How did you know it was cancer? Warning: Gory details to follow.
One of the things I've found in researching cervical cancer is that there aren't a lot of blogs that tell the gory details. It's a lot of clinical-sounding talk (post-coital bleeding? Who says that?), and there's a lot of rah-rah positive attitude stuff. And that's where you can find the blogs at all. Want to know about breast cancer? There are eleventy billion cute, sassy blogs, complete with fun slogans and boobies, tatas, tits, and resources galore. There isn't even a CaringBridge category for cervical cancer.
No one wants to talk about the vagina. We do it with period commercials. We still demonstrate the absorbency of pads with a pleasant blue liquid. The actresses are all wearing cute white dresses and they're swimming and having fun. No one is doubled over popping Advil like candy and eating chocolate. We don't see the carefree idiot obsessively checking to see if she's leaking. And let's be honest: no woman who has ever had a heavy period wears light colors on the bottom during shark week. Who wants to sit and scrub your white pants? If we're forced to do it, for work purposes (khaki pants come to mind), we load purses with industrial strength tampons and wear a pad, too, just in case.
That was a long way of saying that the vagina is a thing that women have, and a lot of things to undiagnosed because as a society, we're too squeamish about lady parts.
Which brings me to my cancer diagnosis.
In early April, my period showed up right on time. It was a little heavier than usual, but after about 4-5 days, it was going away like normal, then...WHAM. I woke up way before my alarm clock one morning and I had soaked straight through my tampon and underwear, which hasn't happened to me in years. I scrambled to the bathroom, holding my hand down there to minimize the mess, and when I sat on the toilet: Blood. Everywhere. And it just kept coming.
When it finally stopped, I cleaned myself up and googled frantically. What the hell was going on? Here's a thing about the female reproductive system: when stuff goes wrong, the symptoms are basically all the same. Irregular bleeding, cramping, spotting between periods, pain, feeling of fullness, blah, blah, blah. Good luck finding a real cause. I read, though, that a change in birth control can trigger heavy bleeding. I had recently changed pills, and I'd had some nasty periods early on, so I dealt with it. I felt fine, aside from the blood. After about a week, though, I was still bleeding and I found a local women's clinic and scheduled an appointment.
The day of my appointment, of course the bleeding let up, so no one could actually witness the volume of blood I was losing. The nurse practitioner did a brief pelvic exam, ordered a full blood panel, and sent me to an imaging center for an ultrasound.
When the results came in, the ultrasound showed follicles on my ovaries, and the blood test showed very high testosterone, which are symptoms of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), a hormone disorder. I'll go into more detail on PCOS later, but we had something to treat. I got some medication, we started adjusting birth control and the bleeding slowed a bit. Things seemed good.
The bleeding picked up a few weeks later again, and at this point, my body was starting to feel the effects of the blood loss. I was weak and tired all the time. One night the bleeding was particularly awful and I got scared, so they boy took me to the ER. At that point, they charged me $200, gave me fluids, ran blood and iron tests, and determined I wasn't in bad enough shape yet to hospitalize or treat, so I was ordered to drink more water and take an iron supplement.
I followed up with my nurse practitioner and she got me some prescription iron supplements, we doubled my birth control dose, and then made plans to insert an IUD, which has been known to stop some women from having periods all together. No more bleeding? Music to my ears. I'd been missing a lot of work, and having energy and you know, not bleeding sounded amazing.
The day for the IUD insertion came and I was having a rough day. It was all I could do to put on clothes. No makeup. If you know me, no hair and makeup is VERY out of character. Boyfriend drove me to my appointment and waited patiently.
Oh, the blood. By the time I was on the table and they got the speculum inserted, I was starting to bleed. Gushing. Big clots. We couldn't even get the IUD inserted because my cervix was so spongey and there was so much blood. I was handed bottles of water and told to drink, more blood was drawn to check my iron levels, and there was a swab of the vaginal wall taken, as well as a PAP test. When the bleeding slowed, the nurse expressed her concern about my cervix and sent me home, promising to call as soon as she got my results, and with orders to go straight to the ER if I got any worse.
She called me around 7 pm (my appointment was a late one), telling me my hemoglobin level was just under 8, and reiterating that I should go to the ER if it got any worse. Things calmed down for that night.
The next day it got worse. By the time the boy got home from work, I was not well. I had started bleeding in the late afternoon again, and lost a lot of blood. Huge clots. My bathroom felt like a crime scene, and I felt like I was going to pass out when I stood up. We checked into the ER online, and off we went. They ran a blood test and gave me fluids again, but this time my hemoglobin was down to 5.5. It's supposed to be at least 11.5-12, depending on what chart you look at. This hospital was basically a glorified urgent care clinic (I just moved here. I didn't know.), so I had to be transferred to get a blood transfusion. Since we already had the IV in and liability and stuff, I got to ride in my very first ambulance. The transport team was hilarious and were cracking jokes with me all the way there, which made the whole thing less scary. Sadly, they wouldn't turn on the lights and sirens.
When I got to the hospital, they wheeled me to my room, I got to change into a different gown, and they covered me with heart rate monitors. The nurses were great, and I firmly believe the night crew at hospitals is the best. They loved my Rocket Raccoon socks and laughed about having to check me for bedsores and count my fingers and toes. Protocol.
By now, it was after 1 am and I was even more tired than I had been all day. I started nodding off, waking up to hold out my arm for more blood draws and opening up for the thermometer. I was given 2 units of blood, along with fluids and some magnesium, because that was low, too.
I woke up to the way too early arrival of breakfast, went back to sleep without eating, and was wheeled off an hour later for an ultrasound. This one showed a large fibroid tumor. True to Web MD, symptoms include heavy bleeding, pain, cramps, etc. I was given progesterone to correct the hormones and stop the bleeding. Things did slow down, and I was given orders to follow up with my doctor. I stayed another night for good measure, got to wear some vibrating massage cuffs on my legs to ensure I didn't get clots, my hemoglobin stayed above 8, so I was discharged. They won't give you blood unless you drop down to 7 or less. I can drink fluids at home and I felt better. Off I went.
Then came the bad news. My PAP test came back and they found abnormal cells. It was a terrible sample because of all the blood, so the lab wanted to run some additional tests. Have you ever been so desperate you hoped you had herpes? Because some website said that could cause abnormal tests and herpes seemed better than cancer.
I waited nervously and got the follow up call. They were pretty sure it was cancer, but I needed to see an oncologist to confirm it. At my appointment, the doctor gave me a pelvic exam, and said she could feel the tumor. That probably non-cancerous fibroid tumor was actually the bad kind. She took samples for a biopsy and ordered a PET scan. Naturally, she poked the bear, so there was bleeding. This was resolved by taking some dark brown vials, dipping the worlds largest cotton swabs into them, then packing them into my vagina, against my cervix. It eventually stopped the bleeding, and she told me when the stuff they had put in me started to come out (self-cleaning organ!), it would look like coffee grounds, smell weird, and possibly burn like hell if they got stuck on my labia. Thankfully, the burning wasn't noticeable and baby wipes made sure everything was wiped clean so I didn't find out how bad it could be. The coffee grounds coming out in clumps was pretty trippy.
A few days later, I went in for a PET scan. I was given the warning not to wear metal, which is surprisingly hard to do when leggings are too constructive around your middle. One nurse got an IV started and took a blood sample. A bit later, the technician came in and opened up a hazardous looking lead box with a lead-wrapped syringe thing. I was a bit concerned I was becoming an X-Man with no warning, but she informed me the contents were sugar water. Radioactive sugar water. I sat on the dark room for the next hour or so, not allowed to move. Apparently moving or drinking water might make my stomach try to metabolize the sugar water, and then the scan wouldn't work. I had to fast 4 hours before my appointment to ensure my stomach wasn't trying to digest things, so that made sense. I almost napped for that hour, noting the "radioactive materials" sign on the door. That's me! She came back a bit later, took me to the room with the machine. She positioned me on the very long table, wrapped me in a blanket and strapped me down with a big Velcro thing. They take not moving very seriously. The blanket was good, because the room got chilly after awhile. I spent 25 minutes or so moving back and forth through a big plastic tunnel, which made cool noises. Very sciency. Then the tech unwrapped the Daanielle burrito and let me go.
And then the waiting. Finally, on Wednesday, June 14, I got the call. Stage 2 cervical cancer.
And that's how I found out.