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My Story | Rena, Florida, USA

Cervical cancer, Stage 3a, October 1999 at 37
Chemotherapy, Radiation

My story starts with PAIN! About three years ago, I began having periods that were more painful than usual. I was living in Georgia at the time, and decided to go to a local OB/GYN. He examined me, then said he thought my pain was coming from a spastic colon. I asked him when to call for the results of my Pap smear, but he told me he hadn't done one as he didn't think I needed it. I wondered about this since it had been over a year since my previous Pap, but I didn't question it. I assumed he knew what he was doing. I will never assume that about any doctor again! If only he had done a Pap that day, my story might have been very different. Who knows?

I continued with my life, dealing with the painful periods as best I could. I didn't seek a second opinion - something I would never do again, knowing what I know now. My biggest fear about going to any doctor was that they would find nothing wrong, telling me that my only problem was that I needed to lose weight. I didn't need a doctor to tell me this! I've been a "Queen-Size" woman all my life. Fighting my weight has always been a struggle - it has always kept me from seeking medical attention for any reason. So, I just kept on putting up with the pain. I thought it would get better on its own.

About a year later I moved back home to Florida. I was born and raised there, and only moved to Georgia to experience life outside of my small home town for awhile. For the past seventeen years, I have been a single parent to my daughter, who is now eighteen. The both of us moved back to Florida right after my aunt died from complications of radiation treatment she had received years before. I never knew what kind of cancer she had been treated for, just that it was a gynecological cancer, and that she received radiation for it. She was my mother's sister, and it upset me so much that I hadn't been there for my mom during this time. Something told me that I needed to be home near my mom. She needed me and I needed her.

Back home, my periods continued to bother me, but I felt like I was dealing with them, so I kept putting off going to my regular OB/GYN. I started bleeding between periods, and the pain was now so strong I spent most of my period in bed. Out of fear of being told to "just lose the weight", I did not seek medical attention. And I couldn't even use work as an excuse not to go to the doctor because I worked for my family, and I could take time off whenever I wanted.

My problems became more serious in the summer of 1999. I planned to go on vacation to Walt Disney World with my sister and her family. We had saved money and were so excited about our trip. When we finally got there, I was determined not to let pain ruin my vacation. It did, of course! I started hurting so bad, I was taking four ibuprofen tablets every three hours. This made the pain more bearable, and I was able to keep up with the rest of them. Everyone had a great time, but I couldn't wait to get home!

I continued to suffer until October of 1999, when I had the worst period yet. It was so bad I can't even describe the pain. I felt like I was in hard labor for about eight days. I made an appointment with my OB/GYN for the following week. There was no way I could take another period like that. And, by this time, I had begun bleeding between periods. My OB/GYN examined me and did a Pap. He said that my uterus was swollen and sent me to have an ultrasound of the pelvic area. After a three-week wait for the results of my test, my doctor called on a Friday afternoon to tell me that my Pap had come back a Class 4. He wanted me in his office first thing Monday for a colposcopy.

He explained to me that a Class 4 Pap was one step from cancer. During the colposcopy, he took three biopsies and several cell samples. He examined me, then told me that the biopsies appeared to be cancerous. I barely made it out of his office without crying. I never expected to hear a doctor say the "cancer" word to me. By Friday I was a nervous wreck. The doctor's office called to tell me that the results of the biopsies were in, but I needed to come in to his office to get the results in person, and that I needed to bring a friend! I knew it was bad then. They never tell you to bring a friend unless it's bad news. I brought my mom.

The nurse showed us into my doctor's private office and shut the door. Later, the doctor came in and sat down across from us. He looked at the biopsy results, then at me. He asked me if I remembered what he told me during the colposcopy, and asked me to repeat what he had said. Probably cancer, I said, and he said, yes., it was what he had thought. Then he drew a little drawing of the female reproductive system on the back of the biopsy report to show me where the cancer was located, inside the cervical canal, on the cervix itself, and in the upper vagina.

He said I would need to see a gynecological oncologist (GYN-ONC), a specialist in treating women's cancers, and scheduled me for the following Friday. My mom, sister and daughter all went with me. We all knew we were going to hear bad news. They waited out in the lobby while I went back to the exam room.

During the exam, which was very painful, the doctor asked me about my symptoms. When he was through, he asked me to get dressed so he could talk to all of us, and the nurse brought in my mom and sister (my daughter had fallen asleep in the lobby). I told them about the exam while we waited for the doctor. He had asked me during the exam what size my daughter was, and I said that she was small, about a size three. I was going on about how little she was compared to her larger mother when he interrupted, and said, "I mean, how big was she when she was born?" I was so embarrassed. My mom and sister just burst out laughing, and, of course, the doctor walked in at that moment to tell us the bad news. After everyone stopped laughing, the doctor said my cancer was invasive and that I needed to have a cone biopsy in order to determine just how serious it was. He also wanted to biopsy the tube that went to my bladder. I'm sure he thought I had a crazy family, but at least I didn't leave in tears!

The GYN-ONC performed the biopsies the following Monday, 11/22/99. When he was finished, he came out to tell my family that my cancer was Stage 3a. It had wrapped itself all the way around my uterus and cervix, and spread into the lower vagina. Then he told them I had 35% chance of surviving! This information really upset my family; they didn't even tell me what he said until a few days later. The doctor said my only treatment option was to have chemotherapy and radiation.

I saw a radiation oncologist the following week, and I started treatment almost immediately. I did the chemo on Mondays. It took about five hours each time. I had to come back each Tuesday to have IV fluids because the chemo made me so sick that I couldn't hold anything on my stomach, not even anti-nausea medication, so they had to give me suppositories. I felt good for about three days each week, then it was time to start over.

The radiation went very well at first, although the nurse told me that I might begin to burn at some point. I was fine for three weeks, but by the fourth week I could barely walk! By the end of the fifth week, my inner thighs and pelvic area were so burned that I had open, oozing blisters. I felt like someone had taken a torch to my private area.

After five weeks, my radiation oncologist said I needed to have an internal implant. This procedure was done in the hospital for a period of three days. I went in feeling like I was about to die from all the pain, and felt even worse by the time they took the implant out.

After that, I had another week of external radiation, and then I was left alone for a week. The doctor had said we needed to treat this cancer aggressively, but I didn't see how it was possible to be anymore aggressive. After a week of well-needed rest, I had a second internal implant. While still very painful, this one was not nearly as bad as the first. I went into the hospital on the mend, and was able to handle it much better.

Finally, I had a break from treatment for about four weeks. This was great. I was able to get over some of the chemo side effects, and my burns were starting to heal nicely. A little later, the radiation oncologist decided it would be best if I had three additional implants. These were to be done in his office, and would be concentrated on my lower vagina. I got through these with no major problems.

All of this radiation has left me with several side effects. My most worrisome problem is fibrosis or stenosis (shrinking) of the vagina. This has made my life miserable! I am not sexually active, so I have to use a dilator to stretch my vagina. This is so painful that I can barely do it. But my doctor says it is very important to do so, otherwise my pelvic exams will be more painful than they already are! So I press on!

It's now been six months since I was diagnosed with Stage 3a cervical cancer. My GYN-ONC told me the other day that he was very surprised at the "beautiful" response I got from the radiation. He felt like I was very lucky, considering how advanced the cancer was, and how I had been given a 35% chance of survival. I just received the results of my first Pap. My doctor said it was a Class 2, but he wasn't concerned because I've had so much radiation.

I feel really blessed to have come through all of this so well. There were definitely some hard times, and there were times when I wanted to just stop and give up, but I'm so glad I didn't. I would have never made it through everything without the great support of my family and friends. They made sure that I was never alone during any part of my ordeal. And I am proud to be a part of EyesOnThePrize, a group of women that all know what it's like to be told, "You have CANCER." It's not an easy thing to hear, but, with prayer and support, I think you can accomplish anything!

June 2000

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