In 2001, I made my annual visit to the gynecologist, just like I had every year. A week after my appointment, my doctor called me back and explained that my Pap test results were abnormal. After removing tissue for a biopsy, they found cervical dysplasia, or abnormal cells on the surface of the cervix. (Read risk factors for cervical cell changes) They ran more tests, and about a week later I was diagnosed with cervical cancer. (Read how HPV causes cervical cancer and abnormal Pap smears).
I was completely shocked. Here I was, a college-educated woman who lived in Manhattan, and I really had no idea that the Pap test was used to diagnose cervical cancer. I knew I was supposed to go the gynecologist once a year, but I didn’t really know why. The symptoms in early cases are often silent, and I hadn’t exhibited any signs of cancer. My abnormal Pap test was the first indication.
The diagnosis terrified me. I had a 2½-year-old and an 8-month-old baby, and I was working on a fashion show and launching a new product line. On a personal level, I was afraid that I wouldn’t be there for my children; professionally, I was afraid that if people knew about my diagnosis, they would think of me as sick and be uncomfortable doing business with my company. It was so upsetting that any time I talked about it I burst into tears. I kept silent about it for a long time.
I decided to have a hysterectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation. It was difficult to accept. It was the right choice for me, but that’s not the case for all women. If the disease is caught early enough, many women can have fertility-sparing surgery.
Since my hysterectomy, I’ve been cancer-free for almost eight years. Now I feel absolutely compelled to tell my story, because it really shows how it can happen to anyone. Look at the stats: 80% of women will be exposed to human papillomavirus (HPV), which is transmitted sexually. Some types of HPV cause genital warts, but others have no symptoms at all. Most of the time, the infection goes away on its own. But in some cases (and certain strains of the virus are worse than others), women end up with damage in the cells of the cervix, which can become cancerous.
A recent survey suggested that 89% of mothers didn’t think they were at risk for HPV or weren’t sure if they were at risk. Women need to know how important it is to speak to their health-care professionals about HPV, and to have regular Pap tests to check for cancer. The HPV vaccine may be an option for a lot of women. (Learn about the HPV vaccine and why it's controversial).