In spring 2017, I was diagnosed with HPV after a routine ob-gyn visit. I didn’t know how severe HPV could be; I thought it was the kind of thing a doctor could just get rid of. But then it was revealed I already had precancerous changes on my cervix. I remember thinking, “Oh, HPV is kind of serious, huh?”
When I was diagnosed with precancer, I had a procedure to prevent the cell changes from advancing to cervical cancer. My understanding was they would remove precancerous cells from my cervix. But they found a tumor during the procedure, and I was officially diagnosed with cervical cancer in May. I was 29.
Looking back, I had had two yeast infections within a year, and prior to that I hadn’t had one in over seven years, so that was weird to me. I also had some bloating, although these issues may not be related and cervical cancer often has no symptoms.
I didn’t know how small or how severe the cancer was, or how much of my body was affected by cancer. My first thought was that I was going to be sick from chemotherapy and eventually die. That’s the perception I had of cancer from movies and magazines. The doctor gave me some names of specialists to call, and I went to my car to call them and just started crying. I ended up crying in my car for 30 minutes and missed pickup time for my 5-year-old son at school. My neighbor picked him up, and when I got home, I gave him extra hugs.
I remember staring at him that day wondering what was going to happen to him, how his life would turn out if I died. What kind of person would he be? Who would raise him? That was probably the hardest part of my whole journey, wondering what would happen to him.
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I stopped my work as a wedding photographer. I figured I couldn’t book any clients if I didn't know if I was going to be sick or even alive to commit to them. I started decluttering my house. That was my way of preparing to die so that my parents wouldn’t have to do it afterward.
The first specialist I saw said a radical hysterectomy—surgery to remove the uterus—was the best option for me, even though I would lose my ability to carry another child. The option of growing my family would be taken away from me. I only had my one son, but I had always wanted four children.
I didn’t tell many people about my diagnosis at first. I didn’t want anyone to be sad for me. If they were hugging me and crying for me, I would have completely broken down. It was my way of staying strong by protecting them. But eventually I told more people, including one of my managers (I also work as a gymnastics coach). She urged me to get a second opinion. I didn’t want to because I thought I already knew the game plan. But she kept nagging, so I agreed to do it.
I found another doctor online at Holy Name Medical Center in New Jersey who had experience in cervical cancer treatment and seemed to be involved in the community, which showed me that she was a caring person. She got me into her office very quickly. That was surprising; I had to wait so long for my other doctor appointments. She told me that while a radical hysterectomy would be safe for me, it wouldn’t allow me to grow my family. In my head I’m thinking, “Yeah, I already know this, but it’s my final option.”
But she said I had another option. She went on to explain the details of my tumor and my particular situation, which no other doctor had previously done. She understood I wasn’t done building my family, so she told me I was a perfect candidate for a radical tracheletomy instead. She explained the procedure: I would keep my uterus, and she would remove just my cervix and lymph nodes. Then, if I wanted to carry another child, I would have to get a cerclage, or a cervical stitch, to close the uterus to make sure the fetus didn’t fall out.
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I loved that she explained my tumor to me. It pushed me to go through all my paperwork so I could better understand my diagnosis and treatment. It was relieving that I had another option, but now I had to make a decision about what route to take: the very well-known route or the route that I had never heard about before. I wanted pregnancy to be an option, so I decided to go with the trachelectomy.
I had planned to tell my son about my diagnosis at the end of August, but that week we coincidentally had a family friend die of cervical cancer. He heard conversations about it, so he knew the words “cervical cancer” now; I couldn’t tell him I had the same disease. I waited until my surgery was coming up in September. I knew I couldn’t disappear and return home with a new scar without him knowing what’s going on. I told him the doctor said I had bad cells in my body that needed to be taken out so that I didn’t get sick.
The day of the surgery was rough. My surgery was supposed to be at 3 p.m. but ended up being at 7 p.m., and I couldn’t eat after midnight the night before. All the nurses and doctors were wonderful—my cousin was there with me, and my mom even tried to set me up on a date with the anesthesiologist. I became nauseous from the pain medication and got sick during the middle of the night. I was scared I was going to reopen the incision by vomiting, but the next morning, it was very relieving to find out that I didn’t have to be put together again. I didn’t have enough energy to talk very much.
To leave the hospital, I had to be able to walk. I couldn’t get very far at first, but each time I tried, I went a little farther. I came home with a catheter, which was very annoying and uncomfortable, especially in the shower. I had to leave extra early in the morning to take my son to school because I was walking so slowly so the bag wouldn’t fall off my leg.
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After surgery, my son was very happy that I couldn’t do much but stay home. He likes to jump on top of me; he was sad we weren’t able to do that while I recovered. I finally told him I had had a tumor, and we left it at that for some time. Later, he heard a commercial about cancer, and he asked me what it was. I described it to him, and he said, “Oh, like your tumor?” He put those things together himself. “That’s exactly what it was,” I explained. “Mommy had a tumor and that’s why doctors had to take it out.”
I didn’t say the word “cancer” to him until this past summer. I took a class at the hospital about how to talk to kids about cancer, which taught me that children are so young, they don’t have the same views that we do. Adults know so many sad stories; kids are so innocent that cancer is what we tell them.
I was given the green light to go back to work in the middle of November, but I still didn’t feel strong enough. It was very difficult, and I had to ask for a lot off help. I could not deal with my emotions. I asked my doctor to recommend some therapists, and I started doing yoga through a cancer survivor support group.
The green light to have sex took longer, about three months following my surgery. I can get pregnant normally, but mine would be a high-risk pregnancy, so I’d need a special ob-gyn. I'd also have to get the cerclage procedure before I'm too far along. I’m sure when the time comes, I’ll have a bunch of more questions that my doctors will happily answer.
I’ve started asking doctors for printed results of exams and tests, so I can read all the tiny details. It’s so important to pay attention to what your body is telling you and to follow through and ask the doctor a load of questions. Go get regular screenings, especially if you feel like there's something going on in your body.
I’ve also started having these slow-motion movements like I’m in a movie, where I'm appreciating a beautiful sunset or snow falling or my son jumping through leaves. I was always very appreciative of the things I have and the people around me, but after surgery, I am really soaking in life. A friend of mine shared the perfect quote: “It doesn’t matter if your glass is half full or half empty. Be grateful that you even have a glass.”
Jane Martinez is partnering with the American Cancer Society, SU2C, Genentech, and Rally Health to promote awareness for cervical cancer screening during the annual Cancer Screen Week.
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