"I was confronted with my mortality.
Suddenly I was thinking of possibly disappearing from the world. It was a rollercoaster. And I didn’t know how much time I had left."
When patient CC was diagnosed with stage III cervical cancer, saying she felt unravelled was understating it. She shared her intimate story with WE, in the hope of building awareness and encouraging women to prioritise their health.
On diagnosis, she felt overloaded, disorganised, and lost. She was getting advice and information from different sources. She had visited local doctors and consulted with hospitals abroad. Friends and family sent her everything from scientific research data to personal stories of people they knew who had cancer.
It started with lower back pain
Patient CC has always stayed fit and active. She enjoys walking, biking, and water sports including kayaking, paddle boating, and her favourite, dragon boat racing. But in January 2019, just after her 40th birthday, she began having back pain. She figured she had hurt herself during kayaking or dragon boat training. But the pain was bad and did not go away, so she eventually visited her doctor, after deliberation and some delays. In fact, she went from doctor to doctor, who ordered tests and prescribed medications, but nothing helped. Weeks later, after she first sought treatment for the back pain, she visited her gynaecologist. A Pap Smear was recommended in conjunction with a blood HPV test. Results showed she had HPV and abnormal cells on her cervix.
Infection with HPV is quite common. In most people, the body can clear the infection on its own. But sometimes certain strains of the infection are not cleared, and in some cases they can cause cancer over time. There is the HPV vaccine to protect against HPV that is approved for children as young as 9, but it was not available when patient CC was at the age when the vaccine works best.
The abnormal cells from the cervix meant a biopsy was necessary and a procedure was performed to remove these abnormal cervical cells which was sent off to histology. One month later, February 2019, just after the onset of the back pain, patient CC got her test results back and learned she had cervical cancer.
Infertility and acceptance
At the time patient CC was diagnosed, life before was relatively predictable. “Everything in my life was working out,” she said. “I was recently married, had a good job, loving family and friends, and decided to finally try to start a family with my husband.”
Unfortunately, treatment for cervical cancer can affect a woman’s ability to have children. She discussed options with her doctors and with a fertility specialist for ways to protect her reproductive organs during treatment or to remove and freeze her eggs before she started treatment. But the stage and type of her cancer and the location of her tumor made all those options even more complicated.
Patient CC, her husband, and the health care team decided it was not worth the risk. She has had to accept that she will never be able to become pregnant.
“It’s one of the biggest battles I have challenged with,” she said. “That’s the one thing that has affected me a lot. I am doing everything I can to reverse the negative thinking and not put so much energy into being disappointed. As my doctor told me, ‘There are many options for children after, adopting, fostering, but first you have to be alive.’”
Months later, patient CC has now finished treatment, tests showed her tumor had shrunk so much it disappeared from the scans. “I felt like I was reborn,” she said. “I felt like Wonder Woman.” She will continue to have scans every 3 months for at least the next 2 years to ensure the cancer does not resurface. If everything continues to be ok, the number of follow-up check-ups after that will go down to once a year.
Four years later, in 2023, she feels her confidence returning, almost back to her new normal and learning how to feel “whole” again. She has worked hard to regain her strength, starting with 10-minute workouts, and gradually increasing the amount. She practices mindfulness, ensures she maintains a healthy lifestyle and has now taken the reigns of helping other women through the process of being diagnosed, all the way to treatment, as a Cancer Patient Navigator with Caribbean Cancer Research Initiative (CCRI). Her new mission is ensuring no other woman endures the challenges she did, and she voices her story every opportunity she can.
Her advice to newly diagnosed patients, “Fear kills you twice before the cancer can. Conquer the fears by doing your research and trusting your healthcare team. I now feel at peace because I have a plan.”
What Can I Do to Reduce My Risk of Cervical Cancer?
The most important things you can do to help prevent cervical cancer are to get vaccinated against HPV, have regular screening tests, and go back to the doctor if your screening test results are not normal.
Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Vaccine
The HPV vaccine protects against the types of HPV that most often cause cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers. HPV vaccination prevents new HPV infections, but does not treat existing infections or diseases. This is why the HPV vaccine works best when given before any exposure to HPV. You should get screened for cervical cancer regularly, even if you received an HPV vaccine.
• HPV vaccination is recommended for preteens aged 11 to 12 years, but can be given starting at age 9.
• HPV vaccine also is recommended for everyone through age 26 years, if they are not vaccinated already.
• HPV vaccination is not recommended for everyone older than age 26 years. However, some adults age 27 through 45 years who are not already vaccinated may decide to get the HPV vaccine after speaking with their doctor about their risk for new HPV infections and the possible benefits of vaccination. HPV vaccination in this age range provides less benefit, as more people have already been exposed to HPV.
• If vaccination is started before age 15, a two-dose schedule is recommended, with the doses given 6 to 12 months apart. For people who start the series after their 15th birthday, the vaccine is given in a series of three shots.
Two screening tests can help find changes that could become precancer or cervical cancer.
Both tests can be done in a doctor’s office or clinic.
• The Pap test (or Pap smear) looks for precancers, cell changes on the cervix that might become cervical cancer if they are not treated appropriately.
• The HPV test looks for the virus (human papillomavirus) that can cause these cell changes.
Updated: Jan 2023