What I Wish I Knew About Cervical Cancer Risk and Screening

“I did not realize that the risk of developing cervical cancer was still present as I age. Had I known that, I would not have skipped my annual pelvic exam.”

Patti Murillo-Casa stands next to words that say Cervical Cancer What I Wish I Knew

Photo Courtesy of Patti Murillo-Casa

I was diagnosed with stage 2B cervical cancer at the age of 48 in 2008. In a thousand years, I never expected to hear the words, “You have cervical cancer.” Yet, here they were coming out of the mouth of my doctor.

In an instant, I went numb and my life went dark. I had just retired from the New York Police Department after 23 years, and I was looking forward to enjoying my retirement and traveling with my husband.   

In seconds, I was thrown into the unknown. I did not know anyone who had cervical cancer or, in that moment, why I got it. I just knew I was about to fight for my life hoping to make it to the other side.

I had not visited my gynecologist for three years prior to my diagnosis. My doctor had retired, and I did not feel the urgent need to look for another one. I had been in a monogamous relationship with my husband for 10 years at the time, and I was in good health. So I thought. 

I had no symptoms until I started bleeding between menstrual cycles, which I accredited to the anxiety I felt getting ready to leave my job. However, the bleeding became progressive to the point that I could no longer ignore it.  

I finally saw a doctor. She did not like what she saw and took a biopsy. The biopsy came back inconclusive, but she felt the need to refer me to a gynecologic oncologist. Mind you, she did not say I had cancer at this time, but the fact remains that the word oncology can scare anyone.  

It was all happening fast. The next week, I saw the gynecologic oncologist, and he performed another biopsy. But this time the reality of the situation was clear—I had cancer. A cancer I had never heard of. 

My doctor had to give me a crash course. I was hearing words like human papillomavirus (HPV), sexually transmitted infection (STI), radiation, chemotherapy, brachytherapy, and the list went on. All of this information was too much for me to comprehend at once.

My tumor was too big, so I was not a candidate for a hysterectomy. Instead, my doctor decided to treat me with 35 treatments of external radiation, seven treatments of chemotherapy, and two treatments of brachytherapy (internal radiation). The journey was difficult, and at times I wanted to quit and give up. The support of my husband, family, and friends was instrumental in getting me through the uphill battle.  

In May of 2009, the treatments had worked, and my scans showed that I had no evidence of disease. I had actually made it to the other side. But this is not the end of the story, as other people with cancer know. People who have never experienced cancer—whether themselves or through a loved one—may think that we can continue with our lives and pick up where we left off. It is far from the truth. 

I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I am alive, and I am so very grateful for that. I also think I’m lucky because I do not have too many secondary effects from treatments compared to others who have gone through this. The secondary effects that I do deal with are reminders of the monster that once lived in my body. The monster that, at times, I feel might return no matter how far I am from my original diagnosis.  

The way I go on is with gratitude for every single day I open my eyes and with the purpose of educating other women—especially Latinas—with what I wish I would have known before my diagnosis.  

What I Wish I Knew Before 

Even though I am educated and well-rounded, I did not know that at the age of 48 I was at risk for cervical cancer. Cervical cancer does not discriminate on age. It can be diagnosed as early as 20, but it occurs most often in people over age 30. I did not realize that the risk of developing cervical cancer was still present as I age. Had I known that, I would not have skipped my annual pelvic exam.  

The annual pelvic exam is important regardless of your sexual history—or lack thereof—to prevent a cervical cancer diagnosis. During these exams, your healthcare provider can perform a Pap test to find changes in your cervix before cancer develops. 

I also wish I had heard of HPV, an STI and the culprit of most cervical cancer cases. HPV is the most common STI, and most people who have sex will be infected with it at some point in their lives. Most times, HPV causes no symptoms and goes away on its own. But when it doesn’t go away, HPV may cause cancer. Of course, there should not be any stigma or shame about having HPV or it being the cause of your cervical cancer.  

My doctor confirmed that HPV was what caused my cervical cancer. During an annual pelvic exam, a healthcare provider can perform an HPV test. This test can detect the presence of certain types of HPV in your body that are more likely to lead to cervical cancer. I could have had this test if I had known about the connection. 

One of the most important things I wish I had known is that I was not alone. Don’t get me wrong, I had awesome support from my husband, family, and friends. However, I felt alone. I did not know anyone who had gone through what I was going through. But I discovered that there are people with similar stories like mine who support each other and let you know that you are not alone. 

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Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Basic information about cervical cancer.

  2. American Cancer Society. Key statistics for cervical cancer.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Genital HPV infection – basic fact sheet.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What are the risk factors for cervical cancer?

  5. American Cancer Society. HPV and HPV testing.

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