I’m a single mom from Palo Alto, California with two kids ages 9 and 11. I had always been healthy. But for more than a decade, since age 27, I would go in for my pap test and it would come back “abnormal.” Then I would go in for a colposcopy where the doctor pinches off a tiny bit of cervical cells to test, and sometimes for a LEEP procedure. After that, they would tell me I was done and I wouldn’t think about it until the next year. Honestly, no one really ever explained what all this was about.
In 2015 at age 37, I started having some irregular bleeding, and I got in to see a new doctor who looked at my medical history and explained that I’d been HPV-positive for years. That was the first time I learned about HPV. During my pap test, that doctor tested cells further up in my cervix. When she called later with the results, she told me over the phone I had adenocarcinoma, a kind of cervical cancer.
When that doctor called me, I was in total shock. I was at a work as a Middle School Special Education Teacher. I left my classroom and sat in my car. I didn’t know what questions to ask her. The one question that I could come up with “What are the chances that this will kill me?” was one I was too afraid to ask. I didn’t want to know the answer.
I confided in my mom and my best friend, but otherwise, I didn’t let a lot of people know what was going on. I curled up in a little ball at home and cried. I didn’t want to use the word “cancer” with my children. I didn’t want to scare them. I told them that I was sick. I let them know that I would be taking medicine that made me feel more sick, but which would actually be helping. I let them know that it would take a while, but that I would be okay, even though I still wasn’t sure of this myself. I didn’t cry around my children. I knew that I needed to be strong in front of them. Unfortunately, as the treatments went on, I wasn’t able to keep them as shielded from my pain and worry as I would have liked.
From that moment, it felt like things were moving really fast. I got a call from an oncologist the next day telling me that I was Stage 2 and needed to start chemotherapy. I was also going to have 28 rounds of radiation and 3 rounds of something called brachytherapy, which is internal radiation. They were also going to do a procedure that relocated my ovaries and fallopian tubes higher up in my abdomen, out of the field of radiation. That was supposed to prevent me from going straight into menopause. Unfortunately, this was not successful.
The many stages of treatment
During the time I was going through the cancer treatments, my kids and I moved back in with my parents. I stopped working because it was just too much. No one in my family had ever been through chemo or radiation, so my only point of reference was movies. I knew I would feel sick and weak, but I had no idea the toll these treatments would take on my body. I got sores and burns from the radiation. I lost weight due to nausea and a lack of appetite. I was so nauseous sometimes that I couldn’t lift my head off the pillow. During my last chemo treatment I had an allergic reaction to one of the drugs. I couldn’t breathe and broke out in hives. Somehow, I got through all of this. The oncologist told me that after my treatment was over and that they’d see me in 6 months for a follow-up PET scan.
After treatment I had some signs things were not progressing normally. My oncologists believed that I had residual cancer. So, I was scheduled for a radical hysterectomy including surgical removal of my cervix. The surgery was successful and on October 5th, 2016 I was told the surgeon was able to get clear margins and I no longer showed signs of cancer. After so much we could finally celebrate!
The scariest part
Celebration was brief. Although the surgery went well, shortly after I started to have horrible pain in my back. I went for an ultrasound and it showed that the radiation treatment caused damage to my bladder function and urine was now backing up into my kidneys. I needed reconstructive surgery to repair the damage. They couldn’t do this new surgery right away because I’d just had a hysterectomy, but they did a temporary procedure while I waited.
When the time came for the surgery, it was the scariest part of the treatment for me. I was told I might lose bladder function forever and might need a urostomy bag. I couldn’t imagine living the rest of my life with a urostomy bag. I felt defeated and like cancer and its effects on my life would never end. Luckily, the surgery was completely successful. You never know how grateful you are for things like the ability to control your bladder until you are faced with the possibility of not being able to do so!
Living with HPV
At this point, it’s been a couple of years. I continue to get clear PET scans, but my pap tests are still abnormal for cells on my vaginal wall. The HPV virus is unpredictable. Some people’s bodies clear it on their own. Mine does not seem able to completely clear the HPV infection, and it has remained active in my system for over 11 years so far. So we keep checking. I have been able to resume work and I am engaged to a wonderful nurturing man who supports me in my journey. I am also loving spending time with my children. They make every day worthwhile. They are, and continue to be, the reason why I fight so hard.
Ana’s message about HPV cancers, HPV vaccine
When I was first diagnosed, and then going through so many treatments that seemed “intimate,” I felt embarrassed and kept everything to myself. No more! I had the opportunity to meet other women like me through an organization called Cervivor and attended Cervivor School. After living through this experience, I now want to use my story to help other parents, especially moms, understand how important it is to get regular pap tests. I also want parents to know that the cancer I had is now preventable. Parents can protect their sons and daughters from ever getting cervical cancer and 5 other types of HPV-related cancers, by simply getting them vaccinated against HPV.
I didn’t have the opportunity to have the HPV vaccine when I was younger. However, as soon as my daughter turned 11 she got the HPV vaccination, and you can bet that as soon as my son turns 11 he will be vaccinated as well. That’s one gift of prevention that I want to give not only to my children, but to all children. My message is that that we can prevent cervical cancer and several other HPV-related cancers with the HPV vaccine. The 2 shots needed for the HPV vaccine are safe and effective and can prevent your child from ever having to go through what I have gone through!
Read Ana’s Story on Cervivor.