It Happened To Me

Michelle WhitlockJust a month before my 27th birthday, my world stopped. It was Christmastime, and most everyone around me was preparing for the holiday festivities; but not me.

In the midst of my holiday shopping, a simple phone call changed everything. I recall the moment so clearly. I was in the mall when my phone rang. I recognized my doctor's number immediately. I was anxiously awaiting the results of cervical biopsies I had had the week before. I hurried out of the store and answered the phone. It seemed like everyone around me slowed and suddenly stood still as my doctor told me, "I'm sorry. The results show you have invasive villoglandular adenocarcinoma" (which is just a fancy way of saying C-E-R-V-I-C-A-L C-A-N-C-E-R!). I kept thinking: Not me, I am not 'that' girl.

It was 2001, and I had never missed a Pap test since I started getting them at 16. I thought I was doing everything right. I had one abnormal Pap test at 17, so the doctor froze (cryosurgery) the "bad" cells that had changed. Things had been good since then.

That was until my Pap test in the fall of 2001. My doctor informed me that although my Pap was normal, I had high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV). I didn't really know what HPV was and mistakenly thought it was a virus that only causes genital warts. However, I quickly learned that there are more than 40 types of HPV that can infect the genital areas, mouth, and throat. While low-risk HPV can and does cause genital warts, high-risk HPV can cause certain types of cancers, including cervical, vulvar, anal, vaginal, penile, and throat and mouth cancers.

Due to my high-risk HPV diagnosis, my doctor preformed a closer exam of my cervix with a microscope (colposcopy). He took a biopsy (a tissue sample) of my cervical canal (endocervical curettage), followed by a deeper biopsy of my cervix. The results were undeniable: I had cancer.

The stigma and lack of education around HPV and cervical cancer left me feeling alone and isolated. Because HPV is a sexually transmitted disease, some people thought I must have done something to deserve the cancer or had been promiscuous. The truth is far from that misconception. In fact, HPV is a virus spread through skin-to-skin contact during vaginal, anal, or oral sex. For some, it may take only one sexual encounter, with or without a condom, to contract it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that 79 million Americans are living with HPV and another 14 million are diagnosed each year. For most people, HPV goes away on its own and they may never know they had been infected. For those whose HPV does not go away, they are at risk for health problems like cancer or genital warts.

My doctor and oncologist recommended I have a radical hysterectomy that would leave me unable to create life inside myself. I wasn't married and didn't have children. I couldn't bear the thought of cancer taking away my right to have children, if I ever chose that path. So I sought out an experimental treatment known as a radical trachelectomy because it would leave me with at least a 50% chance of someday carrying a child. It has good success rates, but I am not one of them.

Two short years later in late-April 2004 my cancer returned with a vengeance. I had just gotten engaged when I learned that in order to save my life, I would have to undergo a radical hysterectomy. I agreed, but I first insisted my doctors help me save my fertility. In June of that year, I harvested my eggs to create my seven "maybe babies" (embryos), got married on the beach, and checked into the hospital for surgery. Unfortunately, it was followed by five and a half weeks of radiation and chemotherapy.

I am 'that' girl. I got cervical cancer, but you don't have to and neither do your children. Not only do we have access to preventive screening tools, but we have vaccines that can prevent cancer! Today, there are vaccines that protect against HPV-related cancers and genital warts. I only wish they had been available when I was younger.

I am days away from turning 40, and I have the gift of being a mother to three young children. I have two girls who are 1 and 5 and a son who is 2 and a half. I see my role as one to guide, shape, and protect them. I hope they never experience what I did with HPV and cervical cancer. I am also a realist and know I can't protect them from every danger in life. My children and yours will make decisions — some good, some not so good, some right on time, some far too early or too late. I, however, will continue attempting to shield them from danger in all the ways possible. I fasten seat belts and have car insurance just in case of an accident, and I will have them vaccinated against HPV at 11 so that when they have sexual contact — whether by choice or not, married or not — I know their risk of cancer caused by HPV is dramatically reduced. I believe the HPV vaccines, vaccines that can prevent certain cancers, are some of the greatest gifts I can give them.

The statements and opinions in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office on Women's Health.