Cervical Cancer Survivor

Focus On the Good

After being treated for severe cervical dysplasia at age 25, Lindsay Dowling had nine years of normal Pap tests. That changed shortly after her son’s birth, when an abnormal result on a Pap test led to a diagnosis of adenocarcinoma in situ at age 34. After a successful surgery, she now works as a director of sales at a luxury resort company, parents two children and focuses on all the good in her life.

When I was 25, I was diagnosed with severe cervical dysplasia after an annual Pap test. A simple loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP) cleared the margins, and I had normal results on my Pap tests for the next nine years. Although the procedure cleared the margins, hearing I had severe dysplasia was still devastating. Cancer had not touched my life closely or often at that point, and learning I had a severe precancerous condition was alarming. Adding to the stress was the idea that my dysplasia was caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), which I knew very little about. I didn’t understand how common it was.

Just after the birth of my second child, a Pap test again showed signs of severe dysplasia. After a biopsy, I was diagnosed with adenocarcinoma in situ of the cervix. I had just turned 34, was working full time and had a seven-month-old son and five-year-old daughter.

After hearing this diagnosis, I was not as frightened of the disease as I was of losing my ability to conceive another child. I felt infinitely lucky to have been blessed with two wonderful children. I definitely was not ready to have another child, but closing that door was a difficult decision.

I have a wonderful relationship with my gynecologist. I was referred to him after my first diagnosis, and he delivered both of my children and referred me to a gynecologic oncologist after the second diagnosis. Because the oncologist confirmed my gynecologist’s diagnosis, I did not seek a second opinion.

I did, however, seek out more information about my diagnosis. I became a professional “Googler” and bought every book Amazon carried on the subject. All my research made me feel more prepared during my appointments and confident in the decisions I made. I also joined various online communities of women with similar diagnoses, which was extremely helpful to me.

Because adenocarcinoma is so aggressive, I chose to have a hysterectomy with salpingectomy, having my cervix, uterus and fallopian tubes removed. The cancer had not spread to my ovaries, so they were left in place to prevent the immediate onset of menopause. I had the surgery two and a half months after diagnosis.

My gynecologist told me that if his wife, sister or daughter was going through the same thing, he would recommend the surgery. I needed that reassurance in such a big decision.

I healed much faster than anticipated, but it was still major surgery. I was weak and temporarily restricted from everyday activities, including lifting my nine-month-old son. Not being able to pick him up for six weeks was one of the hardest things I endured.

Fortunately, my family was a strong support system for me. My parents took my children for four weeks, bringing them to our house to visit each weekend. My husband took care of me at home, especially the first few days when it was difficult for me to get around. My son was too young to understand what was going on, but my daughter was a bit worried and confused. She knew Mommy was sick, but she didn’t really know why. Once the children returned, my daughter helped me around the house as much as a five-year-old could.

My gynecologist was a huge support, too. After he referred me to my oncologist, he stayed in touch, calling to check on me. He even visited me in recovery at the hospital after surgery, though he was not involved with the surgery and did not work at that hospital.

Now, I’m doing great, aside from some of the side effects that come along with a hysterectomy. I am dealing with the early stages of menopause, but I have an open line of communication with my gynecologist, who gives me suggestions for minimizing discomfort and any other issues.

This experience made me realize that time is limited and precious, and that helped me learn more about how to keep myself and my family healthy. I still get nervous about my health, but because of that, I’m in the best health of my life. I am diligent about my diet and appointments. I am much more open with my doctors and discuss any concerns with them.

For me, this was a very personal disease to battle. I struggled with being open about it for a long time, largely because of its association with HPV. This was exacerbated by an insecurity that I was somehow less of a woman after my surgery. Being there for other women facing this diagnosis has helped me most. I volunteer with the National Cervical Cancer Coalition, sharing my experience and giving advice so women know they are not alone. I also want everyone to know that HPV is so common nearly all sexually active people get it at some point. You should not feel stigmatized for having HPV or cancer related to HPV.

I know it’s difficult, but when faced with cancer you have to remind yourself to relax. I believe stress is a tyrant that will only hurt, not help, the situation. I always try to remember this quote: “Worry is a prayer for chaos.” I truly believe that. Even when it’s not easy, I try to focus on the good.