Life is never the same after you hear the "C" word. And of course, we all think it will never happen to us. It was July, 2005. I was 31 years old. As the doctor shined the bright lights on my cervix, he noticed something bulging from it. Tears slid down my cheeks. I had no symptoms. He called his partner in to take a look, and both agreed it was a simple fibroid that was very vascular. I pushed to have this mass removed since it was summer, and I was off work as a school teacher. They removed the 4cm "fibroid" and it fell apart in the doctor's hand. He was baffled, and sent it to the pathologist for further review. He still felt strongly that it was not cancer. I had a stack of 15 years worth of perfect pap smears. I thought I was in great health, as I had just had a c-section for with my 2nd child just 9 months before the cancer discovery.
The next day, I received the dreaded phone call to come in to speak with the doctor. I will never forget that drive to the hospital--how my heart was beating out of my chest. As I type this, that memory still makes me tear up. It was a defining moment for me--the day that my life went from B.C. (Before Cancer) and A.C. (After Cancer). As I heard the doctor sharing the bad news--my life flashed before my eyes. Words such as "Radical Hysterectomy, Radiation, Chemo" seemed to echo as I was swallowed by the reality of my cancer diagnosis. What started out as a supposed "fibroid" that was "not cancer", ended up being diagnosed as "Adenocarcinoma Cervical Cancer 1B2". This same day, my pap smear test results arrived in the mail. My pap test was still NORMAL even with a 4 cm tumor bulging from my cervix. Had it not been bulging, they say I would have gone home and been dead within a year.
The next three months were a blur to me. We sought out 4 different opinions as to how to proceed with my treatment. I had my Radical Hysterectomy August 19, 2005. They removed my cervix, uterus, appendix, and 44 lymph nodes that all came back clear. I went home with a catheter hanging from my lower abdomen. I had to retrain my bladder as the surgery cut very close to the nerves. This was a very difficult time for me, as my two young children had moved in with family since I was too sick to care for them or even lift them. I spent many nights crying in the baby room, missing my children. After I healed from the surgery, it was time to receive five weeks of IMRT guided external radiation. The radiation is what put me in a surgically induced menopause.This made me sick, but I made it through with the help of pharmaceuticals, wonderful medical professionals, and family/friends.
I would like to say that once I beat the cancer---it was over; however, the hard part came later. As I share my story, I want very much to emphasize how important it is to deal with the emotional/hormonal/spiritual side of being a "Survivor". I marched right past the survivor desk in the Cancer Treatment Center of my hospital. Perhaps I was too busy or maybe I thought I was strong enough to keep marching forward. That was a mistake for me.
Three years later, I suffered a breakdown that can be attributed to a variety of things. Was it Hormones? Was it Exhaustion? Was it Depression? Was it ADHD? Why was the old Shawna not the same? I was literally walking around as a shell--a fraction of who I used to be. And I needed to deal with it all. After meeting with a wonderful doctor, who was the lead oncology psychiatrist at a very prominent hospital (specializing in cancer survivors)--the puzzle began to make sense. At the crux of it all of this adversity was a diagnosis that often mimics Depression/ADHD---I had PTSD due to the cancer experience. Discovering this was the beginning of my healing.
I worked feverishly to overcome the issues I was having. After reading many books, working diligently through therapy, a year off from teaching first grade, bio-identical hormone management, support from people who could embrace the "new" Shawna, and much prayer---I have rebuilt my life as something more beautiful than I could have ever imagined. After a difficult divorce, I feel my prize at the end of the cancer struggles was reconnecting with my high school sweetheart. We are engaged and he loves me for who I am--cancer or no cancer. I have been able to become the survivor I am meant to be. I am 100% the mother, teacher, friend, and fiance I want to be. I have a story to tell and a mission to eradicate this cancer through education and HPV awareness.
Please know the value of networking with other survivors. While many of you may not experience PTSD or any psychological issues from your cancer. Be on the look out for those who may develop these symptoms. And please know that time, support, and prayer will help you truly be a survivor with a story to tell.