A couple months ago, when I learned I had cervical cancer, first thing I did was to research about this cancer type. Next I reviewed all the symptoms. Because I am being very skeptical; I asked myself what if they were wrong? After I got pet scan it was unambiguous, I had cancer.
I found these statistics: In United States (year 2013) there were 12,340 women diagnosed with cervical cancer and 4,030 of them died.
Early cervical cancers usually don’t cause symptoms, so regular pap smear can save your life. When the cancer grows larger, you may notice these symptoms:
Bleeding that occurs between regular menstrual periods
Bleeding after sexual intercourse, douching, or a pelvic exam
Menstrual periods that last longer and are heavier than before
Bleeding after going through menopause
Pain during sexual intercourse
Fatigue, shortness of breath and lack of energy
Somehow beside feeling more tired and some persistent stomach pain I did not feel too sick, so I was quite surprised when doctor told me I was stage 3B cervical cancer. A few days I was upset and did not know how to deal with this news. My first question was how long I will live and what was the treatment in my case? Obviously doctors do not want to tell you how long you will live. However if you insist they may give you some statistical data. They suggested chemotherapy and radiation therapy. I have tremendous respect to science. Therefore I accepted it. I have to admit it the hurtful question in my head “why did I get cancer?” did not go away easily. I was wondering what caused this disease in me? So I searched about it.
These risk factors include:
HPV (human papilloma virus)
Unprotected sex with many sexual partners, becoming sexually active early
Weakened immune system
Certain genetic factors
Giving birth at a very young age
Other sexually transmitted diseases (STD)
Socio-economic status (being poor)
In my mind somehow none of these risk factor fit my profile. I kept asking my doctors ‘what else can cause it’? The answer was ‘bad luck’! I did not like that answer at all. I wish they had more insight about causal factors. However it was not time to feel pity about myself. I did not want to linger over ‘I wish I had cervical screening or Pap smear test every year’. But I did not. I simply ignored it. I was traveling quite often, I had busy working life, I felt healthy so I did not need to go see a doctor. I had my theory ‘if I look after myself ( I did not smoke, nor drink alcohol, eat mostly white meat, veggies, not much sugar etc. ) I would not need to see a doctor’. My theory collapsed. I was wrong. I made a mistake.
Now how could I fix my bad mistake? I had to go through tough cancer treatment.
As I did, I learned valuable lessons about how cancer changes your life. I wrote some of them below.
1. Cancer is very expensive disease. The treatment cost a lot, if you do not have a good health insurance expect more than $100.000 bill in a short time.
2. Get over the first shock of “why you got cancer”, it does not matter after this point, you have it and focus on staying alive.
3. Before the treatment start to make logical, reasonable preparations. The illness does not cure quickly, ( mine took 5 months ) you will be under many medication, do not postpone any important issues such as how will you go to clinic/hospital, who will feed you at least 2 months, who will help you during sleeping days because of fatigue etc.
4. Your chance to survive will be much higher, if you have team work. This could be your partner, or family, but do not underestimate cancer. You need somebody to look after you. This is not a simple flu, it will not get better within a week. So make sure somebody will support you during this journey.
5. Be honest about the situation. Talk to your partner, make a solid decision. If your husband will not be there for you, you need to find somebody who will. That is the most important thing you should take care of first. You need support 7/24.
6. Organize your life like you will not be at home about couple months. Simplify your daily routine. During chemo sessions, you probably will not be able to work, make sure you have enough money to deal with that. Chemo sessions last about 4 hours, bring some food with you. High protein power bars are good, but you need some salty snacks. I ate salty peanuts, soy bean during these days.
7. Stop reading statistical data and newspapers. They both contribute a lot of negative feedback. I used to love looking at statistics. Every time I made guess work what would be my chance to live according to a survey that depend mostly between %12 to %35 survival rate. Not nice figures. Eventually, this will effect your will to live. Subconsciously this will bother you. It is not necessary to create more doubts in your mind, just focus on how to survive, forget the surveys and statistics. Your choice is to win.
8. Chemo drugs and radiation have a lot of side effects. You need to learn how to deal with them. If you do not get these, as my nurse Vanessa put it ‘consider being very lucky’.
Common side effects of chemotherapy and radiation therapy can include:
Nausea and vomiting
Loss of appetite
Loss of hair
Diarrhea or loose stools
Shortness of breath
Change of appetite
Sensitivity of smell
Problems with balance and difficulty of walking
First 3 weeks I did not have any side effects. I was able to work, continue my normal life style. Then week 4, I started to decline quite rapidly. I had nausea, mouth sores, everything was smelly for a while. Fatigue was worse, I was not able to walk much, I stayed in bed more. I did not have much pain so I did not use heavy pain killers. I lost weight, but I was very conscious about it. Losing weight too much would make me even more weak, so I forced myself to eat nutritious food as much as possible. I ate small amounts food, every 2-3 hours, since big meals made me feel like throwing up. Instead of eating chips, junk food, I ate seaweed, that helped me to keep salt and vitamin A in my body. Miso soup is a good alternative also.
9. Pay attention to dehydration. Diarrhea cause dehydration, keep drinking water. Tomato juice and drinking ayran helped me a lot during radiation days, I also stopped drinking coffee and tea about 4 months.
10. Learn to be patience when you are inside the radiation machine. You supposed to not wiggle there. It was very boring to stay put 20 minutes every day, but I did it 30 days. So try to think good thoughts while lying down inside.
11. You have to learn about pain management. If you can not control your pain, you can not think clearly. You should try to get your medicines regular basis, waiting too long will cause more pain, do not do it! Be on time. Learn about medicines, pain killers. If you have unusual side effects, find alternative medicine or solution for your pain. Simple exercise helps. You may try yoga or meditation. You should learn about breathing techniques. If you have too much pain, controlling your breathing will ease of your pain.
12. Pain medication helps to deal with pain, but do not depend on only pain killers. Good nutrition, exercise, breathing techniques, taking warm bath, or warm showers, drinking green tea or herbal teas, positive attitude also helps. However if you have pain scale number 6-7, take the pain killer, there is no need to feel that much pain. People who are under pain all the time get grumpy. You will be angry, intolerant, rude person to others. Do not go that far.
13. Be nice to others. Especially to your doctors, nurses, hospital stuff. They are there to help you, they are not your enemy. Try to explain what bothers you in a civil manner. If you can not do that, perhaps writing a letter would be a better solution. I had many questions about side effect of medications, so instead arguing with them, I wrote my symptoms, asked some questions about it.
14. Create a diary, this will help you most what works for you. Start writing your symptoms, what did you eat, which medication you took etc. Watch for patterns. Cancer is like chess game. One day you are diarrhea, the next day you are constipated. You have to adjust your food accordingly.
15. Sleeping well and eating healthy food, along with exercise will make you stronger. Not immediately but eventually. Learn to read your lab results. Adjust what you eat accordingly.
16. Stay positive. Whatever makes you laugh, whatever makes you feel happy, focus on that. I have watched every day 1-2 stand-up comedy on Netflix. I have watched hundreds of comedy films. It helped me to deal with tired, painful days. Distraction is good way to deal with pain.
17. Radiation cause dryness on the skin. Use moisturizers to keep your skin healthy. Choose a moisturizer which does not contain any alcohol, perfume to avoid irritation.
18. You know your body well. Doctors will make general assumptions, pay attention medicines side effects and take notes. If certain medicine cause more problem than helping you, find an alternative medicine or natural solution. You should learn to listen your body. Healing is not all about take a certain pill and get better. It is more than that.
19. If you are sensitive to medications, make sure that share this info with your doctor. Giving a good feedback to doctors helps to find better treatment for you. There are many choices.
20. Dealing with fatigue is tricky. Taking a nap helps. Good nutrition is the key. Since chemo treatment damages to healthy blood cells, you may get anemia. Taking iron supplements might be a good way to deal with that.
It is not an easy journey, but you can handle it if you are persistent to fight back. I have done it, you can too!
Cervical cancer: Cancer that forms in tissues of the cervix (the organ connecting the uterus and vagina). It is usually a slow-growing cancer that may not have symptoms but can be found with regular Pap tests (a procedure in which cells are scraped from the cervix and looked at under a microscope). Cervical cancer is almost always caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) infection.