Disclaimer: The following essay contains graphic imagery.
I grew up in the tiniest town in Texas, a four-stoplight blip on Highway 71 where Friday nights revolve around the high school football game and the rodeo rolls through every July. Word gets around in a small town, and though I had always been excellent in school, I had a reputation for being a little wild because I drank a few beers with the boys on the weekends. This didn’t bother me much then because I wanted to be perfect, the model student who was also everyone’s best friend. I was voted prom queen and Most Likely to Succeed, and then I got out – way out to China, where the world’s attention was riveted, but healthcare was still extremely lacking.
This healthcare bit would change my life, but I couldn’t have known it at the time. Just before I left for Beijing, the university gynecologist told me I had HPV, a sexually transmitted virus that affects up to 90 percent of unvaccinated young women. The diagnosis unnerved me since an STD was not part of the road map to perfection, so I asked the doctor what I could do to rid myself of the virus. She said the only treatment was vigilance, and assured me it would clear out of my system on its own within a year or two. I went home and read up on it, and made a note to get thorough checkups since it could turn into cervical cancer. Then I hopped on a plane to a third world country.
Fast forward a couple of years, when I landed in New York with a couple of suitcases in the middle of a snowstorm. I was on top of the world. I had an apartment with a pink kitchen in Williamsburg, a job working for a hot new radio show, and a date with one of the cutest guys I had seen since leaving for China two and a half years earlier. He took me to a Jay-Z concert at Madison Square Garden, and I remember singing along to Empire State of Mind and thinking, there really is nothing I can’t do now that I’m in New York. Then the bleeding began.
I made an appointment with a specialist that day. When Dr. Gershowitz got me under her microscope, I could tell immediately something was wrong by the way she bit her lip as she pulled tissue for the biopsy. It’s probably nothing, she assured me, but a week later, I was staring into her eyes with panic mounting. There’s no easy way to say this, she began, so I’m just going to say it. A chill shot up my spine, and I squeezed my hands together as tightly as I could to keep my composure. You have invasive cervical cancer and you need surgery immediately, she told me. People always talk about out of body experiences, and this was my first. I memorized every word that came out of her mouth for the next 20 minutes, but I was watching it all from the ceiling. This wasn’t my life coming to an end. I had just celebrated my 25th birthday. Everything was coming together, so it couldn’t also be falling apart.
Over the next two weeks, I became intimately acquainted with all things related to cervical cancer. My gynecologist told me that doctors had missed the warning signs because HPV is so common among young women that they just assume everyone who walks through the door has it. Research showed that men generally aren’t even tested for HPV, so most guys say honestly that their STD tests are clean because to their knowledge, they are. My surgeon said this cancer is particularly responsive to secondhand smoke, a cloud of which had surrounded me the entire time I was in China. A nurse told me how easy it is to contract HPV even while wearing protection.
On a Friday when everyone else I knew was gearing up for the annual chili cook-off near the Empire State Building, I went under the knife for an experimental surgery to remove my tumor. When I came to, my hospital room was full of flowers and freaked out friends. To prove that I was still as strong as ever, I forced myself to do a lap around the floor in front of the guy I was dating and several of my male friends with a catheter strapped to my leg. After the surgeon called to say the cancer had already spread to my lymph nodes, and after I had met with the fertility specialist who told me the surgeon had gone home and cried over my case, my by-then boyfriend bent me over his leg to stick a six-inch needle in my butt so I could harvest the eggs that the radiation and chemotherapy would take from me the following month. My ovaries swelled to the size of tennis balls, and I grew irritable from the night sweats and impending menopause. Talk about the death of romance.
Radiation forced me to strip from the waist down in front of the team of young men who strapped me to a board to the sounds of Pearl Jam and Johnny Cash so they could burn me from the inside out. The worst was the sound the machine made as the radiation was administered – a loud, but muted beeping that kept me keenly aware of what was happening. I made jokes about what I referred to as my “whore cancer,” and kept a running tally of how many people on the Upper East Side had seen me naked since the start of the process. Purple burn marks appeared on my skin, and the side effects began kicking in. By the end of the process, I could barely walk more than two blocks at a time and or digest more than plain pasta. I cried the day I strapped on an adult diaper.
But despite all that, the most humiliating part of the process was knowing that anyone with access to Google could find out that my cancer was the result of a dirty STD. All of those people back at home who had judged my parents for trusting me to make good decisions on my own now had validation – and though they rallied to support me in ways I couldn’t have imagined, the doubts will follow me every time I pull through that one-horse town.
This statement is not intended to garner sympathy, merely to lend some gravity to an issue that has been overlooked for far too long. If you are a woman, particularly a woman who came of age as this virus was taking hold in the ‘90’s and ‘00’s, this could very easily become your story, and you might not be as lucky as I have been.
If I hadn’t come home from China when I did, if I hadn’t had good insurance, if I hadn’t had such supportive family and friends, if I hadn’t had access to the doctors I did, everything would have turned out differently. It still might. I’m in remission now, but I have to wake up every day for the next five years and wonder if my next birthday might be my last. I have nightmares about sitting in the doctor’s office hearing that it’s back, that it’s everywhere, that there’s nothing they can do this time, that are so real I wake up and spend the next few minutes fighting back nausea. I have to worry about getting choked up in the line at Starbucks or on the elliptical machine at the gym. Until I have a baby in my arms, I will wonder if this has cost me my ability to have a daughter who has my mom’s sense of humor or a son who has my grandfather’s eyes. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, and if there is one thing I’ve learned about cervical cancer, it is that this is almost always a preventable disease.