I am one of the lucky ones. My regular pap smear triggered a follow up call to tell me that abnormal cells were found and I would need a repeat, just to rule out any issues. I went in nervous, but pretty confident that it would be nothing. It wasn’t nothing. Cervical Cancer Awareness Month.
A second pap was abnormal. Pre-cancerous cells had been found on my cervix. If those cells hadn’t been detected, or if I wasn’t good about getting my annual exam, then pre-cancerous would have silently grown until it had crossed the threshold to cancerous. Still growing silently, cancerous could have spread, until the treatment would be invasive and the prognosis more grim.
As it was, my pre-cancerous cells required what is called a cold-knife cone biopsy. Put under sedation, a biopsy of my cervix was performed to help identify what I was dealing with. Unfortunately, I did not come out of it with “clear margins,” which is an indicator that all abnormal cells were removed in the procedure. A second cold-knife cone was scheduled and, once again, I was sedated for the biopsy. This time my margins were clear.
Facing a prognosis like cervical cancer is terrifying. I’m sure it would be at any point in life, but – for me anyway – being a mother made it even more so. The night before my first procedure, I sat in my closet and videotaped a message to my 4-year-old daughter, in case something went wrong and I was no longer a mother she could hug in real time. I kept it together in my video, but when I turned the camera off, the tears and fear flowed freely.
My pre-cancerous cells were caused by HPV. HPV is so common that almost every person – man and woman – who is sexually-active will get HPV at some time in their life if they don’t get the HPV vaccine. In fact, the CDC states that 79 million Americans are currently affected with HPV. Many don’t know it because, in most cases, HPV goes away on its own and doesn’t cause any health problems. But, when it doesn’t go away, it can cause cervical and other types of cancer. Cancers that grow silently until it can be too late.
In my case, enough of my cervix had been taken away that when I became pregnant with twins, I opted for a transabdominal cerclage – a cerclage that is placed above the pubic bone – so that I stood a shot of keeping my babies in. Pre-cancerous cells gifted me with another surgery.
After they were born healthy, and I had recovered from my cerclage-required C-section – surgery count 4 due to pre-cancerous cells – I was scheduled for a hysterectomy. Considered the “gold standard of care” when dealing with pre-cancerous cells, removing my uterus – but keeping my ovaries – would drastically drop my chances of further cancer. Surgery count 5.
My body and my heart are recovered – mostly. There are still times that I grieve the loss of my uterus, despite the fact that my husband would leave the country if I told him I were pregnant again! I am one of the lucky ones, and I remind myself of that when I feel sad.
January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. Cervical cancer was once the leading cause of cancer death for women in the United States. Now, thanks to screenings and HPV vaccination, it is the most preventable of all female cancers.
My friends, especially now when it is more complicated to go to the doctor, please take care of your annual exam. Cervical cancer is silent. It takes Mamas from their babies and women from those who love them. Don’t be one of those statistics. We women owe it to ourselves, and to those who need us, to make sure that cervical cancer isn’t the final chapter of our stories.