Survivor Stories: Battling cervical cancer

What a difference support makes

Cervical cancer is responsible for
incredibly daunting statistics: It ranks as the third most frequent cancer in
women worldwide and is the second cause of cancer-related deaths of women in
developing countries. In the Caribbean, it’s the second most commonly occurring
cancer in women of all ages and for women ages 15-44 in the region, it is not
only as prevalent as breast cancer, but it is also the leading cause of cancer
death, along with breast cancer, according to the latest World Health Organisation’s
Human Papillomavirus and Related Cancers Summary Report.

While the good news is that, when
diagnosed in its early stages and treated promptly, it is almost 100 per cent
curable, the added burden of such infamy is enough to have long-term lingering
effects.

Deenell Smith, a resident of these
Islands, survived her battle against cervical cancer, yet her story illustrates
just how emotionally and mentally draining the ordeal is.

After attempting to withstand pain,
bleeding and general discomfort in the uterus area for nearly a year, Deenell
paid a visit to her gynaecologist. Her regular gynaecologist indicated that her
Pap smear showed an abnormality but, unsure of what exactly it was, referred
her to another gynaecologist for a second opinion. It was during the second
visit that she learned she would need to have a hysterectomy, removing her
cervix and uterus. The procedure was performed on 21 October, 2001.

Unlike those who are diagnosed
prior to these life-changing procedures, Deenell did not find out that she had
cervical cancer until two weeks after her surgery, at which point her primary
gynaecologist recommended that she undergo radiation treatment in Miami. 

“I was in shock. I never had time
to process that I had cancer, not even when they told me that the Pap results
were abnormal did I consider that a possibility,” she said. “So imagine having
to process the fact that I had Stage IV cervical cancer after I already had the
surgery and it was essentially gone.”

 

Support is essential

While still grateful for her life
and the fact that she has recovered, Deenell’s “after-the-fact diagnosis”
created a tremendous amount of emotional turmoil, as it robbed her of much
needed support which is essential for those who are diagnosed with and fighting
cancer. “I didn’t have much support,” she admitted. “I tried to make others
around me think that everything was OK, but it really wasn’t. The whole
experience was like a nightmare for me and I honestly am just trying to forget
it.”

The psychological support offered
by loved ones to cancer patients and survivors is immeasurable, as Anita Kelly,
a resident of Cayman Brac, attests. Anita was diagnosed at the age of 36, just one
year older than Deenell at the time of her diagnosis, but unlike Deenell, the
possibility of cancer was at the forefront of her mind. 

She had also been having severe
pain, as well as abnormal menstruation. “I thought that the area below my
pelvis was going to fall off,” she said. “I went to the doctor, and my Pap
smears all came back good, but they decided to do a biopsy. It took a week for
the results to come back and I was scared because I thought it might be cancer,
as my Mom died of breast cancer.”

At the time of her diagnosis,
Anita’s children were aged 3, 15 and 17. “I tried as much as possible to remain
positive, but there were days when I would think that I would die and I would
worry about leaving my children,” she said. Anita decided to wait until after
her oldest son’s graduation before having her surgery in Florida, and her
15-year-old daughter accompanied her on the trip.

Her family, both her immediate
family in the Brac and those in Grand Cayman, were supportive of her, not only
through the surgery but also during the six weeks of intensive radiation
therapy that she underwent in Miami. 
“They came to visit me, my sister and other family members,” she said.

“I continue to get Pap smears done
today,” she says, 16 years after her diagnosis.

Since her diagnosis and treatment,
Anita remains cautious. “I don’t get myself down about it, but I do wonder
‘what if?’”, she said. “You never know when these things will reoccur.”

Both women, who now have daughters
in their mid-20s and early 30s, encourage their children to get check-ups, ask
questions and get second opinions. They both agree on the fundamental need for
support of cancer patients and survivors.

“I would love to see a support
group here in Cayman Brac for cancer survivors, people who are dealing with
cancer, and their families,” Anita said. “It would be nice to be able to talk
about what can be done and to encourage others.”

In developed regions, cervical
cancer went from being one of the most common causes of cancer death in women
to a steady decline. In the United States, for instance, between 1955 and 1992
the cervical cancer death rate declined by almost 70 per cent, according to the
American Cancer Society.

This is mainly attributed to the
increased use of the Pap test, which can find changes in the cervix before
cancer develops. It can also find cervical cancer early – in its most curable
stage. For this reason, the Cayman Islands Cancer Society recommends that women
be screened for cervical cancer on a regular basis.

Camila Muniz Ferreira is project coordinator at the Cayman Islands
Cancer Society

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