Advocating For Myself: The Importance of Follow Up Care

When I was asked to write a blog for Cervical Cancer Awareness Month I happily accepted, but soon after the irony hit me. Awareness is something I did not have when it came to cervical cancer. Awareness is the single thing that got me into this situation in the hopes that no other woman is punished for their ignorance as I have been.

Jessica with her family

About 15 years ago when I was 21 years old, working two jobs and going to college full time, I had a pap test. I didn’t have it because I was being responsible for my health or anything like that, I had it because the only way to get birth control was to do an annual pap and I wasn’t ready to be a parent. I could barely care for myself. It came back irregular, and I was told they’d need to do a minor procedure called a colposcopy to make sure everything was okay.  The “minor” procedure was where an OBGYN goes in to clip a piece of your cervix off to biopsy. It definitely didn’t feel minor, and the memory burned into my brain forever as a “never want to experience that again” item along with wrecking my car and eating mayonnaise. 

Fast forward to three years ago and I had just moved to Spokane. I had decided to get a new birth control, so I went and found a new OBGYN (would there even be women’s health if we weren’t always concerned about being pregnant?). Five minutes into the appointment and I didn’t love the guy, which is saying a lot because it doesn’t take very much for me to love you. He was cold, direct, and impersonal. I get it, as a doctor you have to have a little bit of that in the field, but this individual was just not my cup of coffee (NOTE: I substituted coffee for tea here because I think all tea is dirt water). He told me I needed to have that horrible procedure again as a “precaution” because I had a strange-looking spot or two. Really, I wasn’t informed of how serious that could be, or what the spot meant, or anything. Now, I’m not saying it was his fault that I didn’t return after that day to get another colposcopy, but I do believe if things were explained a little more clearly, I would’ve returned to get my procedure. 

Doing another time jump, I had now avoided having another pap for two years, but hey, surprise, my fertility brought me back into the stirrups (the hospital kind, not the horse kind). My lab results had come back positive for HPV 16. There’s a lot of stigma with HPV and being someone who’s never had any sort of STI, I was horrified. But the truth is about 90% of people have HPV and have no symptoms for their entire lives. The problem with my HPV is the number behind it. That number is known to cause cancer. Finally, my amazing new doctor sat me down and let me know what that meant, and how important getting a colposcopy was. Unfortunately, because I was pregnant with my little miracle, they couldn’t take the actual sample of my cervix, but still wanted to schedule a couple “look and sees”. 

When my OBGYN took over the process, she did my first biopsy-less colpo. She even showed me what she saw and pointed to a couple white spots in my cervix that she thought looked suspicious but “definitely weren’t cancer”. Over the next nine months I did those two more times, both of which I had to remind my OBGYN about. Finally, when I was six weeks postpartum of delivering the world’s most majestic little angel baby, I again reminded my OBGYN about getting my colposcopy. It was horrible and I threw up when I got it done. 

Jessica & Kenny

When I got home that night, lying in bed with my husband and talking about our day, I suddenly got quiet. He asked me what was wrong, and I replied that I knew I had cancer. I was sure of it. Of course, he didn’t believe me. I don’t even think that possibility was in his mind, even when I said it out loud. But something innate confirmed it, as if despite having zero symptoms my body knew there was something inside of me that wasn’t right. Sure enough, one cone and PET scan later it was confirmed, Stage 3 cervical cancer. 

In retrospect, I know it’s cliche but “everything really does happen for a reason.” It’s weird to say, but I am glad they didn’t catch my cancer earlier. I am glad because usually, the treatment for stage 1 cervical cancer would be a radical hysterectomy. If my cancer had been caught earlier, I would’ve never had my son. I would endure 1000 cancers for him to be born. That being said, if I would’ve had my procedure done three years before, I would likely have caught all of this before there was cancer. So, really this just boils down to taking responsibility of your own health. No one will do it for you. And just because you “feel” healthy, doesn’t mean there isn’t something lurking inside. If you take away anything from this, take the initiative to get an annual pap, and further, if something is irregular, take the follow-up. Be aware of this extremely horrible but preventable disease.

Jessica lives in Spokane, Washington with her husband, 5-month-old son Kenny and 6-year-old step daughter Kyla as well as their two dogs, Cane Corso Bruce and Boston Terrier Elvis. She works as a large enterprise senior account executive for Gartner. In her spare time, she enjoys snowboarding, wakeboarding, golfing, showing her dogs in conformation, riding her horse and spending time with her wonderful family.

The Power of Community and an Exceptional Gift

⚠️ This content may be triggering for some. Includes infertility and pregnancy. ⚠️

Dearest Cervivor Community,

Happy Survivorship Month! No matter where you land, it’s a reason to celebrate. Even if you’re just celebrating today. We all get so caught up in milestones. It’s hard not to. Comparisons are everywhere and we all just want so much more time. But what I’ve learned over the years is that each new day is really the greatest gift. One day at a time.

Beyond National Cancer Survivor Month, I’ve got a bunch of reasons to celebrate. June is also my birthday month (yay for birthdays!), and today marks the anniversary of my radical hysterectomy at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Maryland.

Twenty-one years! I remember when the hospital called to confirm my surgery. I was 25 years old, shocked and terrified that I wouldn’t get to see my 26th birthday. I pleaded with the scheduling coordinator to schedule surgery after my birthday. I thought, if this was it, I was at least going to celebrate one last time. But I didn’t get my way. My radical hysterectomy to rid my body of the cervical cancer tumor that was taking over was scheduled for June 14, 2001, at 7 am. I walked myself into the operating room, got up on the table, and woke up hours later – forever changed, both physically and mentally.

I didn’t know then how my own diagnosis with cervical cancer would play a role in my own life, as well as the lives of others. I couldn’t even imagine my current role as a patient advocate, and leader in the cervical cancer patient advocacy space. It certainly wasn’t a goal of mine, but I just created what I wished I’d had. This “work” has been life-changing, fulfilling, difficult, triggering, and yet one of the greatest joys of my life. I’m proud of what we’ve built together as a community. My dedication to our cause is greater than ever before.

The last few years have been challenging to say the least. We’ve weathered so much together, and now we can include an ongoing pandemic to that list. During the pandemic we kept the community going with virtual events. In fact, it was during one of those virtual events that I met someone so very special from our community, Ginny Marable.

Ginny joined us for several events and was even a speaker at our September 2020 Cervical Cancer Summit. While I was learning more about Ginny, unbeknownst to me, she was also learning more about me. She saw my true desire to be a mom, and the heartbreak that it would probably never happen due to my hysterectomy.

Fast forward: Ginny and her husband Sean began their path to parenthood via a gestational carrier. She shared their beautiful journey with us as a community, as well as on social media. When her twin boys were born, I was so elated for them, but if I’m honest, I also felt that familiar ping that I would never experience that moment. But I was just so happy for her, that feeling of sadness was fleeting.

Another short fast forward: Ginny reached out to me for a phone conversation. Never in my wildest dreams could I have known how that call would have changed my life. I mean, I haven’t even met Ginny in person – only through our virtual space. So, I’d like to make June even more memorable by sharing with my Cervivor community at large that Ginny is giving me an exceptional gift that I never imagined could be bestowed on me – motherhood.

Ginny has simply taken the power and love of this community to an entirely different level. We shared our unique story with Insider and you can read about it here.

My hope is that you will feel all the love, and our “Cervivor Spark”. But simply, thank you, Ginny!

With Love and Gratitude,

Tamika Felder
Chief Visionary, Cervivor, Inc. 
21-year Cervivor