I wasn’t feeling well in the late summer of 2019. I was 58 and experiencing vaginal and rectal bleeding episodes. In January 2020, I was scheduled to see my gynecologist for my annual examination. As such, my cancer story began on January 13, 2020, at Eisenhower-Lucy Curci Cancer Center in Rancho Mirage California.
Seeing the doctor
I told my gynecologist, I felt like I had a “really bad hemorrhoid,” and it was very painful to go to the bathroom. When she examined me, she wanted to schedule a D&C (Dilation and Curettage) on January 23, 2020. She also wanted me to see a rectal surgeon to have an examination.
I saw the rectal surgeon and had an excruciating rectal exam. He said it felt like “cancer” and he needed to accompany my gynecologist during my D&C surgery so he could perform a rectal biopsy to confirm any presence of cancer.
My D&C was successful: No vaginal cancer! But the rectal biopsy showed squamous carcinoma stage 3 anal cancer, HPV 16 related. The doctor described stage 3 and what it means. I was NUMB without WORDS…
Reacting to my cancer diagnosis
I was baffled and confused. What is HPV 16? Anal cancer? How did I get this? My first reaction to anal HPV: But I’ve never had anal sex. I’ve been married to the same wonderful man for 29 years. I don’t understand how in the hell I got anal cancer/HPV 16. He said, HPV is spread from sexual, skin to skin contact with someone who has had it.
My rectal surgeon explained, “Suzie, this tumor didn’t start yesterday. It’s probably been in your body for 10-20+ years, maybe longer. The HPV virus may have been harbored in vaginal tissues but traveled to another location. It started from a small polyp, then grew into a tumor.”
Learning about treatments
Now it was time for me to get educated about what to do now. I wanted to LIVE and be there for my family!! I was given 2 treatment courses of action: chemotherapy and radiation. We researched both extensively. I knew I could do chemotherapy; radiation, I wasn’t so sure about.
I met with the radiation oncologist, and I went through the exercise of what it would be like to go through radiation treatments with a full bladder. After that exercise, I decided that for me, I would not do radiation. I’m about quality of life, period. I would stick to chemo.
Getting through treatments
The COVID-19 pandemic hit during my treatment. UNBELIEVABLE. But nothing was going to stop me from getting treated. I told my doctor I needed him and my medical team to be cheerleaders every time I went in for a visit because nothing was going to keep me down and I was in this to win.
My doctor scheduled me for six rounds of chemotherapy. I stopped after five rounds due to low platelet and white blood cell counts.
A year of loss and joy during chemo
The emotional toll alone was really hard. I tried hard to be strong when I let my husband shave my hair in the backyard to get ready for chemo. Crying and looking into the mirror, I just didn’t see me. I started meditating, swimming, and taking long walks daily. Also, I spoke to my sisters, mother, and son daily. When chemo started, I suffered loss of appetite, bone aches from head to toe, and neuropathy in my feet.
And, of course, due to the pandemic, I was often separated from my family – our son Kyle, my mother, my sisters, and my close friends. Making it worse, there were no counselors available to me or my family because of COVID-19, leaving me completely isolated from the world. This lack of available support increased my depression and anxiety.
So, I really worked on moving forward with positivity, strength, faith, and laughter. As time went on, my health scare brought our family closer together, even during COVID. You never know where you’ll find immense gratitude. Maybe mine was never giving up. My son would say to me “YOU’RE A SPARTAN MAMMA!”
Current treatment plan
As I share my story, I am still on my journey. My oncologist has put me on immunotherapy. My tumor is shrinking and cooling off! The pain in my bottom is subsiding, and I am able to be close to my husband again. I guess I can say, I feel like me again, physically, mentally, and spiritually. I’m hoping my tumor will finally vanish.
My reflections about HPV cancer
The first time I heard about of HPV was back in 2006 from our son Kyle’s pediatrician when Kyle was 13. The HPV vaccine was brand new back then, and we were cautious about it. Our pediatrician explained about the possibilities of getting HPV through sexual, skin-to-skin contact. I thought, our son could not be having sex at his age. I WAS SO NAIVE. The HPV vaccine could save his life. We agreed, wholeheartedly, to vaccinate him. As a mother, now I don’t have to worry about our son getting HPV!
My Message to Families About the HPV Vaccine
I will share my story with anyone who is interested. I tell them about the dangers and realities of HPV cancers. I have several friends who have preteen and early teen girls and boys and were unaware of the HPV vaccine. I try to educate them about getting the HPV vaccine for their kids. They had no idea about the dangers of HPV cancers or that the vaccine could save their kids’ lives.
I heard from a doctor friend of ours that the HPV virus is so common, that most of us get it, but don’t even know we have it. The cancer could show up years or decades later like my experience. My message to parents is to get educated and take the mystery out of HPV. BE AN ADVOCATE FOR YOUR CHILDREN!! Get them vaccinated. Let anyone unsure about HPV hear firsthand from me. Trust me, you never want this cancer. It’s avoidable.
This is my story. I hope it saves a life.
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