The HPV vaccine prevents several cancers, and it could have prevented mine. When I speak out in support of the HPV vaccine as a recurrent cervical cancer survivor, I find myself saying, “So others don’t have to go through what I am.”
But when I heard someone else say this, I realized others should know exactly what we‘ve gone through – or are going through – so parents understand why it’s so important to vaccinate their children. When it comes to making the case for vaccinating our children to keep them from getting cancer, the outside world needs to see cancer’s ugly side.
Here’s what I’ve been through.
Chemo: Nausea, fatigue, constipation and other side effects
When people think of chemotherapy, they may think of the nausea, fatigue and hair loss. But let me tell you, it’s much worse than that.
I took fistfuls of prescription drugs to counteract the side effects. That meant I had to deal with side effects from those drugs – the steroids that prevent nausea also prevent much-needed sleep. The anti-nausea medicine kept my vomiting at bay, but I was constantly dizzy and nauseous for months.
Often, I was in bed for days without eating. I crawled to the bathroom because it was the only strength I had.
After a recent round of chemo, I got so dizzy that I passed out on the floor of a convenience store. I vaguely remember feeling the grit of dirt on the ground, but I was so sick that the dirt didn't bother me. Chemo also made so sick that I missed most of my sons’ sporting events and even missed Christmas one year because I was so sick in bed. I lost so much as their mom that I’m not even sure how much I lost.
People rarely talk about constipation when they talk about cancer treatment and the anti-nausea medications, but it’s real – and let me tell you, it’s terribly unpleasant. Imagine not going to the bathroom for days and then having to take something else to combat the constipation.
Emotional anguish greater than physical pain
HPV cancers like mine also require extensive surgeries – and the effects of these surgeries. When I was originally diagnosed, I had a hysterectomy. I was 36 and trying to have another child. Not only did I experience significant physical pain and discomfort from the surgery; I also experienced deep emotional scars from not being able to have more children.
I was “lucky” since I had two wonderful sons. Many women have hysterectomies to cure cervical cancer before having children, and not being able to give birth often brings far deeper pain than any physical effects.
I was also “lucky” not to have to need an even more brutal surgery that some cervical cancer patients require – pelvic exenteration, which removes the uterus, cervix, ovaries, fallopian tubes and vagina, as well as the bladder and part of the colon, rectum and intestines. The physical pain of that surgery might be easier than the emotional anguish.
The unspoken parts of radiation therapy
I recently had 28 rounds of radiation for my second cervical cancer recurrence. It was emotionally exhausting to face treatment daily.
My radiation area was a chain of lymph nodes in my pelvis. My small bowel also was radiated because of its location. As someone told me, if you can imagine the inside of your bowel being sunburned, it’s not going to be happy when there is anything passing through it. And believe me, mine wasn’t.
I was lucky to have external radiation and not brachytherapy, which is internal radiation. A friend who underwent brachytherapy told me that for weeks she felt like sparks were flying out of her vagina as she walked down the street.
Protecting family members
The other “things I went through” were likely the most significant -- the emotional effects of cancer. One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do was telling my parents and children that I had cancer – and later, that it was back. These are the people who love me most and can’t imagine living without me. It pains me to think of what they’ve had to face – the fear that cancer would take me from them.
But thanks to the HPV vaccine, my children will not likely have to tell me or their children that they have cancer. As a parent, I couldn’t ask for much more.
After all, I don’t want my children – or anyone’s children – to have to go through what I have. I don’t want their families to face what mine has or to have to worry about their loved one’s premature death – a death that could be prevented with the HPV vaccine. I hope that when other parents read about my experience, they’ll understand exactly what’s at stake – and what they can easily prevent with the HPV vaccine.