When triathlete Maria Lea De Jesus was diagnosed with early stage cervical cancer in 2014 after a routine Pap test, she feared being sidelined from her sport.
“I run -- a lot. I just can’t sit still,” says Lea, 49. She trains for endurance sports six days a week, year-round. Her accomplishments include completing over 10 marathons and two IRONMAN triathlons – a 2.4-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run.
Lea works as an ultrasound technologist at MD Anderson. So, after her initial diagnosis, she asked a co-worker to recommend an oncologist. She was quickly referred to Kathleen Schmeler, M.D.
“I trusted Dr. Schmeler the minute I met her,” Lea says. “She just has a positive aura.”
Simple hysterectomy for a quick recovery
Lea had two biopsies and an MRI to stage her disease and determine the best course of treatment.
Her care team decided that Lea would have a simple hysterectomy as part of Schmeler’s ConCerv trial, an innovative study using less radical surgery for cervical cancer. This approach removes the uterus and cervix as well as surrounding lymph nodes. It’s an alternative to the standard radical hysterectomy, which also removes surrounding parametrial tissue and the top part of the vagina.
“I read a lot about it and knew Dr. Schmeler was only going to take out what was necessary,” says Lea, adding that she wasn’t nervous for the surgery.
She recalls the operating room as all smiling faces. “I remember Dr. Schmeler talking to me and then it felt like I was dreaming,” Lea says. “I woke-up in the post-anesthesia care unit feeling relatively strong.”
The next day, Lea went home.
Back to triathlon training
“The less invasive procedure has fewer side effects and helped Lea get back to work and training sooner,” Schmeler says. Lea completed a half-marathon mountain run in Canada and the IRONMAN 70.3 Austin less than six months post-surgery.
But Lea also values her post-surgery recovery time, which she calls a month-long rest day. “It was the first time I took a break from training since ... I don’t even know,” she says.
During her recovery, Lea woke-up early every morning and walked her dogs. “I was able to think more and feel more,” she says. “It was a totally different experience for me.”
Don’t skip your Pap test
Lea is thankful to have been part of the research for a less invasive procedure for cervical cancer. She encourages other women with early stage disease to take her same path.
But here’s her most important advice to other women: don’t skip your Pap test. Catching cancer early, Lea says, allowed her to have a simple procedure, recover more quickly and go on with her life cancer-free.