23 September 2009

TEXT I wrote for Women's Health Conference

A New York friend recently asked me to write about my experience with cervical cancer for a conference she was organising on Women's health, encouraging women to have annual PAP smears. Here is the text I wrote:

The words I never, ever thought I’d hear, never dreamt I ‘d hear , came out of the doctor’s mouth: « you’ve got cervical cancer, we’re not sure how advanced the cancer is, but it’s advanced,».

It was a Monday morning sometime in January this year, I was in my hometown in Australia, sitting in a doctor’s office. The week before, I had had a general check up and had been told that my health was « impeccably good ».
« We haven’t got the PAP smear results back yet, they’ll take a few more days, » the doctor had said.

I was 39 years old, I travelled frequently for my work (something I loved) and I felt that my life was very blessed as I was very rich with friendships and somehow, life served me abundantly in rich experiences through my work and relationships.

The doctor had called me in, rather than give me the results over the phone which had given me an uneasy feeling. But, hey, I was super healthy in terms of my previous tests, wasn’t I ? Then those words…
« you’ve got cancer. »

It was one of those times in my life when all stands still. The words felt like thunder. « What ??? »
As the doctor called up the gynecologist oncologist for an appointment that very day, in order to measure the tumor, I sat there dumbstruck, with tears running down my eyes. I had gone to the doctor's appointment alone. I felt very alone.
« Is this how I die ? » It may sound dramatic but until then, I had felt invincible. Everything had felt possible. However, my father, uncle, grandfather and stepfather had died of cancer in the previous 3 years… I had seen with my own eyes, how deadly and painful cancer could be. Getting cancer had secrectly been my greatest fear and it seemed to becoming a reality. Furthermore, many women do die of cervical cancer each year.

The more I spoke to people about my condition, the more I found out how many women had had « warning signs » or « pre-cancerous cells » found in the cervix. Approximately 1 in 3 women I spoke to had had « warning signs. » These were women who had had PAP SMEAR tests anually.
What happened with me ? Why did I have full blown cancer when so many other women seem to have nabbed it in the nick of time ? I had neglected to have a PAP smear in 4 years. Eighteen months earlier I had visited my gynecologist who did not do a PAP smear, which I thought was « strange » but I didn’t insist… Now I so wish I had insisted on that PAP smear.

So what happened to me ? I survived, I’m here to tell you the story. But I went through hell – an expĂ©rience I wouldn’t wish on ANYBODY. For a week I received radiotherapy in form of Brachitherapy which meant direct radiation on the tumor found in my cervix. I was strapped to a bed, lying on my back for 6 days and received radiation for 30 minutes every hour, 24 hours a day. I couldn’t move as it would have endangered the emplacement of the radiation apparatus in my vagina and uterus. It was difficult to sleep as the machine kept clicking on every 30 minutes. After the radiation, I experienced chronic fatigue, depression and my body had greatly weakened from the radiation. A month later just before I had my 4th and final surgery for the treatment, I wanted my life to end. The suffering felt too much to cope with. I wanted to just disappear under a moving bus. Somehow I managed to keep myself to the footpath and underwent a radical hysterectomy which meant I lost my uterus and ovaries. Overnight I was a woman in menopause and I was only 39 years old... The chronic fatigue and depression continued. A far cry from the independant, free-spirited and loving person I had been a few months before.

The cancer was due to the HPP virus, an STD. My experience could have been much different, so less traumatic had I had my PAP smear done annually. Is there a moral to my life story ? If there is one, it’s about taking care of the goddess within. It’s about doing the really simple things, like getting a PAP smear done annually as well as getting one’s breasts checked every 12 months. PAP smears should be done annually as soon as one is sexually active (however recent studies show that the virus has been found in a percentage of young girls who have not been sexually active)
(IAmerican Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Volume 200, Issue 5, Pages 487.e1-487.e5).

If my experience can encourage other women to get their PAP smears done annually, then, there will have been a purpose to the profoundly difficult journey I have recently travelled.


frazicus said...

Beautifully put Nathalie.

I especially love that you're here to say it too.
**hugs and well wishes**
- Jackie

Anonymous said...

Hi Natalie, My heart lit up when I saw you had posted what you are doing and how you are doing. As you worked your way through the painful process of killing the cancer, you were very eloquent and you still are. I still think you have a book.....with your photos and art work...in your future. I sincerely believe that your joy in life will emerge even stronger because it will be grandly tempered. I will be amazed if anything else emerges. Love to you. Beverly

Kym said...

Amazing and brave Nat...


Kym xx

Anonymous said...

I know your sorrow and I know that for the likes of us there is no ease for the heart to be had from words or reason and that in the very assurance of sorrow’s fading there is more sorrow. So I offer you only my deeply affectionate and compassionate thoughts and wish for you only that the strange thing may never fail you, whatever it is, that gives us the strength to live on and on with our wounds.

Samuel Beckett (& G)