5 LESSONS LEARNED FROM CERVICAL CANCER
I woke up this morning in a strange bed, in a place thousands of miles away from my home. I looked out the window and there were birds chirping, flowers, and palm leaves. Quite the contrast from the cold snowy winter we are having in Colorado. Most of the time I have to stop and pinch myself. Five years ago today, I lay in a hospital bed with my insides torn out, my body broken, and my life torn apart from cervical cancer. Today, I am considered cured. I am cancer free.
I think back to the morning, 5 years ago. I invited my friend Chelsy to come take photographs of my experience, promising (should I make it through all this) that I would share it with the world. (As a photographer… I photograph everything, as visual storytelling is so powerful to me.) Sitting and waiting in pre-op was the worst. Waiting for the inevitable. Waiting for answers. Would I wake up and have ovaries and need hormone replacement? Would I wake up with a scar spanning a T shape across my stomach? What stage was I? If I was farther advanced than we hoped would I even make it the full year? Would I have to do chemo and radiation? Based on the size of my tumor that was almost inevitable. The nurse that day put in my IV and hit a nerve in my hand (which, by the way is so sucky). Is this how the day would go? I remember them making me take a pregnancy test. I walked in to pee in that cup thinking this would be the last time I’d ever take a pregnancy test, already, of course knowing the outcome.
About 4,250 women will die of Cervical Cancer this year. Another 13,170 will be diagnosed with invasive Cervical Cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. Anywhere from 250,000 - 1 million women will be diagnosed with pre-cancer and suffer the same treatment as me, and yet how often do we hear about this cancer? Most women suffer through this in silence. It’s not cool to talk about our vaginas or our parts. Also, the CDC reports that 90% of this cancer is thought to be caused by HPV and even though 79 Million Americans are thought to have the Virus, women still feel and are shamed for it. Even though my instance was the 5% of cancers not necessarily caused by the Virus, I still wondered if people thought I deserved it somehow or I feel the need to tell people, it’s possible it wasn’t caused by it. I never tested positive but it’s possible it still was caused by HPV.
I remember the morning I found out. The doctor called me (I still think that was so weird - when I picture finding out about cancer I always picture it in the movies where they sit you down in a doctors office or something).
I was driving to a meeting, and when I walked in - I was not okay. I think I even said, “I hope no one thinks I am a slut”. I also remember my Mother asking me who my partners had been, like that mattered. I wondered what people would think. Not about the cancer, about me. What did this say about me?
Y’all this kind of thinking has to stop. Hard for me to admit that even I thought this way. I am about as free spirited, confident and strong minded as it comes, but the shame (and doubt) still crept in my mind and was still front and center. I think it says a lot about our society and how women are perceived and yet no one talks about WHO gave it to women? Why is that? I know I am not alone, as I see this topic pop up on my cervical cancer support boards often. So I am here to say - STOP IT. Stop the stigma! The reason women don’t want to talk about this cancer is because of the shame around it. Cancer is not your fault. It is a non-discriminant beast with no other wish than destroying parts of you. There is no rhyme or reason most of the time. I’ve seen it go after the healthiest and the unhealthiest. It does not matter. I had to throw this out there because not once did I see a “Cervical Cancer Awareness” sticker on someone’s car, football players in teal or anything in the month of January which is deemed “Cervical Cancer Awareness Month”. We don’t talk about it and frankly don’t want to. Just like shame, the less we talk about “it”, the more cancer will thrive. Saving as many women from this horrible disease is my goal #1.
I’m a woman. A wife, mother, daughter and sister. A normal everyday human being affected by this. It can happen to anyone. Let’s start talking about it so it happens less and less.
Here are 5 LESSONS I have learned from having cancer (one for each year).
Trust yourself and take care of yourself. I was told for over 9 months that there was nothing wrong with me. Clearly that wasn’t the case. I am very pro-active with my health. I am an advocate for myself. If I hadn’t insisted - over and over - that something was wrong… I wouldn’t be here today. Women are generally not listened to as much as men. They are often dismissed regarding their symptoms or intuitions. Let’s change this.
With storms comes the beauty. I would consider myself more spiritual than anything else but whatever you believe in, I think most can agree that that the Universe has a way of correcting itself. I am where I am supposed to be. We wanted another baby more than anything. When the doctors told me I would have to have a Radical Hysterectomy with Lymph Node dissection I was beyond devastated. I never realized how much of being a woman is attached to the organs I no longer have. At age 33 and with one child, I would give up the part of me that gave life to others… to give life to myself. Just a year and a half later, I would pick up my beautiful son from the arms of another mother (who could give life but not take care of it the way she wanted to). The world and this life are crazy sometimes, and yet I know that I was meant to be his mom… and I wouldn’t have been without cancer.
Build a life that makes you happy. Today I am on a beach, tomorrow I will be back in the snowy tundra of Colorado’s mountains, maybe I will be at Soccer Practice or Swimming Lessons. Don’t wait to do what you’ve always wanted to do. Breath in the air, go on that trip, build a business or a life that supports your passions or dreams. You are in charge of your happiness.
Shame only lives in Silence. Brenè Brown, a renowned author, professor and researcher, believes that shame can only live in silence. If you are feeling shameful about something it will eat you up inside. Tell someone what you are struggling with. It can be a therapist, a friend, or perhaps the Universe through your writing or journaling. It doesn’t have to be on a platform like this, but please tell someone. Most of the time, that shame only lives in our heads and we have to actively choose not to give it power.
Be Present. This one I am still working on. With so many things in our world that can distract us being present is getting harder and harder. Put your phone down. Relish in your pet’s antics or your kid’s smile. I find I am so much happier when I put things away and am present. It is still on my struggle list as I juggle three businesses, two kids, the travel I want to do, a husband and everyday life, but I have to tell myself to just do it. I was given a second chance at life and I don’t want to waste it.
At 5 years (today) I am considered cured from cancer. I definitely have scars, post-op complications, and lymphedema in my legs - sometimes so bad that I cannot walk. Some things make me stop and smile, and some things make me cry at the drop of a pin. But I am here. I am still breathing and living the best way that I know how. I have a life that I’ve built that makes me happy. And five years ago, I thought that I may not even live to see my kid’s 5th birthday.
My hope is that you’ll share my story…
For many reasons, and mostly to help empower another woman to thrive. I want her (and you) to get checked. Don’t put it off until you think something is wrong. I want you to trust your body and intuition. Ask questions, and ask others for advice or referrals because - I promise - you are not alone and you are worthy of answers. I want to encourage you to talk about your struggles or shame, and to choose courage over comfort. (Feel free to comment below or ask me a question, and I’ll do my best to respond, help or point you in the right direction.) I want you to think about living your life with intention, and as if you don’t have tomorrow. Because tomorrow is never guaranteed. I remind myself of all these things daily and fail at them daily too. That’s the beauty of being human right?! And if you are in your storm or somewhere after, I’m sending healing vibes your way and hoping that you’ll find a way to celebrate the beauty - even if it looks or feels different than you imagined.
“Happy 5 years to me”, that’s what I texted my business partner today. I guess this is me saying it out loud (to myself and to you all) here too. Happy 5 years cancer free, Sarah! It wasn’t easy — and you did it, and you found a way to thrive. Now, let’s celebrate!
Sarah Roshan is a wife, mom and award winning wedding photographer located in Colorado, owner of Trulife Studios (a collaborative wedding and event planning studio), and Co-Founder of She Will Thrive. She is determined to help women find their voice and price their business for profit. Sarah is passionate about human rights, open adoption, and helping cancer survivors to thrive. She believes in jumping with your heart, loving graciously, and that hot chocolate and puppy snuggles could solve most of the world's problems. Sarah wants you to see that your imperfections are the best parts of you, and most of all that women are unstoppable.