A SYTYCB entry
I sat down in an examining room with shaking knees, a sober-faced doctor and biopsy results. The news was not good.
There are moments that change your life forever. This was one of them. I was diagnosed with cervical cancer, a mother of two in my 30s. I’ll never feel invulnerable again.
I’d missed a yearly Pap smear, but I was young and, I thought, healthy. I made the mistake of putting myself last, as women too often do; taking care of everyone else’s needs but neglecting to tend my own.
Regret is wasteful and useless and empty; it deters action and voids hope. But that was all I could feel at first, knowing a simple screening could have changed my life.
If only, if only, if only. . . the chorus drummed in my head over and over again, an anchoring beat for the chirping fears and incessant what-ifs that flew through my head like scattered birdsong. I wondered if I would get to see my babies grow up, reach for unfulfilled dreams, or live to see 40.
Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer among women worldwide. It’s also incredibly preventable: Ninety-two percent of women diagnosed with cervical cancer will survive if it’s found early. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend an annual Pap smear once women turn 21, or within three years of becoming sexually active.
Yet, cervical cancer screenings across the United States are declining more than any other preventive health measure for women: All but three states reported a drop in the number of women receiving Pap smears in 2010, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
And, despite its preventability, one-third of the 12,000 U.S. women diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2008 died from this disease, says the CDC. Had I waited even one more year for a screening, I would have been one of them.
Too many women are still skipping screenings, often because they’re financially strapped. It’s no coincidence that cervical cancer occurs more frequently in women who are poor or without health insurance.
That’s a sobering thought when we think of Mitt Romney’s intent to cut federal funding for both Planned Parenthood and Title X reproductive health services if he’s elected president this fall.
There’s a four-letter word nicely suited to that problem: v-o-t-e. We have an opportunity in November to vote against any state or national politician who would deliberately put women in harm’s way for the sake of ideology.
Because while the cost of healthcare is often high, the cost of neglecting a Pap test is higher. Even for those who survive, there’s still an awful lot to lose.
Irregular pre-cancerous cells are easily removed. Once cancer develops, however, a common treatment is to cut off part of the cervix, putting future pregnancies at risk. I traded a piece of my cervix for a chance at survival. It was painful and I was scared, but they cut out all the cancer.
It was then that I met cancer’s sinister shadow. You can get cancer — and it can come back. I was paroled, but not free: Without a hysterectomy, there was a 20 percent chance the cancer would return. I hadn’t yet closed the door on more children, but cancer slammed it shut.
I had to choose between having more children and living to see the children I have grow up. Put that way, it’s an easy decision. But the truth is there’s nothing easy about cancer. No woman should have to lose her life, or her fertility, to such a preventable disease.
We can help all women by fighting to retain funding for screenings, and exercising our right to vote. We can help ourselves by honoring that fight, getting checked regularly, and encouraging our loved ones to do the same.
If only, if only, if only. . . don’t let the beat go on.
* This story is revised and updated from a 2011 essay.