Michelle Whitlock's Story

"I never thought I’d be ‘That Girl’ – the one with…cancer."

span quote left I never thought I’d be “That Girl” – the one with an STD, or worse, cancer. Little did I know. My nightmare began in December 2001, when I was busy climbing the career ladder and hadn’t given a single thought to motherhood.

A month prior, when I had my annual Pap, my doctor decided to give me the HPV test too. When he called with the results, he said my Pap was normal, but I had tested positive for high-risk types of HPV. I knew the Pap was a screening tool for cervical cancer, but like most women, I believed a normal Pap meant everything was fine. After researching HPV further, I learned that it is a sexually transmitted virus affecting 20 million people worldwide, and that certain strains of the virus are low-risk, while others are high-risk and can cause cervical cancer. I found myself feeling scared and embarrassed.

After several additional tests and procedures, I was diagnosed with cervical cancer. It was Christmas time and I was in a store when I got the call on my cell phone. In that moment, my world stopped. After a brief silence, I asked, “How could this be? I had a normal Pap test!” My doctor explained that the Pap isn’t 100 percent foolproof. In fact, it is only a tool to help identify cervical abnormalities. During the Pap, cells are scraped from the surface of the cervix. But my cancer was up inside the cervical canal and therefore easily missed by the Pap. Had it not been for the HPV test, my cancer may not have been diagnosed until it was too late.

The recommended treatment for my cervical cancer was a radical hysterectomy, which would leave me unable to get pregnant. Since I didn’t have children, and I had only been dating my boyfriend Mark for six months, I was not willing to take that step. I just knew there had to be another option and I found one: a procedure called radical vaginal trachelectomy (RVT). At the time, it was a very new procedure being done in only a few places in the United States. The RVT removed my cervix but left my uterus, allowing me a chance at carrying my own a child.

In April 2004, after three years of dating, Mark finally proposed. I was ecstatic. But only days later, my biggest fear became a reality – my cervical cancer returned. I was shocked and scared. This couldn’t be happening at the happiest point of my life! Again, my doctor recommended a radical hysterectomy. Devastated, I reluctantly agreed to the surgery, but insisted on having it after my wedding in June. In the meantime, I met with a reproductive endocrinologist, who harvested my eggs, inseminated them with my fiancé’s sperm and froze seven embryos – my “maybe babies.”

After the hysterectomy, I found out that the cancer had spread through 50 percent of my uterine wall. I immediately began more than five weeks of radiation and six weeks of chemotherapy. I wasn’t prepared for the extensive, lifelong side effects from the treatment: sexual dysfunction, infertility and damaged self image, but I coped.

When it was all over, I realized it was time to tell my story and educate other women. My cancer is no longer this horrible event in my life, but instead, somehow, a gift. It gave me a new voice; a voice with which to speak out. I will talk to anyone who will listen. Cervical cancer is 100 percent preventable! Doctors have tools today that can prevent the disease from developing or catch it early: a Pap for all women, the HPV test in combination with the Pap for women 30 and over, and the HPV vaccine for girls and young women. Don’t learn the hard way like I did.span quote right