YOU PROBABLY HAVE THIS VIRUS YOU JUST DON’T KNOW IT
Johannesburg therapist Kate Parker was 24 when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She is one of the 80% of women carrying HPV – here’s what you need to know
‘YOU HAVE CANCER.’ No one expects those words, especially at 24. And cervical cancer? I ate all the right things, exercised daily, didn’t smoke, hardly drank, went for all my checkups – and I’d had only one sexual partner. I’d even had the Gardasil vaccination at specifically to prevent cervical cancer, for goodness sake. Disbelief gave way to cold fear as I joined the dots. A few months earlier I’d started having some abnormal bleeding – spotting and heavy bleeding mid-cycle. I hadn’t thought much of it because the gynae check-ups I’d been dutifully going for each year since 18 had always been uneventful, and pap smears had come back normal.
The gynae himself was unconcerned. He put down my symptoms to anything from a bacterial infection to hormones, the pill, or allergies. But none of the medications he prescribed worked, and neither did changing, then stopping, my pill. In February last year, when I started dating a new boyfriend, I insisted on another appointment to sort things out. When there was a heavy bleed during the examination, the gynae suddenly referred me to a gynaecological oncologist. Even then I was unprepared for those words.
Healthy and careful me – with cancer? Surely some mistake! But the biopsy revealed stage IB1 adenocarcinoma of the cervix, a growth almost 4cm wide. The words ‘hysterectomy’, ‘radiation’, ‘fertility’ and ‘surrogacy’ were tossed about, and I battled to take them in. Days before, my biggest worries had been planning an out t for dinner with the new boyfriend. Now none of that mattered. Would I ever have kids? Would I even have life?
When I told my mom and she started crying, I fell apart. I had contracted the aggressive HPV16 virus that causes most cervical cancer. I was angry, and afraid – not just of my future, but of the fact that unlike if this had been breast or other cancers, people would judge me. After all, HPV is a sexually transmitted infection (STI). Frantically researching it, I learned that 80% of women will have the virus at some point in their lives, passed on by asymptomatic sexual partners. It causes cancer in only some cases.
Why mine? I had to accept that not even top doctors knew. HPV is highly contagious and spreads through skin-to-skin contact. But getting it doesn’t mean your partner is cheating on you, as it can stay dormant in the body for many years.
It took time to get my head around it, but I’ve come to accept that it wasn’t my fault – and although I was angry at rst, it wasn’t my ex partner’s, either. The only way HPV can be prevented is by both parties having no previous sexual partners at all, or being vaccinated before becoming sexually active, even orally. I’d been exposed to HPV before having my shot.
Even using condoms is not fail-safe, as there is skin contact from the uncovered bits. Treatments aren’t fail-safe either, but I was relieved to discover that they’re getting better. Within a month I was booked for an operation with one of a handful of gynaecological oncologists in South Africa who can perform a specialised, fertility-saving cervical cancer procedure I’d never heard of – a trachelectomy.
Instead of removing the uterus (a hysterectomy), the go-to treatment in the past, the surgeon cuts the cancerous cervix o the uterus. And sometimes, if the tumour is larger (as in my case), she removes the cervical ligaments, upper few centimeters of the vagina and lymph nodes too, in a ‘radical trachelectomy’. But sex is unaffected, thank God – and you should still be able to have a kid some day.
However, my doctor would only know when I was under the knife if the procedure would be successful, or if a full hysterectomy would be needed. There was also a -10% chance my lymph glands would be affected by the cancer, or the doctor might not get all of it out – I might not survive to try for a child.
The operation took four hours and a hip-to-hip cut. I woke to hear it had been successful – but my glands were affected. y heart froze as I heard that my right ovary had been moved under my ribs in case I needed radiation, which would otherwise make me infertile. I spent seven nights in hospital. Alone, I mostly cried, but visits from family and friends made me determined to stay positive. As the cancer was in my lymph system, there was no way of knowing if or where it had spread. A decision was taken not to do radiation, but I needed chemotherapy.
For ve hours at a stretch I would sit in the chemo lounge. A fortnight after my rst session, my hair began falling out in clumps. I cut it short to make the experience less traumatic. A week later I shaved it o , because it was falling out so rapidly. Eyebrows and eyelashes followed.
y cancer could no longer be hidden: an intensely personal part of me was exposed to the world. I got stares and whispers, but no one would ask – I’d see them silently assume. Some days I was ne. thers, tears owed. I experienced emotions in a way I didn’t think possible: sadness, fear, hope, love, empathy and new awe for the fragile beauty in life.
I completed my treatment in August 2014, and my PET scan and pap smear came back clear. y hair has grown back and I feel better than I have in a long time. I am also in a new relationship with a good man who is helping me through my journey. I’m still scared for the future and a lifetime of checkups and uiet worry. But mostly I’m just grateful to be alive.
During treatment, I struggled to nd other women going through the same thing, especially at my age. So I created a Facebook community to o er support to those a ected by cervical cancer. Every young woman needs to educate herself about HPV, go for pap smears, and if you’re lucky enough to have children some day, as I hope to, vaccinate them young – girls, but also boys, who pass on the virus. Because cervical cancer is preventable, we just have to take the necessary steps to keep it that way.
Kate and her partner, Arjun