Juggling Gratitude and Luck

I was diagnosed with Stage II cerivcal adenocarcinoma just before Christmas in 2015, caused by HPV 16. Lots of people remember the date they heard those words. I don’t. I remember the fear, the disbelief, the questions, the pounding feeling in my head, and the instinct to run, far, far away. Just keep running away so this would never catch me.

October 5 will mark my five year anniversary of NED (no evidence of disease) diagnosis. I have been waiting for this day, this special marker in the cancer world, since I heard those three words, “You have cancer.” I imagined this day multiple times throughout the years. In my imagination it would be a day of huge celebrations, with a big party with my friends and family to commenorate this huge milestone. It would be a day where I would finally feel relief from the constant worry of recurrence. It would be the day my life went back to “normal” and I could magically turn back into the “pre-cancer-me .”

I was wrong.  

This day comes with many mixed emotions for me. When I was diagnosed, I thought I would go through treatment, recover, move on and never look back. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

I went through the treatments, the chemo, the external radiation, the internal radiation. Treatments that made me so sick I couldn’t work, couldn’t take care of my children, couldn’t do simple tasks like walk up the stairs or eat a small meal. Treatments that took away my fertility and put me into menopause at age 36. I went through countless side effects, including an allergic reaction to chemo, stents being placed in both ureters, a radical hysterectomy, reconstructive bladder surgery, not to mention the daily side effects I still currently deal with. These treatments almost broke me. There were many times I wanted to give up, throw in the towel and declare cancer as the winner.  It is only because of my children that I didn’t do that.

Once I had finally gotten through the treatments for cervical cancer, and hit the one year mark, I was excited. I was on the right track, moving forward. I began to get more involved with Cervivor and advocacy. I began embracing my story and sharing it with anyone who would listen. Then I got the news that I never, ever expected to hear.

I was diagnosed with pre-cancerous lesions on my vaginal wall. A new and different type of cancer, still caused by HPV.  Never, not once, did I imagine I would be dealing with a second, even more rare type of pre-cancerous lesions.  It hit me like a ton of bricks. And yet, with my new found support system through Cervivor, I felt I could handle it. I would do chemo again. I would change my diet and eat zero carbs and zero sugar to help curb the growth of these lesions. I was a woman on a mission and no one could stop me.

Two months later, after treatments, the lesions were gone but the relief still didn’t come. I went to each six month appointment expecting the worst. I became a basket case every six months, for the week leading up to my appointments and for the following week waiting for the results. I was basically incapacitated.  

I was lucky. For the next four years I had clear exams. At my four year appointment, my oncologist told me she didn’t need to see me in six months and that I could wait a full year until my next exam. I felt like this was a huge milestone.  She wasn’t worried, so I could let my guard, just a little bit.

I was wrong, again.

My five year exam revealed that once again I have lesions on my vaginal wall. This time it has wrecked me. The chemo has been very difficult, painful and exhausting. I feel like I have the flu all the time. My anxiety is through the roof, and my physical and emotional stability are precarious, at best. 

And I am still coming up on five years free from cervical cancer. I have so much to be grateful for and to celebrate.  I have not had a recurrence of cervical cancer, which means I most likely won’t. I have two beautiful children and a supportive, adoring husband. My family is amazing and continues to lift me up when I fall. My mom, in particular, is there whenever I need her, day or night, near or far, she is always there for me.  

I am grateful for the way that cancer changed me. It gave me a new purpose in my life, I have been able to lobby with ACSCAN in both California and Washington D.C. I have met the bravest, kindest, most caring women in the world, through Cervivor. Women I never would have met, had it not been for the “exclusive club,” that we were all forced to join. I have learned that I am stronger than I ever thought possible and that my voice and my story matter.  These are all things to celebrate.  

And yet here I sit. Tears streaming down my face.  

I am crying for what I have had to go through. For what my family, my husband and my children have had to go through. And for what we all continue to go through with this round of lesions and chemo. I am crying for the fear that I still have, and will always have, about my future. I am crying for the women I know who weren’t as lucky as I am, and didn’t get to see their five year mark. Because that’s what it boils down to. Luck. Women with the same diagnosis and treatment, and some of us survive and others do not. No one isn’t fighting as hard as they can. None of us leave anything on the table when it comes to this fight against cancer and HPV. Some of us are just lucky, and luck is a very hard thing to celebrate.  

Ana & Jeff

My five year cervical cancer NED anniversary is a conundrum of mixed emotions. I am both optimistic and fearful about my future. I am sad and in a constant state of sorrow for what I have had to endure, and for what others have had to endure, and for the luck of the draw. And yet, I am grateful. So, so, grateful. The amazing thing about being human is that we can hold all of these things at one time. 

So, here’s to five years. In honor of my journey I ask that today you live your best life. Do something that brings you joy, hug those you are close to, and reach out to those who are far away. I ask that you please make your appointments for your Pap and HPV tests, and most of all that you vaccinate your sons and daughters against HPV.

Ana is mother of two, wife, educator and Cervivor Ambassador. She was diagnosed with cervical adenocarcinoma at age 35 and has been diagnosed twice with vaginal lesions, caused by HPV. Ana is currently finishing chemotherapy treatment for these lesions. Her goal is that no woman feels alone when they receive a cervical cancer diagnosis and that her generation be the last to to deal with HPV related cancers.

A Letter To Myself

My Dear You,

Checking in see how you’re doing, Laurie but I will begin with me, lol. First, congratulations on eight years as a cervical cancer survivor! 

I have been peeking back at 2020 as some of the fog is beginning to clear. I learned so much about myself and how strong I am physical and mentally. A knee replacement started my Journey of WTF.

I had no previous knee issues until now and there was no question that I needed a new right knee. I did my research and found the best team but no one talked about the dark side, and how the pain would take me there. It sucked! It was a lot of body and mind work but I had no choice and I kept moving forward, learning how to walk again. I was so happy I could lift my knee that I started marching! My physical therapist and I laughed so hard, I can still hear her words “heel toe, heel toe”.  Physical therapy was equal parts laughing and crying.  

Then there was more crying when I was told I needed a left hip replacement. Really? WTF!

I was working so hard preparing for my knee surgery, clearing my mind and focusing on this new challenge of a hip replacement when BANG!

Literally bang. An 18-wheeler semi-truck hit me and my life forever changed. I repeated these words: I am alive. OMG I am alive and I lived through it! 

I had to start all over with my knee physical therapy, then had the hip replacement but I smiled and lived! Then the damn concussion from the accident made me so dizzy and the ringing in my ears was unbearable. I stared brain therapy. There was so much laughing and fun but the physical therapy didn’t help so I went for an MRI. 

I have a hard time with this part of 2020. The doctor tells me they found a brain tumor… WTF?? The doctor told me it’s not a big deal as it’s outside the brain and it will be a two-hour surgery. I had to do another MRI with contrast in a brain MRI machine. I was doing good and no one seemed worried. Eric went with me to the pre-op appointment and I had all my questions ready. I thought I was fully prepared but I will never forget the words I heard, “Laurie I’m so sorry to tell you the tumors are larger and growing remarkably close to your main artery. You will need two surgeries.”  I cried but you know I still asked my questions! It’s funny what I held onto from that moment; I just remember thinking how cool that a 3-D printer was going to make my new skull plate! I had six weeks to prepare my mind and body. 

Cervivor’s Cervical Cancer Summit was my life jacket in taking my power back! You never know who will touch you with a word and I received so many words that weekend!

Laurie and her brain surgery team

Medical power of attorney, medical directive, living will; I had that conversation with Eric and it was healing. I printed everything and it sat on the table. I read and re-read it again and then I laughed and I filled it out. It was so freeing. Then I went and did something crazy: I harnessed the power of Wonder Woman and got myself a Wonder Woman costume to wear into the hospital on my surgery day!

I knew no matter what happened I was going to be okay. I have never told anyone this but I kept saying “no matter what I will be okay” as I was being rolled into the operating room.  

The first surgery took a lot out of me. It took me a couple of days to regroup before the second surgery and I had to really dig deep, deeper than I have ever done before.

This drawing helped me so much it. This showed me that I could do this.

Can you believe I had four surgeries within an eight month period? I am so grateful, blessed and I am not done yet! Thank you for teaching me how to keep laughing and living!

This also helped me with my digging out and moving forward and it’s pretty cool: Fear is a noun and a verb. Noun: an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain or a threat. Verb: be afraid of someone or something as likely to be dangerous, painful or threatening.

Fear is a feeling or emotion, yeah a mind bender moment for me.

I take small steps one at a time and I keep moving forward. I have a huge team of people around me. Some I have never met but they care and worked so hard to help get me here. I say thank you daily by living my best life!

Laurie, I am so proud of you and I love you so much! I can’t wait to see what you do next!

Love & Hugs, Me

P.S. Looking forward to your next letter.

Laurie is a 2017 Cervivor School graduate, a member of the Cervivor community, and Executive Director of Cervical Cancer Colorado Connection. Her resilience is truly insurmountable! We are sending her tons of Cervivor love and support.