Have you ever met someone who lights up a room merely by their presence? Someone for whom it seems no matter what life throws at them, they keep their chin up, keep a smile on their face, and breezily deal with the issues life presents?
I would like you to meet a friend of mine of over a decade. Marcy Zirbel is a 50 year-old mother of two delightful daughters. Several years ago, thanks to her annual Pap test, she was diagnosed with early stage cervical cancer. She is willing to share her medical journey to offer information and inspiration for other women.
Marcy we know that cervical cancer is very difficult to diagnose. Would you share with us how you found out you had cervical cancer?
I was just 36 when I was diagnosed through my yearly PAP test. We were new to the Chicagoland area, and it was the first time I had seen this particular Ob-Gyn, who I picked out of my insurance company directory because she was a woman. Her office called me to say that the PAP showed severe dysplasia, and they scheduled a colposcopy about a week later. I had undergone a colposcopy before in my 20’s, so I was not worried.
Would you explain what a colposcopy is?
Certainly. During the procedure, the doctor dyes the cervix to see the areas of abnormal cells. She identified 2 areas of concern on the surface of the cervix and biopsied both of them. The biopsies confirmed the dysplasia, so they scheduled me for a “LEEP” procedure to remove the two areas, and I was still not concerned. On the day of the “LEEP” (I drove myself there and probably shouldn’t have, but my ex-husband was absent), the Ob-Gyn decided at the last minute to use a cone shaped wire to grab a bigger sample and go deeper into the cervix where they couldn’t see.
When the doctor personally called me about 6 days later, I was shocked to hear that she said I had Stage 1B cervical cancer and she referred me to a Gynecological Oncologist. She said, “I know that you probably didn’t hear anything after I said the “C” word, so after you digest the news, you may call me back later tonight with questions.
Wow, so it sounds like you had a terrific physicians. When you were diagnosed, did your doctor explain how women “get” cervical cancer?
Neither the first doctor, nor my oncologist, volunteered any opinion of how they thought I got it. I immediately began researching on the Internet to inform myself, and the thinking at the time was that young women contract the HPV virus in their 20’s and it can lie dormant for years and sometimes come out later in life.
I see. That must have added additional stress to an already frightening situation. At that point, what was the treatment protocol your doctor suggested?
My Gyne-Oncologist is the most wonderful, humble, caring man. He was not an alarmist at all and told me in my initial visit that a radical hysterectomy would be curative. Since I was so young, he left my ovaries, but tacked them out of the way in case he needed to follow up with radiation in the future. Chemotherapy was never mentioned, which was a relief in my mind. I also spoke to a cousin and friend who are doctors, and they both agreed that if you are going to get cancer, cervical is the one to get because it is 100% curable if caught early, like mine.
How fortunate you take care of your body and visit your healthcare provider for cervical cancer screenings. It saved your life.
We talked about the physical aspect of cervical cancer, however it must take a toll mentally and emotionally. Can you talk a little about that?
My girls were so little when I was diagnosed (4 & 8) that the only thing I could think was, “I can’t leave these two perfect little girls without a mom.” I stopped reading about cervical cancer on the Internet about 24 hours after I found out because all the “what-ifs” can drive you crazy. I decided to stay positive and thankful…I really believe in the mind-body connection.
My best friend said, “I don’t understand it. You don’t drink or smoke, you exercise and eat all the right things. If this could happen to you…” I never walked around with a negative, “why me?” attitude. I stayed positive and focused on healing.
How about now? How are you mentally/emotionally with this diagnosis now that you have been given a clean bill of health?
I don’t even think about it anymore (14 years later). I saw my oncologist every 3 months for the first 2 years, and then every 6 months for the next 3 years. After the 5-year clear mark, he told me I had “graduated” to the one year plan for PAP tests and internal exams. But he said that if I was worried about waiting a year to see him, please just come in and he would find a way to make the insurance cover it. I am so thankful to have survived! I just got married this summer, and my husband’s first wife of 27 years died of cancer. I think we were meant to find each other.
I believe people come into your lives for a reason. I am certain you were meant to find each other. You have two daughters, 18 and 22. From a cervical cancer survivor’s perspective and as a mom, what are your thoughts about preventative immunizations such as Gardasil?
I am all for immunizing both girls and boys with Gardasil. I think it’s been on the market for at least 10 years now, and they routinely offer it at the pediatrician’s office and insurance covers it.
That is correct. How would you respond to parents who are understandably hesitant because of their concerns about the immunization? Typical concerns revolve around the safety of the medication, unknown future effects of the immunization, and also the fear that giving their child this immunization will encourage them to become sexually active.
I think that parents need to educate themselves about HPV and Gardasil, just like with all vaccines. When we were children, the small pox vaccine was routinely given to everyone. Now small pox has basically been eradicated, and there is no need to vaccinate our children. Likewise, when my older daughter was about 5, our pediatrician offered the chicken pox vaccine. I elected to give it to both her and my 1 year old at the same time. It was rather new back then, and many friends were not vaccinating their kids, but instead saying chicken pox was not so bad. A lot was not known about the varicella vaccine 17 years ago, like how long it would last or if a booster would be required. In fact, the varicella vaccine is now required for students to attend school, at least in Illinois. I am confident that the HPV vaccine can evolve in the same way.
Suffering from cervical cancer is not even in the same universe as suffering with chicken pox. Giving the HPV vaccine to young girls and boys as a standard vaccination (recommended as young as 11) takes the sexual component out of the equation.
Thank you so much for your time, Marcy. You have provided a thoughtful and honest reflection about your experience with cervical cancer. Is there anything you would like to add that you feel parents, educators, and health care providers should understand from the perspective of a mother and a cervical cancer survivor?
It makes me happy to be able to share my experience to help others, and I believe a positive attitude is everything. When I was in the hospital after my hysterectomy, one of my nurses came up to me at the end of her shift and said that I was totally different than she expected when she read my chart. She went on to say that she had the same thing when she was 28, and she was not married and had no children. She said that seeing how grateful and cheerful I was helped her…and here I had been thanking her all day for helping me!
I had two beautiful girls and did not want any more kids, so when they told me a hysterectomy would cure my cancer, I said, “Take it out!” Now my oldest daughter is in her third year of pharmacy school, and she said what I lived through inspired her to want to help others, too.
Marcy, you have certainly inspired your daughters. You have also inspired me with your positive spirit and forthright honesty. Thank you for your time and thoughts. It is greatly appreciated.
My latest post on Kids In The House. HPV Vaccine: Know the Facts, Make the Choice, discusses the HPV vaccine.