Monday, October 25, 2010

I Thought I Was Invincible

I wrote this story that was published on Tia's Way which is a website dedicated to Cervical Cancer you can check it out at I believe in the power of transparency to spread knowledge. Please read and spread the word.

I Thought I Was Invincible

By: Serena T. Wills

In the early part of 1995 I received a call from my gynecologist that changed my 20 year old free spirited mind. She said, “We received the results from your pap smear and it appears to be abnormal. We need you to come in for a biopsy.”

Scared I instantly cried, “Dr. G what’s wrong, why is it abnormal?”

Her comforting voice that reminded me that she was a mother said, “Honey we have to do a colposcopy exam which consists of me taking a closer look at your cervix with an electric microscope and the biopsy. Don’t be alarmed yet. I want to see you first thing in the morning. Please call your mother.”

When we got off the phone I sat on the stool at the kitchen counter of my apartment at Syracuse University. It was March 1995 and I suddenly felt like the weather which was dank and cold. Not knowing who I could talk too I followed her instruction and called my mother who lived in Queens, New York which was 5 hours south of me. Her calming voice said, “I want you to call me after the exam tomorrow, do they at least know what it is and what caused it?”

I shook my head as if she could see me, “No Ma they don’t, but I’ll get answers soon.”

By the beginning of the next week I was told that I had abnormal cells and luckily they were benign. They lied dormant because every year I had my annual appointment and they never appeared. The doctor described that some patients could be walking around with abnormal cells for years and not know it until it festers into a virus or worst case cervical cancer. Dr. G told me, “There is a procedure called a LEEP (Loop Electrosurgical Excision Procedure) which is a laser method that I could schedule with the oncologist that I work closely with to get the cells removed.”

Thinking of a laser in that area of my body wasn’t a pleasant thought but if I let the cells fester they could have turned cancerous. I agreed to the procedure and it was scheduled for beginning of April. Before we hung up the phone I asked, “How does one get this virus or infection that I have?”

Her response was in the form of a question, “Can I ask you a personal question? Have you had unprotected sex with your partner?”

I cried as I responded, “Yes.” I was sad because my mother raised me to use protection and now because I didn’t I was going through a procedure that would keep me out of school for a couple of days and change my life.

After I had the procedure I was told that I would feel cramping, bleeding and couldn’t have sex for 6-8 weeks which wasn’t a problem for me. I didn’t tell my friends what I had undergone until after we graduated a couple of years later because I was ashamed. But now I know that I should have advocated for safe sex and could have taught other students about it even though it didn’t have a name.

Fast forward to March 2001, exactly 7 years after my first episode I received an alarming call from my gynecologist. The abnormal cells returned but they were benign again. Dr. M said, “You have Human Papilloma Virus better known as HPV. There is no cure for HPV but it can be treated.”
HPV is passed on from one person to the next through sex or even skin to skin in certain areas of the body that is infected with HPV. In most cases the body fights off the virus and the infection goes away without treatment. But in some women the infection can last and turn into cervical cancer.

I asked him what my options were since I’ve had a procedure before. He said he needed to do a colposcopy and we can go from there. After my exam a week later and the biopsy I was told that it was a mild case and that I could the freezing method called Cryosurgery which was safer to the uterus. If I had undergone another laser procedure (LEEP) then I would need a stitch to strengthen my uterus if I ever wanted children.

The procedure was scheduled and my whole visit took about an hour. There was less cramping afterwards and I went to work the next day. Today I can say I have been free from abnormal pap smears for 9+ years. Every year I will be tested for HPV and it’s the most nerve racking thing to wait for the results also I will now have to get a sonogram every year because of my mother’s case of Ovarian cancer.

Unfortunately for my mother (Marguerite Wills) results didn’t turn out well. Mom always made sure I went to the doctor annually but didn’t do the same for herself. She even came to Syracuse, NY when I had my procedure in April 1995 to help me get back on my feet and care for me.

In August 2009 she admitted herself to the hospital after having trouble breathing and moving her bowels. She was fatigued and thought she might have had a case of walking pneumonia. The results on August 10th, 2009 changed hers and my family’s life forever. The doctor at Jamaica Hospital said she had two malignant tumors one on each ovary. She had stage 4 Ovarian cancer and it had spread to her stomach.

Mom was inoperable and her lungs were compromised from the cancerous fluid that expunged from the tumors and made its way throughout her body. The only solution left was either chemotherapy or nothing. Mom decided to do chemotherapy and battled the cancer for six months. She passed away on February 19th, 2010. Throughout her journey we learned about ovarian cancer and all gynecological cancers. They are noted as “silent and secret” cancers. Once discovered they can become fast moving. Her doctor told me that when I go to the doctor to get lab work done to have them do the CA-125 test which measures a level of protein that’s found on the surface of many ovarian cancer cells. CA stands for cancer antigen. A normal level is about 35 or so. When Mom’s CA-125 was taken it was 3,000. Also to date although researchers are close to finding a test to detect Ovarian cancer there still isn’t one in place. This was reported on CNN in June 2010.

Today I’m now an advocate for finding a test for Ovarian cancer and all gynecological cancers and better drugs to attack it once discovered. I plan on making trips to Capitol Hill to talk to representatives in congress and senators about what needs to be done so the number of deaths and those that are diagnosed with gyn cancers can begin to lower until one day there is a cure.

I wrote this article to alert women of what to do and how to take care of themselves. Even the healthiest person can get cancer but this is how we can catch it early.
1. Go to the doctor regularly. Schedule your annual visit with your gynecologist.
2. Ask for the HPV test to be done even if you don’t think you have it. I was walking around and had no idea that I had abnormal cells until they were found.
3. Monitor your CA-125 when your lab work is done. Ask for a print out of all the results.
4. Practice safe sex.
5. Go to the doctor with your partner and get tested together for any STD’s.
6. Eat healthy, stay away from a lot of cholesterol, fat, etc. Eat a lot of vegetables, pure juice (invest in a juicer).
7. If you have abnormal periods consult your doctor right away.
Statistics on HPV and Gynecological Cancers:
According to a CDC report in December 2009 (Center for Disease Control) between 1998-2003 in a large study that approximately 24,900 HPV Cancers occur each year. 17,300 in women and 7,600 in men. Cervical cancer is the highest occurrence for women and head and neck/oral cancer for men which is HPV related.
On American Cancer Society website in 2010 there were about 12,200 new cases of invasive cervical cancer and about 4,210 deaths. If found early enough it can be cured.
On the American Cancer Society website in 2010 there were about 21,880 new cases of ovarian cancer and 13, 850 deaths. It is ranked as #5 for cause of cancer death in women. Around 50% of the women diagnosed are over the age of 60.
Get the facts and be educated so you can live healthier, become an advocate and write your congressman about more research and tests to be done for gynecological cancers that aren’t easily detected. One day I pray for a cure for all cancers so we can all live long and prosperous lives.