I hadn’t heard of the human papillomavirus (HPV) before my routine well woman exam in 2004. But when my gynecologist asked if I’d like to be tested for HPV, I agreed to do so since I was already there. I wasn’t having any issues or symptoms, so I wasn’t worried.
Then the results came back: I had tested positive for the strands of the virus linked to cervical cancer. My doctor assured me I was OK, but said that I’d need an exam every six months to keep an eye on things.
As the years went by, everything was fine. I had my son in 2006, and my daughter in 2008. Being a busy mom, I let my regular six-month check-ups lapse. When I went in for my exam in 2009, about 15 months after my daughter was born, they found cancer on my cervix. By that time, the cervical cancer was at stage IIIA.
I will never forget that day – our world turned upside down. I went home to play with my kids on the floor, thinking that they were going to grow up without their mother. No one close to me had really had to deal with cancer before. So to me, cancer just meant hair loss, sickness, weakness and possibly death.
Finding hope and compassion at MD Anderson
I wanted to go to MD Anderson, and my husband insisted on it. Why wouldn’t we go to a world-renowned cancer hospital that was a 45-minute drive away?
When we got the call from MD Anderson to set up our appointment, we realized how knowledgeable and well-prepared they were. We will never forget Evette Hamilton, the patient access specialist who set us up with the paperwork and got us checked in. She was our first true impression of MD Anderson, and was so helpful and full of positive energy and optimism.
Evette made me feel like I had already beaten my cancer when the fight hadn’t yet begun. My husband and I fell in love with her immediately.
My cervical cancer treatment
Anuja Jhingran, M.D., and Kathleen Schmeler, M.D., not only worked as a team to find the best treatment for me; they showed compassion and genuine concern for me and my family. To this day, I consider Dr. Schmeler to be both my oncologist and my friend.
My cervical cancer treatment included six weeks of radiation with weekly chemotherapy, followed by two weeks of brachytherapy, or internal radiation. I took the first three weeks like a champ! I was working in downtown Houston at the time and drove to MD Anderson for radiation treatments on my lunch breaks and chemo after work. Easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy.
Then came weeks four and five. I had to take a leave of absence from work. By the sixth week, the radiation burn was so painful that going to the restroom brought me to tears. I was taking anti-diarrhea medicine like it was candy. But I could see the light at the end of the tunnel.
After my treatment was complete, the tumor was no longer visible, and life resumed.
My total pelvic exenteration
A year later, in October 2010, the tumor was back in the same place. Things had just gotten REAL.
I had to undergo a dramatic surgery, called a total pelvic exenteration. This involved removing my uterus, cervix, ovaries, fallopian tubes and vagina, as well as my bladder and part of my colon, rectum and intestines. The recovery was hard, but I got through it and was able to once again resume life with my family.
Protecting my children against HPV-related cancers
Despite that terrifying ordeal, I am thankful to still be here over five years later. I take some comfort in knowing what caused my cancer -- HPV, a virus that infects 8 out of every 10 people in the United States at some point in their lives. While most infections are harmless, several HPV strains are responsible for most cervical, genital and oropharyngeal (middle throat) cancers.
Knowing that there is a vaccine to protect my children against HPV brings me hope. Today, I can have both my daughter and my son vaccinated against HPV so that they never have to endure what I went through. A simple series of three shots is all it will take to keep my children protected against HPV and the risk of cancer that comes with it. I take comfort in knowing that one day, cervical cancer could be a thing of the past, truly Making Cancer History®.
Kara Million volunteers with myCancerConnection, MD Anderson’s one-on-one support program for patients and caregivers. Learn more about myCancerConnection.
HPV-related cancers are one of the areas MD Anderson is focusing on as part of our Moon Shots Program to end cancer. Learn more about our HPV-Related Cancers Moon Shots.