For years, I’d heard that most people my age had already been exposed to HPV, and I wondered how it might affect me. Still, I’d never had any problems, so I figured I was lucky.
Then, in May 2010, a routine Pap test came back abnormal, and everything changed. I was diagnosed with cervical cancer at age 45. Additional testing showed that it was caused by HPV.
How my HPV-related cervical cancer diagnosis affected my son
My HPV-related cervical cancer diagnosis was particularly hard on my son, who was only 15 at the time. My daughter had just graduated from college and lived far away, so it was just him and his dad at home in our small southeast Kansas town while I was in Houston for treatment.
My son tried to be tough, but having a mom with cancer is a big deal. It was a rough year for him. It wasn’t until recently that he shared how angry he’d been with me. He said he knows now that it was misdirected, but that he had to be mad at someone and I was it. I understood, but I also told him he was lucky. When I was his age, we didn’t even know what HPV was, much less how it was transmitted, and a vaccine wasn’t available yet.
Today, there’s a vaccine for HPV, so neither he nor any of his friends will have to go through what I did: major surgery (a radical hysterectomy), six weeks of chemotherapy or eight weeks of radiation. They also won’t have be away from their families or deal with the side effects I’m still facing, like a partial bowel obstruction caused by the treatment.
I can’t eat a lot of fat or fiber at one sitting anymore, or I end up having problems: lots of cramping and usually vomiting. I’ve gotten pretty good at identifying the triggers, so that doesn’t happen too often, but it’s still something I’ll have to watch the rest of my life. So far, I’ve been able to manage it with diet and laxatives, but that might not always be the case.
Spread the word, not the virus: get the HPV vaccine
Because I work in women’s health, part of my job is to educate the public about health issues. I often go to local middle schools to talk about human sexuality, STD testing and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases like HPV. I even went to my son’s seventh-grade class one year (much to his embarrassment).
I also made sure both of my kids got the HPV vaccine as soon as they were old enough, and I encourage other parents to do the same.
Vaccines can make the difference between life and death. So if I knew that a series of shots could prevent a child from ever having to experience even one moment of what I went through, there is no question I would have them get it.