The moment you’re told there’s even a possibility you have cancer, the entire world seems to break apart and fall at your feet. At least that’s how I felt while sitting in my gynecologist’s office in July 2014. I’d been there less than a year prior (October 2013) after a few occurrences of bleeding after intercourse. At that appointment my doctor told me she felt I had a sensitive cervix due to hormonal changes, but she “ran some tests” to be on the safe side.
But by July 2014 I was questioning my body more and more. The bleeding after intercourse had become more frequent and I was suddenly dealing with watery discharge as well. It was more than I was willing to deal with and had hoped to discuss with my doctor changing my birth control pills in order to fix whatever “hormonal changes” were causing these problems. But when she did an internal exam the look of worry on her face and the mention of how easily I bled during the exam caused a million alarms to sound in my brain.
She wanted me to have a colposcopy (an exam where they more closely examine the cervix) and biopsy to see what we were dealing with, but the word cancer was mentioned as a possibility. She wanted me to come back later in the afternoon or the following day, but I begged her to do it immediately. Twenty minutes later I was holding a nurses hand as a lie with my feet in stirrups, tears flowing from my eyes, and my doctor poking and prodding at my cervix. When the exam and biopsy were complete, she told me she’d call me in a few days with the results.
That appointment was probably about an hour, but the memory of it flutters quickly through my mind because it was merely the first of many that followed with more doctors. But I remember during that hour asking how I could possibly have cancer when I’d had a clear pap exam last October. That’s when she told me I hadn’t had a pap exam in October when I’d visited with my first concerns of bleeding after intercourse. My last pap test had been two years prior and was clear, which was why she had only swabbed for the possibility of infection at my previous exam.
I was dumbfounded, and still am today, by the fact that I didn’t receive a pap test after discussing my bleeding, one of the few symptoms of cervical cancer. It upsets me to know that the bleeding I experienced in 2013 was more than likely an early symptom that progressed farther and farther until my July 2014 appointment which led to a phone call approximately five days later telling me I had cervical cancer and should make an appointment with a gynecologic oncologist immediately.
Of course I am most angry with my gynecologist who’d known my history of having HPV and abnormal pap tests off and on since 2007. A woman whose job it was to examine women daily and make choices to help them stay healthy. This was the woman who delivered my beautiful daughter in 2009. The woman who also treated other female family members. When I went to her in 2013 with a symptom of cervical cancer and the knowledge of HPV and past abnormal pap tests sat in black and white in my file, she made a professional choice not to do a pap test. A choice that allowed my cancer to progress. A choice that caused me to undergo a radical hysterectomy at the age of 34 as well as the five rounds of chemotherapy and 28 rounds of external radiation that followed.
And as angry as I am with my gynecologist, I’m also upset with myself for not asking the right questions during that first exam. I assumed that during my internal exam that when she swabbed me it was for a pap test. I never asked her what tests she was running. I never asked her if the bleeding could be associated with any previous issues I’d had. There was not a thought in my mind at all that I could suddenly have cervical cancer caused by the HPV that I’d pushed to the back of my mind after quite a few previous clear pap tests.
Two years later I am healthy with no evidence of disease (NED as we cancer survivors call it). I’ve been told I should consider filing a law suit against my gynecologist for not doing the appropriate test when I’d first complained of a symptom. But then I think to myself, what would that do? Sure, I could use the money, but what’s done is done and nothing can change the fact that I had cancer. I can no longer have children, but I am blessed to have my daughter. I have anxiety issues and the thought of cancer returning terrifies me, but I am alive.
It’s because of my doctor’s mistake that one of the most important things I tell women when it comes to my cancer journey is to be your own best advocate. No one else knows your body as well as you. If something doesn’t feel right, make an appointment and talk to your doctor about it. Make sure the appropriate tests are done for every possibility based on your symptoms. And if they’re not, find another doctor. Don’t wait until things get worse. When it comes to cancer, the earlier it’s caught the better the chance of survival. Refuse to become a statistic.