Rose’s Cancer Survivor Story
—Rose T., Cervical Cancer Survivor
Age at diagnosis: 38
I live with my amazingly understanding husband of more than 23 years, Jeff, and our five children. Prior to my journey with cervical cancer, I ran 5 to 10 miles a day and coached girls’ cross country and boys’ track teams.
My journey began in June, 2009, as a simple twinge, like a cramp, in my lower right abdomen. I was 37 years old. While I was having symptoms I never had before (like pre-menstrual cramping), I just accepted that it was part of growing older. However as time went on, the pain became more severe, lasted longer, and couldn’t be controlled by over-the-counter medications. I finally went to the doctor and was diagnosed with a urinary tract infection (UTI)—my first ever, but certainly not my last, as I was diagnosed with several over the next few months.
In October, I took part in a local 5K run. The previous year I finished third, but this time I came nowhere near placing. I was barely able to finish. Not what one would expect from someone who was a runner since the age of 12 and had been putting in over 60 miles a week in training. That’s when I knew something was “off.” I decided to see my sports medicine doctor because I noticed a limp in my stride and some back pain during the race. What followed was a regimen of physical therapy and rest, but things did not get better.
One night, while being intimate with my husband, I was overcome with excruciating pain and began bleeding so badly that I went to the emergency room. The doctor performed a pelvic exam. He said that I needed to see my gynecologist as soon as possible. Now I was worried…What the heck was wrong with me?
From that point on, everything became a whirlwind, with one complication and diagnosis after another. To help with back pain and arthritis, I did a daily routine of stretching exercises. One morning as I was stretching, I felt—and heard—a loud POP. As instantly as it occurred I became aware of a strange tingling sensation from the top of my spine down to my toes, and the pain was gone! But I couldn’t move, bend, or lift my leg. It turns out I had shattered three vertebrae and was scheduled for surgery immediately. While scary, surgery offered hope that I might be able to go back to my “normal” life, free from constant back pain. Unfortunately, surgery was postponed because of other serious medical issues. I suffered through a grand mal seizure, coma, and MRSA. [Editor’s note: Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is a bacteria that is resistant to many antibiotics. Most MRSA infections are skin infections, but MRSA can cause life-threatening bloodstream infections, pneumonia, and surgical site infections.]
In August, 2010, when I was in the hospital finally having the back surgery, an urologist discovered I had a rather large solid mass, approximately 6 to 8cm in size. He was unsure if it was on my cervix or my ovary. Then I had another grand mal seizure, which put me in the ICU [intensive care unit]. There, it was discovered that I had cervical cancer, diagnosed as stage IV, inoperable, and terminal. The doctor said that I probably had six months to live, if I was lucky, and arrangements should be made to keep me as comfortable as possible for as long as possible.
But my husband and I decided to try to treat my condition. The first thing that happened when I arrived at the cancer hospital was exploratory surgery to assess my condition and remove 28 lymph nodes to look for the presence of cancer. Fortunately, there was no cancer in my lymph nodes. However, the cancer had invaded my bladder, colon, and vagina. It was causing loss of kidney function. I had my first stents and nephrostomy tubes inserted into my right kidney. This was necessary if there was any hope of being able to undergo chemotherapy and radiation. [Editor’s note: Nephrosotomy tubes are small flexible rubber tubes or catheters placed through the skin into the kidney to drain urine.]
I had five weekly sessions of chemotherapy in conjunction with 30 daily radiation treatments, followed by five brachytherapy treatments. [Editor’s note: Brachytherapy is a type of radiation therapy in which radioactive material is placed directly into or near a tumor. It’s also called implant radiation therapy, internal radiation therapy, and radiation brachytherapy.]
It would be wonderful to say all went according to plan, but when does it ever? There were several complications and some were very serious and life-threatening. I lost a tremendous amount of weight and couldn’t do anything for myself. But, on December 7, 2010, a year and a half from my first symptom, I completed treatment. Or so I thought.
On my first follow-up appointment, something suspicious was discovered and it turned out that cancer was still present. At this point there was truly only one option my doctor felt provided me with any chance of a “cure,” and that was major surgery known as a total pelvic exoneration (removal of all reproductive organs, and removal and reconstruction of my bladder and a significant portion of my large intestine, and my vaginal wall). The surgery lasted 16½ hours, but they declared it a success.
I am stubborn, obstinate, determined to live my LIFE…NOT my disease. I’ve been thrown some difficult challenges, but yes, there will be a rest of my life. I will NEVER give up!
I know that what I have been given is a gift. I plan to take every opportunity presented to me to make the most of it. I am doing what I can to help others avoid the same journey and let women know that they too can overcome cervical cancer and emerge as victorious as I am today. At least that is my wish.
I have made it my mission to bring attention to cervical cancer and HPV [human papillomavirus], the number one cause of all cervical cancer cases. One manner in which I do this is by being a local chapter leader for the National Cervical Cancer Coalition.
I volunteer with other organizations, as a mentor to women facing cervical cancer. I helped start an online support group with two other wonderful ladies. It has grown to over 50,000 members. The one thing which hits me the hardest is the stigma and shame so often expressed and felt by these women because of this disease and its association with a sexually transmitted infection. It is, yet, another reason I do what I do to get the facts out there about HPV and cervical cancer. These women have such tremendous strength, courage, and will to persevere. It is for all of them that I will continue my fight and help us all come to a better understanding about this disease. If I can do that, then EVERYTHING I have been through, or may yet go through, will have been worth it. It is my sincerest hope that my sharing my story will serve to help you in some way.