In her own words: living with cervical cancer
As told to Nancy Hall
Wendy was only 38 when she was diagnosed with cervical abnormalities that turned out to be cancer. A mom who divides her time between caring for her 12-year-old daughter and working at the family-owned body shop, she sought aggressive treatment and is well on her way back to living a full and active life less than a month after her surgery.
What was your first sign that something was wrong? What symptoms did you experience?
I actually didn't have any symptoms at all. I just went for my routine Pap tests and pelvic exams. At the previous year’s exam I had complained that I was having some spotting about 5 days before my period, but the doctor didn't seem concerned.
What was the diagnosis experience like?
The diagnosis period was very long. I had long since assumed that my Pap test was negative, since I hadn't heard anything about it, but about 6 weeks after my exam I received a call from my ob-gyn at 9 p.m. on a Sunday night. She said I had cervical dysplasia—not cancer—and that I would need a colposcopy. The colposcopy hurt a little, but not badly. It looked as if the dysplasia was caused by HPV, the same type of virus that causes genital warts. My doctor sent the samples to be biopsied, and arranged to call me on December 27th—I did not have a happy Christmas!
When the call came (two days late), she said it was just dysplasia, but that it went deeper than she'd first suspected. I had a LEEP procedure to cut away the affected tissue in the surgeon’s office. But, after an hour and a half of being poked and prodded, he told me he wanted to finish the procedure in the hospital so he could use some anesthesia. He also wanted to perform a cone biopsy at the same time. When I returned for the results, he told me the dysplasia was much more severe and went deeper than had been suspected before. When he was finally done, I asked flat out if I had cancer, and he said yes.
What was your initial and then longer-term reaction to the diagnosis?
Shock, really. I drove to the auto body shop where my husband works and started bawling. I kept thinking, “I have cancer. I have cancer.” Then I called my mother, who is a nursing director in a women’s health field. She immediately had the call forwarded to the office of one of her colleagues, a doctor we both respect. After I told them all the details he recommended that I arrange to have a hysterectomy right away. They both offered me lots of reassurance that I would be fine after the procedure, so I felt a lot better then.
How was your cervical cancer treated?
I had a vaginal hysterectomy, in which they removed my cervix and uterus, but were able to leave my ovaries. It was certainly no fun, but it removed all remnants of the cancer, and I need no further treatment, though I will still need to have regular Pap tests.
Did you have to make any lifestyle or dietary changes in response to cervical cancer?
No, not at all, except for normal post-surgical limitations, like not driving or lifting anything heavy for a while. I had a pretty healthy lifestyle prior to all this.
Did you seek any type of emotional support?
I got most of my emotional support online. One woman in particular was diagnosed the same week I was, so we have been corresponding by e-mail. The online group calmed my fears, and with them I was able to talk about my concern that my husband might have been unfaithful and picked up the HPV that way. They reassured me that it could have happened years and years ago, that either of us could have picked it up before we were married.
Does cervical cancer have an impact on your family?
My friends and family actually needed my support, and I feel drained sometimes from reassuring them. It was scary having my brother and sister-in-law in tears about my diagnosis. My 12-year-old daughter knows the illness is gone—we did not tell her it was cancer. She worried about the surgery, and she's taken on a number of my chores to help out. She's become a master at doing the laundry, since I'm not supposed to lift anything yet!
What advice would you give to anyone living with cervical cancer?
A lot depends on how far your cancer has progressed, but I would advise other women to think positively and to treat the cancer as aggressively as possible. Get those annual Pap tests without fail! I'd also like to see more people educated about HPV, which I had never heard of before I got sick.
Interviews were conducted in the past and may not reflect current standards and practices in medicine. Talk to your doctor to learn more about how this condition is diagnosed and managed today and what treatment approaches are right for you.
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