Beating Cervical Cancer:: The Strength of a Mother

cervical cancer awareness month

2020 is here moms, and if you weren’t aware, January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. While cervical cancer is not as common as other cancers, it can be an especially distressing diagnosis to a young woman or mom, as was the case with a very dear friend of mine three years ago. In sharing some of her story, I want to encourage each of you to make your cervical health a priority this year.

THE C WORD

Cervical cancer is a rare but potentially devastating disease. Most women that are diagnosed are in their 50’s, but since it is typically slow-growing, you can find precancerous changes in women as early as in their 20’s and 30’s. How do you know you have it or may be at risk? Oftentimes cervical cancer does not cause any symptoms until well advanced, so the best way to detect it early on is to stay up to date with your cervical cancer screening – i.e. getting a pap smear.

Elizabeth {*name has been changed} was diagnosed with cervical cancer following her annual exam at the young age of 32. She had always stayed up to date with her paps, and had experienced abnormal results before. However, as is the case with many abnormal cervical changes, she was told that her body should naturally “clear it out” with time. Except in this instance, it didn’t.

“At the time I had a 3 year old and a 9 month old. Cancer was a change I wasn’t prepared for. I don’t think it is a change anyone can be prepared for. I was shocked.” Following her pap, her doctor obtained a biopsy to grade the cancer, and luckily discovered it was very early in its course. However, due to its size and her age, her doctor recommended she have a full workup at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

NOW WHAT??

surgeon in hospital

The most common treatment for early stage cervical cancer is a radical hysterectomy where the uterus, cervix and part of the vagina are removed, and possibly also the ovaries, fallopian tubes and lymph nodes. Of course, this was extremely worrying to Elizabeth as it would mean an end to her child-bearing abilities. 

But she found that this was not her only option. “MD Anderson was a GODSEND. My doctor specialized in fertility preserving treatments for young women still in their child-bearing ages. I found out that I didn’t have to have a hysterectomy at all.” He presented her with numerous options, some of which included surgery, while others did not. 

Elizabeth spent a lot of time soul searching, talking and praying with her husband. This was particularly hard for him as he had lost his mother to cervical cancer, and he certainly didn’t want to lose his wife. After some time she made the choice to have a simple hysterectomy.

“We decided that cancer aside, we were done having kids. While I still mourn losing the ability to have kids, at least I know that it was my choice.” 

WORDS OF WISDOM

When I asked Elizabeth if she had any advice for women today, she was very adamant about being proactive. “Just going to the doctor and doing what you’re told isn’t enough. If you get an abnormal pap result, make sure you know the strain. I didn’t even know you could determine the strain.”

And how does she feel about the HPV vaccine?

“Vaccinate your kids. Boys and girls. It’s amazing that a CANCER VACCINE exists. And wonderful. Let’s eradicate this disease.”

PREP FOR YOUR PAP

So who needs a screening and when and how often? It used  to be our moms would drag us to the OBGYN when we became adults or became sexually active, but the recommendations have changed a bit.

pap test lab

Women do not need to start screening until they reach age 21. Between 21-29 a woman should have a screening via a pap smear every 3 years. Once a woman is 30, she should have a screening every 3 years with a pap smear only or every 5 years with a pap smear with HPV testing {preferred}. Screening is not recommended past the age of 65 unless a woman has had a history of cervical cancer or precancerous changes on a previous pap. As well, women who have had a total hysterectomy {both the uterus and cervix were removed} that was not due to cancer do not need any further screenings. When in doubt, talk with your medical provider to determine what is best for you. And if you have an abnormal result, FOLLOW UP.

THE 411 ON HPV

Well what the heck causes cervical cancer and how can you prevent it? As of today, we know that the majority of cervical cancer cases are due to the human papillomavirus {HPV}. This virus is transmitted via skin-to-skin contact, most often during sex. It is extremely common and unlike other sexually transmitted diseases there is no test to determine if you carry it or not. Most strains will be cleared out by the body with time and without ever causing a problem; however, there are several harmful strains that have been linked to warts as well as cancer of not only the cervix but the vagina, anus, penis, mouth and throat. Yikes!

To find out more, visit https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cervical-cancer.html

GET THE VACCINE

vaccine syringe

Practicing safe sex and avoiding smoking can help, but the best way to prevent acquiring HPV is to get vaccinated. Since its introduction in 2006, the HPV vaccine has dramatically decreased the number of both precancerous changes and actual cancers. Moms, please strongly consider this vaccine for your kids. You want to get them vaccinated before they will ever be exposed, which is why it is recommended as early as age 9.

You can read more about the vaccine at: https://www.cdc.gov/hpv/parents/vaccine.html

THE STRENGTH OF A MOTHER

As moms we tend to focus all our attention on our children and families, but you need to remember to take care of yourself too. If you haven’t had a check-up in a while, make it a priority this year to get that pap smear.

And for those of you staring down the Big C in the face… stay strong. Remember, you’re a mom, you can do anything. Cancer may have started this fight, but you will finish it.

mom child at beach

 

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