"This could kill you."
It seems like only yesterday that a gynecologic oncologist uttered this hard truth to me. On December 23, 2016, at the age of 31, I was snatched from the beginning of my career in law and policy in Washington, D.C., and tossed into a battle for my life. There I was, on the day of my flight home for Christmastime, diagnosed with Stage IV-A cervical cancer. It was the aggressive kind of cervical cancer to boot. Merry Christmas, indeed.
When the oncologist shared the stage of this disease with me, I was stunned. Two weeks earlier, I had been told by the same doctor that the cancer stage was likely "I-B."
After I heard the dreaded stage No. 4 and visualized my now least favorite Roman numeral, a flood of questions rushed forward—how could this be? The cervical cancer spread to my bladder? To the lower lymph nodes? And possibly to my ovaries?
I likely would not be able to conceive and/or carry a child? And probably enter menopause as a 31-year-old? The treatment must be chemotherapy and radiation? But chemo drugs are toxic? Radiation could cause other cancers?
I felt dizzy.
In those dark post-diagnosis moments, I felt betrayed by my body. I felt tricked by my mind. I felt like I was the butt of a twisted joke. But after the dust settled, I opened my eyes to what had been going on for the past decade. I had become so focused on school, work, family, relationships, organizations, and causes that I care deeply about and other commitments, that I had been neglecting something so fundamental—my body.
Following this realization, I took to Google and sheepishly typed "cervical cancer" into the search box. I knew little about the disease and while fearful about what I might learn, I was hungry for information. While reading up on cervical cancer, available resources, survivor stories, and dietary guidance, I came across an article with this startling statement: "These days...cervical cancer has become a disease of the poor, uneducated minority."
As a Latina, those three bold words seemed to lift off the screen and morph into a finger pointed at me. But like any critical Googler, I was suspicious of such a condemnation. What's the authority?
Turned out that the claim is not directly supported by the provided link to the American Cancer Society. But there is Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data out there that lends itself to the heartbreaking finding that black women suffer the highest mortality rate due to cervical cancer and Latinas suffer from the highest incidence rate. A variety of factors, such as a lack of access to preventive care, contribute to this documented and unjust reality for black and Latina women. This was and remains one of the many hard truths that I have confronted since my diagnosis and I will continue to shine a light on as an advocate.
But the hardest truth boils down to this—to avoid being in my shoes as one of the roughly 13,000 women diagnosed with cervical cancer last year, you must love, listen to, protect, and prioritize your body.
- Do not discount the importance of a routine Pap test and human papillomavirus (HPV) screening.
- Do not ignore pelvic or vaginal pain you might feel.
- Do not look away if you experience abnormal bleeding.
- Do not disregard getting the three-shot HPV vaccine before you are sexually active.
While I intend to emerge from this cancer battle as the victor, you don't have to wait until a life-threatening illness strikes to be your body's champion. Show up for yourself and be your body's champion today.