I was stunned to learn I had cervical cancer at age 63. My annual pap smears had, for the most part, been normal since my early 20s. On the rare occasion when abnormal cells were found the pap smear was “normal” again within three months.
The physicians assistant (PA) was not concerned when I got the first abnormal pap smear. But three months later we became frustrated when the lab results showed there were not enough cells to get a reading on each of the next four pap smears she submitted. She referred me to a gynecologist.
The gynecologist reassured me that many menopausal women lack the moisture to get an accurate pap smear reading. He then performed a more “vigorous” pap smear.
Unfortunately, the new pathology report was abnormal again. The test showed I not only had atypical squamous cells but, for the first time, my DNA also tested positive for the human papillomavirus (HPV). I was shocked! Especially since no HPV virus had been detected six months earlier.
A biopsy was scheduled for the following week.
A fact sheet from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said there are five main types of cancer that affect women’s reproductive organs: cervical, ovarian, uterine, vaginal, and vulvar. A rare sixth type is in the fallopian tube.
The CDC said the human papillomavirus (HPV) is the main cause of cervical cancer and all women are at risk. More than a 100 types of HPV can be passed through sexual contact from one person to another. People infected by one type of HPV are still at risk for infection from other types. Most sexually active women become infected with the virus, but only 10% remain infected for more than five years.
In 2009 (the most recent year numbers are available) 12,357 women in the United States were diagnosed with cervical cancer and 3,909 women died from it. Cervical cancer used to be the leading cause of cancer death for women in the United States. However, the number of deaths from cervical cancer have decreased due to women getting regular pap tests in the past 40 years. Cervical cancer generally progresses slowly and is very treatable in the early stages.
My gynecologist said my biopsy results were worse than he suspected. They showed both abnormal and precancerous cells. He recommended a Cone Biopsy to remove the precancerous tissues. He explained conization is a surgical procedure that removes a cone-shaped piece of tissue from the cervix much like removing an apple core. The surgery is performed under general anesthesia in an operating room.
After the surgery the cone biopsy pathology report had good news and bad news. The bad news was I had cancer in my upper cervix and precancer and abnormal cells in my mid and lower cervix. The good news is the cancer had not yet spread to other areas and the margins along the cone-shaped tissue my gynecologist removed were clear of cancer. This meant no further treatment was needed. I was ecstatic.
However, my gynecologist said to make sure all the cancer was removed I would need a pap smear every four months for a year and then an annual pap smear for the rest of my life.
The CDC's campaign called, “Inside Knowledge: Get the Facts About Gynecologic Cancer” was particularly helpful. The campaign helps women get the facts about gynecologic cancer and provides important “inside knowledge” about women's bodies and health.
Having cervical cancer forced me to learn more about my body and the female anatomy. I had to look at a diagram to figure out where everything was. I also discovered I was not alone. A number of friends had a blank stare when I said cervical cancer. One friend repeatedly referred to my “colon cancer” and another my “uterus.”
After hearing my story I was surprised to learn that six of my female friends had gone through similar experiences. Sadly, one friend said her sister died of cancer of the vulva in her early 40s.
I feel fortunate and blessed to get a second chance to live and enjoy my wonderful life with Bud, my husband and heart's companion, who has stood by me for 17 years.