In the fall of 2015, I was feeling great. At age 37, I had just completed running my fourth half-marathon and regularly hiked trails near my home in Arlington, Texas, to stay fit in-between races. The only symptom that foretold what was in my future was some light watery discharge I was experiencing a few weeks before I was scheduled for a routine Pap test and a co-test for human papillomavirus (HPV). When the Pap and HPV test results came back abnormal for cervical cells and positive for HPV, my gynecologist was sure there was a mistake and redid the tests. When they showed the same result, he performed a colposcopy and a cervical cone biopsy. The pathology report showed I did, in fact, have cervical cancer, and I was referred to an oncologist for additional tests and treatment.
Imaging scans showed the cancer had already spread throughout my vaginal canal and penetrated my perimetrium tissue, and the cancer was staged at 2B. My initial reaction to the diagnosis was fear, followed by embarrassment and shame. I hadn’t had a Pap test in 3 years and blamed myself for not being more diligent about adhering to a yearly schedule for gynecologic exams. And I was ashamed and felt stigmatized because my cancer was HPV-related. So, for a few weeks, I kept the diagnosis to myself but quickly realized I couldn’t go through cancer alone; I needed the support of my family and friends. What I didn’t expect was how much support I would receive from my oncologist. She comforted me by explaining that HPV is common and that although we couldn’t change the past, we could change the future, and I’m grateful to this day for her kindness and compassion.
My oncologist recommended a course of cisplatin and daily external radiation treatments for 27 days, followed by 5 brachytherapy treatments. The treatments were difficult, but I got through them by staying focused on the end game: a cure. Unfortunately, an imaging scan at the completion of my therapy showed they had failed to eradicate the cancer, and now I was faced with a difficult decision. My oncologist explained we could try more aggressive chemotherapy, but my best option for a cure was a radical hysterectomy, even though the surgery and my recovery would be difficult because of all the radiation I had had to my pelvis. The surgery would also eliminate any hope I had of having children, and I’m still processing the ramification of that decision.
When I asked my oncologist what would happen if I didn’t do any more treatment, she said I would probably live another 3 years, which meant I would be dead by 40. Being confronted with a certain death sentence a few short years away gave me new determination to stay alive.
Facing Cancer’s Indignities
Although the surgery brought me the cure I had been hoping for, I wasn’t prepared for the numerous side effects that followed. For months after the hysterectomy, I had a series of urinary tract infections, an abscess had formed in my vaginal cuff that sent me to the hospital for many days, and, worst of all, a fistula was brewing between my bladder and vagina; the fistula took 4 months to completely form, delaying surgery to fix the problem. This was the lowest point in my cancer journey.
Even though I had accepted my diagnosis of cervical cancer and its aftermath, nothing could have prepared me for the indignity of becoming incontinent at such a young age and being forced to wear adult diapers. The fear of having an accident in public kept me behind closed doors, and I was terrified—and angry—at the prospect of losing my bladder altogether and having to wear a urostomy bag.
We didn’t have the HPV vaccine when I was an adolescent, but I’m making it my life’s goal to educate people about the benefits of the vaccine and to dispel the myths surrounding it.— Holly Lawson
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Here again, my oncologist helped me maintain my perspective. “You have every right to be angry and upset,” she said. “But you get to live, and while we don’t know exactly what that life will look like right now, you’re alive.” It took several weeks, but I realized she was right. I didn’t choose to have cancer, but I did have a choice in how I moved forward in my life and wanted my cancer experience to have meaning.
Fortunately, the bladder surgery was a success, and I once again have a working bladder. However, the combination of the cisplatin and the surgery to repair the fistula most likely damaged my kidneys, and a year ago I was diagnosed with stage 3 kidney disease. Although I have some loss of kidney function, I’m adjusting to the problem by reducing my sodium consumption and maintaining an active lifestyle.
‘A Greater Life Purpose’
Cancer has taken a lot from me, including my fertility and teaching career, and it threatened my life, and nothing will ever be the same. Some people call living with cancer the “new normal,” but there is nothing normal about having cancer—the experiences of living with cancer are just all new. And while I wouldn’t say having cancer has been a gift, it has changed my perspective on life and given me a new appreciation for the ordinariness of every day.
Most of all, cancer has given my life new direction. My cancer was preventable. We didn’t have the HPV vaccine when I was an adolescent, but I’m making it my life’s goal to educate people about the benefits of the vaccine and to dispel the myths surrounding it, so more young girls and boys are vaccinated and never have to worry getting HPV-related cancers.
I will turn 40 in the fall, and if everyone who is eligible for the vaccine received it, cervical cancer could be eliminated in my lifetime.
I can’t think of a greater life purpose. ■
Ms. Lawson lives in Arlington, Texas, and works for Cervivor (cervivor.org), a nonprofit cervical cancer awareness and support organization.
Editor’s Note: Columns in the Patient’s Corner are based solely on information The ASCO Post received from the survivors interviewed and should be considered anecdotal.