I tried to keep myself from speculating, but I had begun noticing some bleeding during intercourse. I wanted to talk to my gynecologist about it. Since my annual appointment was coming up in about a month, I waited. I went in for my pap test and when my doctor phoned with my test results, everything checked out okay. My pap results were normal, I was HPV negative, but the bleeding was getting worse. I was worried that whatever was going on was not normal. So I asked my doctor if there was anything else we could do to check. She agreed to schedule a colposcopy to biopsy four quadrants of my cervix, mostly to put my mind at ease. During the procedure, one tiny bit that she told me looked a little irritated began to bleed profusely—it was all the doctor could do to get the bleeding under control. Days later, she called me to say there were some cancerous cells and I needed to come in for a cone biopsy to get a better look.
Getting the news
I remember I was home from work, sitting on the sofa with my sons, who were just 6 and 10 at the time. My phone rang and it was my doctor’s office. I asked the boys to be good and stay there while I took my phone call in the garage. It’s hard to remember the exact words, but my doctor told me that the entire biopsy was a cancerous tumor. The tumor had been growing on the internal side of my cervix and had gone undetected for some time. The doctor was crying as she apologized for not having found the tumor sooner. I was weeping too. It’s hard to recall many more details after you’ve been given this kind of news.
When I turned around, I saw my boys at the door; they’d been watching and listening. The older one asked, “It’s cancer isn’t it?” I couldn’t very well lie to him, so I said, “Yes, buddy, it is.” I remember the fear in my son’s face. It was a terrible moment. I phoned my husband, and when he came home from work, I got him caught up. That evening cooking wasn’t really an option, so we all went out to dinner. While eating, my six year old asked me, “Mommy, Are you gonna die?” I said no, but I truly wasn’t sure myself.
My doctor set me up with a terrific gynecological oncologist, who I now lovingly refer to as my Superman. He took a CT scan of my cervix, and most importantly, put me and my husband on the spot about whether we wanted any more kids. I was 32 and needed a radical hysterectomy, so we needed to think about things like my eggs right then and there. The decision was made: no more kids.
The hysterectomy surgery kept me in the hospital for eight days. It was not an easy procedure. I had complications during recovery including a bowel obstruction. By the time I was released from the hospital, I was swollen and exhausted. I basically collapsed into the recliner at home for two weeks while I tried to regain some strength. Because they’d removed my uterus, one ovary, and both fallopian tubes, I went instantly into menopause, with hot flashes, night sweats and mood swings. Yet this was only the preparation for my cancer treatment.
My Cancer Treatment
My treatment was delayed twice: Once due to a pelvic abscess which required four weeks of IV antibiotics, and again with a blood clot that required shots in my belly. When I was able to actually start treatment, I went daily to St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis. Once a week for six weeks, I received chemotherapy combined with daily radiation.
After the initial six-week treatment, my doctors agreed that I would need seven more radiation treatments, three being internal. I then took a month off before starting chemotherapy round 2. This chemo made my hair fall out and left me with terrible bone pain. Through it all, I tried to keep my attitude positive. I did this by focusing on my boys. They still needed their mom and that meant I still needed to be around. I refused to leave them.
Coming to terms with hair loss
When the time came that I would be losing my hair, I started by cutting my long hair to my shoulders. Finally, I let my husband and my boys shave my head in our kitchen. That was really tough. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do next. I tried wearing a scarf and I felt uncomfortable, like it just wasn’t me. I talked it over with a girlfriend and she said, “Who says you have to wear that scarf?” I decided to take it off and let my bald head shine for the world. Every person handles this their own way. This was my way.
Getting on with life
In the end, my full chemo and radiation stretched out over 285 days. As a result, I am left with neuropathy and lymphedema, but most importantly I get to keep my life!
My husband and I divorced shortly after I finished all treatment. However, I’ve come out of this a stronger and more confident person. I’ve now met the love of my life and together we are living our dream. We bought a farm where all our kids can form a new big family.
I’ve become an outspoken champion for HPV cancer prevention and awareness. I found out that telling my story has helped me emotionally heal and feel like I can make a difference by helping other people. I don’t want anyone to ever have to endure what I did.
Melissa’s message about HPV prevention
From my experience, I want to tell women and men to be diligent, listen to your body and don’t be afraid to ask your doctor if something doesn’t seem right. Be your own advocate!
To all parents, I want to say we now have an opportunity to prevent the kind of cancer I had, and five other kinds caused by HPV with a very safe and effective vaccine. I got my boys vaccinated. I don’t want to risk them developing a cancer later in life caused by HPV.
I want to protect not only my boys, but their future partners. We can make a big impact on society a few years down the road by vaccinating our kids today. I hope sharing my story will help to end HPV-related stigma and to raise awareness of how important it is to vaccinate to prevent HPV cancers.
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