Three Years Ago…

Three years ago today I announced to my Facebook world, filled with family and friends, that I had been told I had cervical cancer. I had gone through a difficult appointment with my gynecologist just a few days before and was in the process of scheduling an appointment with an oncologist. I made a quick decision (too quick and I apologize to family who read it on Facebook first) to post the information to Facebook because I am a writer, and words are easier when they’re written instead of spoken face to face.

Three years ago today I started a life altering journey I never expected to go on. It started with a biopsy, moved on to a radical hysterectomy, and concluded with chemotherapy and external radiation. But the conclusion of cancer treatment does not end ones cancer journey, it simply begins it.

Here are a few of the life changes my experience with cancer caused…

  • Anxiety/Fear – Cancer easily can cause a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. When you learn you have cancer, your world is often turned upside down. I was faced with my own mortality. I knew I wouldn’t live forever, but learning I had cancer reminded me that no one knows how long they have on this Earth. Though I am currently healthy and cancer-free, thoughts of recurrence weave into my subconscious and cause anxiety to come out of nowhere. No matter where I am or what I’m doing, I can too easily have an anxiety attack that stops me in my tracks. And to those who think that anxiety is something you can just “get over”, feel free to sit down and talk to me about how anxiety works.
  • New Normal – After going through a hysterectomy at the age of 33, followed by chemo and radiation, my body went through many changes within a four month span. I consider myself lucky that I’ve avoided some of the more severe side effects that treatment can cause, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t had to deal with changes. My “new normal” has included:
    • Having to carry Immodium everywhere I go because I never know when something might irritate my digestive tract (external radiation can cause some damage the intestines).
    • Wearing a hormone patch because, even though my ovaries were left during my hysterectomy, the external radiation fried them and they no longer work. I am 36 years old and in menopause.
    • Rediscovering my sexuality. During a hysterectomy for cervical cancer, not only are your cervix, uterus, and fallopian tubes removed (and sometimes your ovaries), but approximately one inch, or more, of the top of your vagina are removed. That, and some of the effects of radiation as well as early menopause, create changes to you sexually. To put it plainly, this means relearning what works and doesn’t work (and sometimes hurts). It’s not an easy thing to deal with physically or mentally.
    • Losing my ability to have a child. I am so very lucky to have my daughter. I had always considered the thought of having more children, before I learned of my diagnosis. Having the option completely removed surgically from my body leaves a lot of grief to deal with. I’m no longer not having children because the time isn’t right or because money is too tight. I’m not having children because I physically cannot. And for many women, like myself, that can be very difficult to come to terms with. But, at the same time, it reminds me to hug my daughter even tighter every day.
    • Learning to like my new body. This is something I still struggle with. I’ve always been fairly thin, but during treatment I lost quite a bit of weight that I’ve struggled to gain back (without any luck). There are times when I actually hate when people say to me, “You’re so lucky, you’re so skinny.” My response is often, “You don’t want to lose weight the way I did.” It’s not to be mean, but instead to be honest. We live in a society that centers itself too much on size. You may be unhappy with an extra few pounds, but I’ve realized through this that some may be struggling with being underweight too. And then there are the scars. I was lucky to have robotic assisted laparoscopic surgery, but there are still five small scars on my abdomen. Five scars that act as another reminder of my cancer. Five scars that stare at me from my reflection in the mirror as I dress in the morning and get undressed before bed. And though these five scars helped save my life, that does not make them any easier to see.

It’s weird to look back and remember that my cancer journey started three years ago. It doesn’t seem like that long ago. In some ways I’ve become a better, stronger person. I don’t take anyone’s shit anymore. I don’t let little things bother me as much. And I don’t take time with my daughter for granted, even if it’s a half hour of snuggling while watching TV or an hour of talking smack to one another while playing Minecraft. But there are days when I’m also a more fearful me, afraid of a sudden ache or discomfort, anxious at the drop of a hat, terrified of my own mortality. But I’m alive and I’m smiling (most of the time) as the redefined me.


The Emotional Side of Cervivor School

In last week’s post I discussed all that happened during Cervivor School 2017 in Delray Beach, Florida. But I wanted to also touch on the emotions I felt during this year’s Cervivor School experience.

During Cervivor School, we not only receive a vast amount of knowledge concerning cervical cancer, HPV, HPV-related cancers, and the HPV vaccine. But we also learn a lot about ourselves as cervical cancer survivors (Cervivors). When I was diagnosed with cervical cancer in the summer of 2014, I didn’t know anyone personally who had gone through cervical cancer. I had never experienced seeing someone go through any type of cancer. I had met women through online support groups, but being in a room surrounded by women from around the country who’d gone through similar scenarios stirs up a ton of feelings.

When I first arrived I got the chance to see women I’d met during Cervivor School Louisville which was absolutely amazing. Many of us had shared such a deep connection at that school, that getting the chance to be together again was joyful. And then as the long weekend moved forward I made even more bonds with women I’m now proud to call my friends. With a Cervivor School as big as this one, I didn’t get to talk to everyone as much as I would have liked to, but hope to grow more friendships as we connect through social media moving forward.

But let’s get into the nitty gritty of it. Cervivor School, for me, means plenty of laughs and smiles and equally as many tears. During this event you discover so much about what other women have gone through, but also about yourself. In attendance were women who had been NED (no evidence of disease) for many years, some who had just recently completed treatment, and some who were living with cancer. All of our stories were different in one way or another, but in the end we were all “Cervivors”.

For me, it’s been almost three years since I got the phone call and heard the words “you have cancer”. In all honesty, it certainly doesn’t feel like it’s been that long some days, and then other days it feels like it’s been even longer. I think about cancer in some way or another at least once a day, though most days it’s more than that. So when going to Cervivor School I’m prepared in knowing that my emotions will stir because my cancer will be fully on my mind again, and that’s okay.

I cried when I heard other women’s stories of their cancer diagnosis and what they’ve been through since. I cried hearing those who spoke of living with cancer, mostly because it’s hard to understand why I’m okay but they still have to deal with cancer. I cried coming to new understandings about myself and being reminded that “it’s not my fault” (thank you again Dr. Castle). I cried thinking of the women in other countries who do not have the care necessary to get yearly well-woman exams that help prevent cancer, or who have cancer and treatment options aren’t easily available. I cried remembering that I’m not alone in all that I feel.

But I smiled and laughed so much more. I smiled spending time outside the “classroom” as I made new friends, some who I consider best friends today. We spent time by the pool, had meals together, and hung out on the dinner cruise (while I prayed I wouldn’t get motion sick). We talked about our lives outside of cancer and where we came from.

And then we cried when it was time to leave each other. I looked forward to returning home, I missed my family, but I was leaving my sisters.

Since my cancer journey, I question many things. I haven’t felt like I have many close friends to confide in or to just hang out with and get a drink or a cup of coffee. My social media friends are in the hundreds, but those I see face to face are in the single digits. Maybe that’s my fault, who knows. But when I was at Cervivor School, for five days I didn’t feel quite so alone. I had sisters; women who held my hand or hugged me when I was sharing something sad or difficult. Women who’d just met me, but welcomed me with open arms. I miss them since leaving Florida just over a week ago, and I wish some of them lived closer. Yet I know in my heart they’ll always have my back as we move forward in our Cervivor journey. I hope they know they mean the world to me.

Cervivor School 2017

For five days I had the honor and privilege of attending Cervivor School 2017 in Delray Beach, Florida. This being my second Cervivor School experience, I had an idea of what to expect and was excited to see the women I’d met and befriended in during the Louisville school in August 2016.

Unforgettable Friendship

I didn’t allow my fear of flying keep me away from this amazing opportunity. Upon arriving at Fort Lauderdale Airport, after a few hours delay due to weather, I hooked up with a Cervivor sister I’d only spoken to briefly through Facebook. Shawna and I took a taxi together to the hotel and clicked immediately. So well that I encouraged her to stay for the entire event (she was supposed to leave halfway through), and she listened. And I’m thrilled she did because we’re seriously the best of friends after only a few days.

We spent classroom time learning from an intelligent array of presenters. On Thursday, Dr. Matthew Schlumbrecht and Dr. Sarah Temkin offered their knowledge of HPV and its roll in various types of cancer as well as the HPV vaccine and why it’s so very important for today’s youths. John Heyburn, Executive Director of Clinical Operations at Advaxis, Inc., imparted on us the amazing trials in development and underway with their company in immunotherapy. These therapies boost the immune system to fight cancer cells. Day one ended in an open discussion with Dr. Phil Castle who answered a multitude of questions concerning HPV (human papillomavirus), cervical cancer and their effects across the globe. He also reminded us that, “It’s Not Our Fault!”, something most of us truly needed to hear. In the afternoon we had a chance to learn about Tamika

Cervivor Founder Tamika speaking with Lynn who came all the way from Cape Town, South Africa.

Felder’s trip to Africa, which included meeting with Cervivor Lynn, from Cape Town, South Africa, who, with her family, joined us for this year’s Cervivor School. Hearing her story and about what it is like going for screening and having cancer in Africa was incredibly moving and motivational. The night ended with a pajama party, the talks of which I cannot divulge, but I will say I think I speak for most of the ladies in that it was nice to know that we’re not alone in many struggles after cervical cancer.

Friday was filled with talks on how, as cancer patients and Cervivors, we could better ourselves or deal with struggles we’re facing. Goodbye Brain Fog, presented by Dr. Heather Palmer, better explained the brain fog and memory issues some often deal with after cancer. For me, this was awesome to hear about since, as a writer, I’ve struggled with word recognition since my cancer. I had the pleasure of sitting with her at lunchtime, where she offered a few tips that I definitely plan to use moving forward (even while writing this post). From there, some of our amazing Cervivor Ambassadors offered exercises in healing through writing and art. The writing exercise touched me deeply since although I had written my story down in multiple ways over the last three years, I hadn’t written the emotional end of it. All I can say is that there were a lot of tears when I decided to read it aloud (and not just from me). The art exercise had me nervous at first because I’m far from artistic, but drawing and getting in touch with art was inspiring as well as soothing in many ways. The day ended with an amazing talk from Dr. Ramani Durvasula about maintaining your authentic self through cancer. Her talk included discovering the toxic people in your life and how to handle those situations. During the second day I also had an awesome opportunity to sit on a panel of Cervivor graduates and discuss coping. It was nice to be able to share some of the ways I’ve coped since cancer with our newbies. That night I got to spend some extra time with a few Cervivor sisters at the hot tub and then for dinner.

Saturday started with Cervivor Founder Tamika Felder talking to us about why sharing our story is so important. As Cervivors it’s important to tell our stories because cervical cancer isn’t talked about enough, especially considering it’s estimated that in 2015 about 12,900 new cases of cervical cancer would be diagnosed each year in the United States alone. And so many of these cases are in women who haven’t kept up with their well woman exams. We learned that we could decide on how much of our story we want to tell, and that we can make an impact. Sierra Thetford was up next discussing how she’s used social media to talk about her Cervivor story so that she can help other women hopefully prevent going through what she’d gone through. Cervivor Ambassador Lori spoke with us next, providing us with tips about how we can develop our voices to best make an impact with our own stories. Dr. Debbie Saslow discussed HPV and the importance of preventing cervical cancer and the HPV vaccine, followed by Joan Brady who offered information on how we as Cervivor Advocates can get in touch with our state legislature to make things happen. On Saturday night we hit the water with a dinner cruise on the intercoastal waterway which offered some time to connect more with our Cervivor sisters.

Final day smiles covering up the sadness of leaving our new sisters.

Sunday was our final day, which was so sad for most of us. Our newbies became graduates and we discussed our handbook and what being an advocate is all about. I was sad to have to leave before the graduation so I could make my plane, but I know all of our new graduates will make a terrific impact in their local areas and in the world.

Returning home from Cervivor School, there’s so much to evaluate, mentally and emotionally. In just a few days we’ve learned so much, met so many wonderful people, and shared a lot. I came home with a ton of ideas for how I want to make my story count. I’m proud to be part of Cervivor and what the organization stands for, and I only hope I can make them proud after offering me such an amazing step in my journey.

If you’d like to learn more about Cervivor, visit Learn more about my own journey through cervical cancer here.

Cervivor School 2017 was an amazing experience I will cherish as I become a stronger advocate.

More than Just a Song

Just over a year ago I joined a Sweet Adelines group called Heart of New Jersey Chorus. For those who do not know what Sweet Adelines are, they are “women singers committed to advancing the musical art form of barbershop harmony through education, competition and performance.” This was an opportunity to do something I’d always wanted to, but was afraid to: sing and perform. But after undergoing cancer treatment, I was ready to start pushing my fears aside. Since the moment I auditioned and became a member, the women have been supportive and loving. They didn’t just let me sing with them, they accepted me into their family.

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to join them on a retreat – an extremely full weekend of choreography, singing and coaching to fine tune our performing abilities. This is especially helpful as we prepare to compete in the Sweet Adelines NY/NJ Region 15 convention in March.

But the weekend ended up being about so much more than music for me. What some of these women probably don’t realize is that about a year ago they saved me in a way. After dealing with cancer and everything that came with it, and after it, I felt like I was letting certain parts of life pass me by. I had a daily routine, a routine which I had come to enjoy, but I was allowing myself to get too comfortable in the safety of it. There were things I’d always wanted to do in life, but was far to shy or scared to actually pursue. When I found the women of Heart of New Jersey Chorus, I found a piece of me I hadn’t realized was lost to begin with.

The weekend retreat became about connecting with one another, to open up and learn about each other as well as ourselves. I came home with a better understanding of not only why I loved to sing, but also of why I needed these women. Together, we cheer for one another on during the good times, comfort one another during the difficult times, and offer strength during the times that we need an extra push. We are women of different age groups from various walks of life who have taken the love of singing and compiled a group that is so much more than that. These women have become my friends and an extension of my family. I can’t thank them enough for allowing me to join with them in harmony.

The Aftereffects…

Being a cancer survivor is a glorious thing. It reminds you how precious life is. It gives you a new understanding on what’s important. There’s nothing easy about having cancer, no matter what your original diagnosis or treatment was. Cancer sticks with you, even when all the treatments have ended. It’s a lingering thought in  your mind, no matter how far back you push it.

The last few days have brought thoughts of cancer too swiftly into my brain. The first was a nightmare I had on Thursday night. It was so vivid, being in my own kitchen on the phone, the doctor telling me my cancer had returned. It’s not the first time I’ve had a nightmare with similar circumstances, every time being suddenly woken in a panic, my heart pounding. Then this morning, while cleaning the house, I stumbled upon some items that we had needed after my hysterectomy. Items I had shoved to the back of a cabinet because I just didn’t want to look at them. In my mind I was brought back to that time (almost two and a half years ago) which was filled with anger, fear and despair.

You see, no matter what I do, cancer will always be with me in some way. I’m thankful daily that my body is rid of the cancer that invaded. But cancer leaves an unwanted gift that I’m not sure will ever go away. It’s fear and anxiety that come up at unexpectedly.

For me, some of these times are when…

  • I see old photos of myself, about 20 pounds heavier. People are constantly saying how lucky I am to be so skinny, that I don’t have to worry about my weight. But let’s face it, we all have self-confidence issues, no matter what our body type. For me, I hate that I’m so skinny, because the reason I’m underweight is due to how much I lost during cancer.
  • I see photos of someone expecting a baby or commercials of newborns. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled when I see friends and family bringing the joy of a child into their lives, but there are certainly times when it hurts. I’d always wanted two or three children. Sure, there’s a definite chance my daughter would be an only child, even if I hadn’t gotten cancer. But having the choice stripped away at the age of 34 sucks.
  • My daughter tells me she wishes she had a brother or sister. She doesn’t understand everything that happened back then; she was only a Kindergartner. But this goes along with the children I had always considered having that will no longer be.

I wish I could say that when you finish cancer treatment and move forward in life that your fears dissipate. But from experience, that simply isn’t true. The memories of treatment stick with you, no matter how happy you are to move forward into a new sense of normalcy. What you used to worry about may no longer concern you as much; but your mind now has a new set of fears and anxieties to deal with instead. But, what we can do as survivors, is surround ourselves with things or people that make us happy to help cushion those difficult fears when they occur.

What Could Have Been…

So this is a longer blog post, but it was almost therapeutic to write for me. In two years since my cervical cancer diagnosis, I’ve wanted to write my original gynecologist a letter. I don’t know if I’ll ever send this to her (I’m keeping her name out), but I felt it might remind others to ask questions and to never assume your doctor is doing what you thought was right. This is your body, your life. Ask questions and be persistent, no matter how well you know your physician.

Dear Doc,

Since I haven’t heard from you in over two years, I thought I’d write and let you know I am well. I am cancer free since the end of 2014 after undergoing a cone biopsy in July 2014, a radical hysterectomy the day before my 34th birthday in August 2014, and then five rounds of chemotherapy and 28 rounds of external radiation that ended in November 2014.

In September 2014, my daughter started Kindergarten, my daughter who you helped bring into this world via c-section on January 2009. She started less than a week after my hysterectomy. I still had a lot of discomfort and a catheter from the surgery. I tried to hide the tears as my family pushed me in a wheelchair so I could “walk” with my daughter on her first day of school. During treatment I missed attending some of her first school activities because it would have been dangerous to get sick.

Back then my daughter didn’t understand much of what was happening. She still doesn’t really. She asks why she can’t have brothers or sisters like many of her friends. She can’t yet comprehend that what made mommy better, what got rid of the cancer that could have killed me, also took away my fertility.

I’m telling you all of this because you need to know it. I need you to know what I went through, and I need you to know that I’m angry about it. I’m angry that when I came to you in November 2013 and complained that I was having some bleeding after sex, you told me I had a sensitive cervix, probably due to changing hormones. The only tests you did were swabs for infection. I’m angry you didn’t do a Pap test based on the knowledge that over the previous few years my tests had been clear. I’m angry that with my history of HPV (since 2007), abnormal Pap tests and multiple colposcopies/biopsies, you didn’t consider that a Pap test was warranted even though bleeding after intercourse is a symptom of cervical cancer, in which more than 90% of cases are caused by high-risk strands of HPV, one of which I have. I’m angry that I went on for almost a year thinking that the bleeding I was having was due to my “sensitive cervix”. I’m angry that when I returned in July 2014, less than a year later, it was so obvious that something was wrong the moment you did an internal exam and had to do a biopsy. I’m angry that less than a week later I had to get a phone call that I had cervical cancer. I’m angry that there’s a great possibility that my cancer could have been caught almost a year sooner if a Pap test would have been administered when I first complained of the bleeding.

When I was first diagnosed you offered your cell phone number, told me to text or call if I ever had questions or needed to talk. You made me feel like you were there for me through this horrible ordeal and that made me feel good. For a while you seemed genuine. You would answer my messages or voicemails fairly quickly based on your schedule. But as things progressed in my cancer journey, you stopped answering. It was hurtful and it was wrong. I often wonder if it was because you knew you’d messed up.

I went through a lot during my cancer journey, I still do. I was out of work during the months after my surgery and during treatment to allow my body to heal. My husband was also out of work during part of this time, so we had very little money coming in and a family to feed and a roof to keep over our heads. But at least he could keep me company during some of my chemo and radiation. We made it through with help from our loving and supportive family. I developed quite a bit of anxiety that I still take Xanax for; it doesn’t stop me from being fearful that my cancer will return, but it does soften the horrible panic attacks I’d been having. I’ll always be scared that cancer will come back, that I won’t get to see my little girl (who just celebrated her eighth birthday by the way) grow up, get married, and have children of her own.

I am currently NED for two years and my amazing gynecologic oncologist feels I’ll remain that way. I can only pray he’s right and that I get to live to be an old woman. But even though I am healthy, which I thank God for every single day, I am still angry with you. People have suggested I file a law suit, that your not performing a Pap test based on my history and symptoms was malpractice. I’ve considered it multiple times, but what would it fix? Yes, we could certainly use the money, but would it truly help anyone?

I’m writing you this letter because you need to know that I’m alive and I’m thriving, but that it could have been worse. I need you to know that I always wonder how things would have been if you had performed a Pap test on me when I first came in and discussed with you that I was bleeding after intercourse. No one can know what would have happened, but considering it was almost a year before my cancer diagnosis, I often think my treatment would have been far less invasive. Maybe a LEEP or cone would have been enough to rid my body of cervical cancer. Maybe I could have avoided a full hysterectomy, chemo and radiation, and could have had more children. Maybe I wouldn’t be in full blown menopause in my mid-30s. Maybe I wouldn’t have severe panic attacks.

But you can’t go back and change what has already happened. I can only be happy that I’m alive and healthy and able to see my beautiful, intelligent, compassionate daughter grow. That I can enjoy everyday to its fullest. But you need to know that there are other women out there like me who will trust you and take your words without questioning them. You need to know that a Pap test is warranted whenever a woman with a past of HPV comes in with even the slightest possible symptom that could signal cervical cancer or precancer.

I am an advocate with Cervivor now, a non-profit organization that educates women about HPV and HPV-related cancers. I’m using my story to help women understand these diseases and their bodies, so maybe they won’t have to go through what I did. I’m using the worst and most difficult thing that has ever happened to me, to help others.

I hope you understand that when I hit my five year NED mark that I will not return to your office. I hope you know that when someone tells me they’re a patient of yours, I ask them to be cautious and consider seeing someone else. Because I’m angry and because I worry for them. I know in my heart that you are a good person, but I also know that there’s a pretty good chance that my cancer journey could have been at least a little easier had you done the right testing in the first place. I hope you’ve already learned from my story when you surely heard from my oncologist, who you recommended, that I would need invasive surgery and then further treatment. I hope it made you stop and think and regret enough that you’ve been more diligent in the care of other patients.

Cervical Cancer Awareness Month

If you didn’t know, January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month (CCAM). It is a time for us to remind women how important it is to get their annual well woman check-ups and a time for us to remember the women who have gone through cervical cancer or who we have lost due to cervical cancer. I could go into all the details of cervical cancer, HPV, and prevention, but instead I’ll suggest you read up on it yourself at

This post is going to remain short. Tomorrow, January 31, is the final day of CCAM. Many women I know from Cervivor have been busting their butts on social media, through local community events, and on blogs to advocate so more women are better educated about cervical cancer and HPV. We “Cervivors” are saddened when yet another woman is diagnosed and has to go through what we’ve gone through (and may still be going through). We strive to inform and communicate with our friends, family and total strangers in hopes that we can prevent even just one more case of cervical cancer.

What I ask is that, no matter who you are or if cervical cancer has affected you on a personal level or not, on January 31 you go to work or school or the grocery store (or wherever your day takes you) wearing something teal and white, even something small.

Some may wonder what wearing particular colors for just one day can do… It offers support to women diagnosed with cervical cancer. It offers understanding to women who are Cervivors. And it can offer a reminder to women who may be at risk to make an important appointment and to listen to their bodies.

Wear it proud. Show it off. And remind the women in your life to keep up on their well woman exams so we can reduce the number of women being diagnosed each day. And remember, cervical cancer doesn’t care about how old you are.