If you have been following me on social media lately, you probably have figured out something was up. Long story long . . . keep reading. Long story short, I had a cervical cancer scare and needed to have surgery last week. Thus far, my results look good (thank you God!) but even though the results are showing no signs of invasive cancer, the story isn’t quite over and I think it is important to start at the beginning.
I talk about a lot here. I do so without shame, although that is hard. But here is what I know. Talking with friends about what has been going on this last month, I have heard SO MANY “me too’s.” I would say 1 in 3 friends has said “me too.” This story is long and winding and reveals A LOT, but bear with me. I reveal so much because I think my story is probably incredibly common and normal. It is so normal, yet it is stuff we don’t talk about openly. I share my (long) story so that you know you are normal and to provide you with some comfort, to encourage you to go get a Pap (one friend has made an appointment already!), or to start thinking about how we change the future for our daughters.
What are we talking about here?
Abnormal Paps caused by HPV.
Before you start to get all judgy judgy – check this out. 79 MILLION Americans currently have HPV. 80% of sexully active people become infected with HPV at some point in their lives. (Source: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/11901-hpv-human-papilloma-virus). The CDC says that “HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women get the virus at some point in their lives.” (Source: https://www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/stats.htm). So many of us are asymptomatic (I am) that we have zero clue anything is going on until . . .
I remember the day I got news of my first abnormal Pap. It was in 2008. I was sitting somewhere in a fancy hotel ballroom in downtown Baltimore listening to the latest family law updates. A call came in. I guess I felt inclined to leave the training to answer it. As the doc on the other end of the line started to explain that I would need to come back in for more tests, I felt the color drain from my face. What did she mean my results were abnormal? I don’t remember what I was scared of in terms of what medical condition I had, but I was scared. Mostly scared something was wrong with me and my reproductive system and I was terrified I would not be able to have kids. T-e-r-r-i-f-i-e-d. I remember a lot of tearful and late nights as I googled like crazy (not smart).
If you are reading this and trying to find all the answers because you are pre-kids (like I was) and you are freaking out imagining the worst thing possible and googling all the things and came across this article, I am sending you a hug. Your life is not over. Follow what the doctor says and it is hopeful and likely that an abnormal pap does not equal no babies. You are not damaged. You are in the company of 79 MILLION other Americans and at least 12% of the freaking WORLD (Source: https://www.hpvworld.com/articles/the-frequency-of-hpv-infection-worldwide/). I know it is scary. Hang in there. I was so lucky back in 2008 because my BFF was an OBGYN resident at the time and held my hand through this, answered my questions, and made me feel NORMAL. She explained how common this was. She made me feel less dirty.
Back to my story
I didn’t understand what could be wrong with me and how I got there. I had always taken good care of myself as a woman and had been doing so since I was about 17. (Parents . . . this next part might freak you out . . . but it is part of the story. This is not a knock on my parents at all. It is WEIRD, scary, and awful to think of 17 year old me trying to talk about sex or birth control with a mom or dad. I imagine most 17 year olds would agree – no matter what day and age we are in). Anyway, at 17, I got myself to the local Planned Parenthood. There, I met with a doctor, had my first Pap, got on birth control, and was supplied with a brown lunch bag FULL of condoms. I look back on that 17 year old Wendy and feel damn proud of her and how she took some epic amounts of responsibility and action. As I moved to different cities for college and law school, one of my first orders of business was checking in with their local Planned Parenthood so I could continue my annual paps and my annual care. I knew that these were important. I don’t think I ever understood the WHY behind it, I just knew that “of course” it was something we did. Just like brushing your teeth before you go to bed, you get your annual Pap!
As the years progressed, I had more partners, usually long stretches of monogamy. We always practiced safety. Birth control, condoms, and STD testing were all discussed and mandated. Was I always 100% careful 100% of the time? I am going to be real with you. Probably not. Hookup culture after nights at fraternities was the norm. Partying it up in my early 20’s . . . I probably made some not so great (but all too common) choices.
Even still. I prided myself on being careful. Even still, I probably thought I was invincible during the few times I was not. After all, I never had an unplanned pregnancy or an STD so I thought I was doing something right.
Going back to 2008 and that call . . . I realize I never quite thought about the possibility of NOT having a normal pap. Blessed with being healthy, I was used to good news all the time. Good blood pressure, good weight, good eyesight. Good cholesterol. Everything was always good news (yes, I am lucky!). You did routine check-ups because that is what you did and were supposed to do. Not because you feared anything was wrong.
What next after that fateful call back in 2008?
I went back to the GYN to have something called a colposcopy. What is that? Think of a PAP x 10 with a bright light shining up your lady parts so the GYN can actually SEE your cervix.. More time with the speculum, more pressure, more swabbing, and some minor biopsying. I like this article that explains it in more detail. https://www.verywellhealth.com/what-is-a-colposcopy-3520585
Was it awful? No. Uncomfortable? Yes – very. Bearable. Yup. Most annoying part? Having to wear a pad to deal with bleeding, etc. ICK.
And . . . the waiting.
My results showed something called “adenocarcinoma in situ.” I didn’t really know what that meant . . . I wanted the best care possible, but I was also in denial. I decided to transfer my care from my regular GYN to a gynecologist oncologist. I didn’t want to mess around. But still at my first appointment with him, I asked him to re-test . . . I didn’t think it was real . . . and he looked at me curiously and said something along the lines of “Wake up, this is real, I call this stage zero cancer, and before medical advances and as recently as 10 years ago, I would be telling you hysterectomy.” Ok. That got my attention.
I underwent something called a LEEP. LEEP stands for Loop Electrosurgical Excision Procedure. In layman’s terms as I understand it (I am a lawyer and not a doctor) and sorry to be graphic here, they take out a cowboy hat shaped chunk of your cervix to biopsy, with an electric wire loop, which cuts and cauterizes at the same time (I think – I am sure someone will correct me if I am off here). When they biopsy, the goal here is to 1) remove all of the bad cells and thus get rid of the precancerous cells that will turn into cancer; and 2) see how far the bad cells have travelled and grown in order to determine further treatment. This is a very rudimentary description, but hopefully it makes some sense. Lucky for me, my doc does this under general anesthesia so I was OUT COLD.
The good news? That LEEP back in 2008 removed all the bad cells, I had my two babies, and I had clear paps! Until . . . 2019.
I remember that call as well. I was in Destin, Florida. Living the dream with my health and wellness teammates. We were getting pampered, made up, and hair blown out and braided to get ready for our photoshoot on the beach. I was trying not to pinch myself . . . and then I got the call. Same shit as 2008 . . . just 11 years later . . . after pap after pap, some clean, some not, after TWO colonoscopies . . . one good . . . one not . . . the last one stated that it could “not rule out adenocarcinoma in situ” . . . back to my gyn onc surgeon I went.
Last week I had my second LEEP. Same drill, except this time no one could come into the hospital with me due to COVID. THIS time I didn’t have to worry as much about pads (UGH) because thank God for Thinx!!! (Check them out here: https://thinx.club/wendymeadows – $10 off for you and me if you purchase as well – more below).
But this time I wasn’t worried about HAVING babies. What kept me up at night and crept into my anxiety dreams was my worry about leaving them prematurely. I was worried about a cancer diagnosis. I was worried about radiation and chemo and how I would handle it all. I am NOT a worrier by nature, but the thought of leaving my kids was pretty awful. Like collapsed into a puddle and crying hysterically awful (ironically . . . the morning of my 2021 photoshoot was when I really broke down). Life is funny like that, huh?
To bring this thing to a close.
Yesterday I got the preliminary news that my margins were clear AND the biopsy did NOT show invasive cancer. Thank GOD. The worst of my fears have not come to fruition.
What next? I meet with the surgeon next week. I am going to advocate for (and I am guessing he is going to recommend) a hysterectomy. Why? Well, (and again, this is a non-doctor explaining medical things as I understand them, this is my interpretation and certainly not medical advice) . . . if I get rid of my uterus and my cervix via a hysterectomy = no more cervical cancer scares because there is no more cervix!
My requests of you.
- Schedule your Pap! Now. Like, stop reading. Google your GYN’s number, call, make an appointment.
- I haven’t talked about Mammograms here, but same deal. Are you 40 or over? Schedule that. Now. We go yearly! Yes, that surprised me as well. But don’t question it, just do it.
- If you have a daughter and think she MIGHT be sexually active . . . have the door open to talk with her. Maybe schedule her an appointment with the GYN, no questions asked, and have her talk to the GYN without you present. This might be hard. I get that. I didn’t talk to my parents because holy awkward and I didn’t want to be in trouble and who knows what else – because you know parents being good normal parents would have found ways to curb activities I wanted to participate in. Lucky for me, I had good friends who were also sensible and we decided to take a trip to Planned Parenthood . . . but not all young women are in this boat. Figure out what you can do with your family to make sure your daughter has some sort of a safety net and is educated. I don’t pretend to have all the answers here or be anywhere close to an expert. I just ask you to start thinking about what makes sense. And if you are going to tell me abstinence will be her way. . . just realize and understand that plan may not be so realistic. I was a good kid. Got amazing grades. Ran all 12 seasons of high school. Was super responsible. Had a strict curfew and strict parents. All of those things were true and I was STILL sexually active (again, sorry parents!). Your kid can be both. Those things aren’t mutually exclusive.
- Edited on 4/24/21 to add: There was one glaringly obvious piece missing here that I realized when I shared on Facebook. The Vaccine, called Gardasil 9, which protects against HPV. I didn’t talk about it because it is not part of my story (yet). It came out too late for me, or else I am 99% sure I would have had it. My parents, while strict, were scientists and smart, and would have made this choice for me to protect me down the road. My plan has been to get the kids vaccinated once they are able. I remember talking about the vaccine with my primary care doc at the time and he told me his wife was a pediatrician and their plan was to vaccinate their daughter AND their son. My plan is to talk with my kids’ pediatrician and opt for vaccinating both kids. I don’t want them to have to go through what I did.
- Edited on 4/24/21 to add: After reading the comments and private messages on my Facebook post yesterday, HPV doesn’t just affect women. It affects men too – they just aren’t the lucky ones that get tested every year and their likelihood of getting cancer is WAY less. Also, let’s think about this for a minute. In a large amount of cases, how do we think it spreads from woman to woman. For heterosexual women, there has to be a Trojan Horse in the form of a dude, right? This is precisely why it is equally important for girls and boys to get the vaccine. Read here for more: https://www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/stdfact-hpv-and-men.htm.
- Edited on 4/24/21 to add: ONE more thing! I meant to mention this above. You don’t need to have sex with someone to get HPV. Simple skin to skin touching (naked skin) can transmit HPV.
If you read all the way through. Thank you for reading. If you were one of the amazing women who reached out to me this past month, heard my story, and had the courage to tell me “me too.” Thank you. If this post helps you connect with a loved one, then I feel incredibly lucky to have helped. To my fellow LEEP sisters, we have been through Hell, but we are still here. Let us not feel shame. Let us share so we can help our sisters who are about to travel the same path and are scared and don’t want to feel so alone.
Note: I mention Thinx several times in this post! I have a referral code where we each get $10.00 off if you use it! These things are amazing. I only wish they had them around when I was younger, but I am so so happy that they make them for Teens and Tweens too! How much better will this be for our kiddos!!??? (And they make Speax as well . . . for bladder leaks . . . although I know NOTHING about that . . . cough cough . . . oops . . . sneeze sneeze . . . oops . . . hey, I popped out 2 kids . . . ). If you want to check them out, click here! https://thinx.club/wendymeadows I bought in medium and small. Small is too small for me! I suggest you size up. I could probably even wear a large (I don’t like tight undies! Sizes go from XXS to 3XL). My fave ones so far are the Thinx air ™️.