Michelle Whitlock, cervical cancer survivor and Director of the Mid-South Chapter of the National Cervical Cancer Coalition, discusses her battle with cervical cancer and what she learned about fertility options.
I was 26 when I was first diagnosed with cervical cancer. I had every year gone to the doctor for my pap smear like I was supposed to. I thought I was doing everything I was supposed to do. In 2001 my doctor did that new HPV DNA test with the pap and that showed high risk and after doing some more exploratory type procedures, they discovered the cancer.
I’ll clearly always remember the doctor saying, “Oh, we’re just going to do some additional screening. It’s probably nothing. The average age of cervical cancer is 50. It’s very unlikely.” And then that phone call coming that said, “In fact, you do have cervical cancer.”
They told me I had to have a radical hysterectomy and being 26 and just newly in a relationship I was very concerned about preserving fertility. I didn’t really feel like the options they were offering me were age-appropriate. I found another physician that did this rare procedure called a radical trecolectomy at Johns Hopkins. I had that done. It’s got good success rates; I’m just not one of them.
Two years later my cancer came back; it came back in April of 2004. I went for my two-year check up and my doctor did a pap, but she also cut a small incision into the base of the uterus, stuck a brush up in there and took a sample. That night my boyfriend proposed thinking we were finally two years in remission, we’re going to get married, life’s going to be great, step forward and a few days later the phone rang and they said, “Your cancer’s back and you have to have a radical hysterectomy.”
Then once again, I challenged the doctors, that that wasn’t appropriate, I wasn’t going to just go do that. I remember my doctor getting really firm and stern with me that you know, it’s about saving my life and I challenged her about quality of life and what would life be like after, and I wanted to try to preserve fertility.
So I switched doctors again. That doctor didn’t tell me anything different, but it was the way he told me. He saw me as a person that wanted to have a life afterwards and he opened up his phone and he called an endocrinologist that he knew and helped me find a way to harvest eggs and freeze seven embryos.
On June 9th I froze the embryos, on the 18th I got married and on the 28th I checked into the hospital and had a radical hysterectomy/partial vaginal-ectomy, chemo and radiation, and in October I was declared cancer-free.
Know Your Fertility Options
In terms of women and fertility, I think it’s really important to ask your doctors the questions. Had a doctor been up front with me and told me that I could have had my uterus removed but kept my ovaries and that ovaries could be stimulated to get eggs at a later point, I might have made a different decision with my initial treatment. Because today I’m in menopause and I can’t go back in and get those.
So I’d really just challenge women to ask the questions to their doctors, to ask specific questions about fertility, ovaries, how chemo or radiation would affect reproduction. And reproduction doesn’t just mean creating life inside of you, but today with technology you can create life that looks like you and your husband and use a surrogate and not everybody is aware of that. We really, I think a lot of times, think about fertility as getting pregnant ourselves. So there are other options, so just really ask questions and do the research because there is life after cancer.