together for you… they too think this cancer will kill you but they want to be supportive for your sake.

Imagine living the next year of your life attending 3-4 appts. per week, not being able to work. Imagine experiencing a pulmonary embolism that lands you in the hospital for a whole month and nearly kills you, cancer is suddenly not the only thing you have to fight, there is so much more that comes with it. Imagine throwing up for a week straight after your monthly chemo treatment, or being isolated in a room for 3 days while receiving internal radiation, or being unable to leave the house because side effects from the external radiotherapy has you going to the bathroom too many times to count. Imagine not being able to eat your favorite foods because chemo has changed your taste buds. Imagine your “social life” is now one medical appt. after the other. Imagine living a whole year of your life feeling weak, being hospitalized again due to side effects of your treatment, suffering through painful and debilitating treatments with no guarantees that they will work. Imagine going to your oncologist appts. and noticing that the people that are usually there the same days you are, are looking worse and worse each time you see them until all of the sudden one by one you don’t see them anymore. You know exactly what happened and wonder if you are next.

Imagine waiting for results once the treatment is completed… you are not told you are “cured”, you are told that you are good for now but will have to continue coming in for regular testing. You now see a gynecologist-oncologist and a hematologist-oncologist, a radiation specialist, an internal medicine specialist, a pulmonologist, and a gastroenterologist every single month for the foreseeable future. This is your life now and you don’t know if you will survive the next year, or the next, or the next. Nothing is guaranteed.

So here we are on March 17th, 2019: 20 years later. For cancer patients, the 5-year survival milestone is significant; we know a lot of people don’t make it…that 5 year mark is cause for celebration and some relief. I’ve been blessed to see the 5 year mark, the 10-year mark and now this incredibly important milestone: 20 years. By the grace of God, I survived a cancer that kills more than 4,000 women in the US every single year. This is huge!

As I learned more about the causes of cervical cancer, I became an avid advocate; talking about it is important, it may save someone’s life. Connecting with Cervivor solidified my commitment to advocate and educate others and it also connected me with hundreds of other women facing the same, often misunderstood, cancer. The vast majority of cervical cancer cases are caused by a persistent human papillomavirus infection (HPV). HPV is transmitted through skin to skin sexual contact (no penetration needed) and it is so common that 8 out of 10 people are infected even though they may not be any symptoms. Cervical cancer can be prevented or detected early through regular Pap and HPV tests; but most importantly, HPV infections can be prevented with a simple vaccine. The HPV vaccine, when administered prior to exposure (recommended for ages 11-12), can prevent infections with the high risk strands of HPV which are linked to cervical cancer and other cancers as well (vaginal, vulvar, anal, penile, oropharyngeal). Yes, the HPV vaccine can help the next generation prevent HPV infections and related cancers. It can’t be any easier: vaccinate and protect against cancer.

Maria sharing her story in Colombia, spring 2018.

After 20 years I have learned to live with the long-lasting side effects of my treatments, my body is not perfect but is in better condition than expected; I am back to annual checkups and that’s a great place to be. I’ve had the opportunity to start over. I am as healthy as I can be, married to an incredible man, a stepmom to 2 pretty awesome kids, have the sweetest dog and have experienced so much love and joy in my life… 20 years sure calls for a celebration. I am blessed.

In writing this, I hope my story motivates you to schedule your Pap & HPV tests and to vaccinate your children to protect them against HPV and if you are a cervical cancer patient, I hope my story gives you hope for life after cancer. This is how we celebrate year #20.

Watch Maria share her story on CervivorTV here.