My name is Amiliya Wubbels. How is it possible that I am age 28 years, diagnosed with cervical cancer, and already dealing with a hysterectomy and life-long worry about a disease that is supposed to be preventable? The simple answer is that I just don’t know; until recently I was completely unaware of the link between HPV and cervical cancer, and I had not learned much, if anything at all, about how or when to prevent cervical cancer.
No one told me to get a well-woman exam (including my first cervical cancer screening test) at age 21; and word-of-mouth advice didn’t cover the importance of healthcare check-ups. Besides, I was feeling well and as an uninsured mother with two young boys, I had plenty of other challenges at the time.
When I did get more settled, with family support and medical insurance, I attended a well-woman exam with a gynecologist. As part of that visit, a sample of cells was collected from my cervix for a Pap test (sometimes women call this a “Pap smear”), something performed routinely in women to screen for cervical cancer. I had mistakenly thought Pap tests were reserved for older women, or that they were used to detect different gynecologic problems.
A few weeks later, I was told my Pap result was abnormal, and that I was also positive for high-risk HPV (Human Papillomavirus) so a colposcopy was performed. (Yes, I now have a good grasp of these words and terminology!) During a colposcopy procedure the surface of the cervix is examined more closely using a visual enhancement technique and light magnification. In my case, it came back with some low-grade abnormalities, so I was told to wait a year to see if my body could resolve this on its own. At that time, I didn’t know what HPV was (a very common, sexually transmitted infection that most people are completely unaware they have), and I had no idea HPV is the known cause of almost all cervical cancer. I had no HPV symptoms. None of my friends or family ever mentioned HPV or cervical cancer in our discussions, and so I was not concerned that this could potentially progress into more serious disease.
I have since learned that most women’s bodies (close to 90%) clear the HPV virus on their own, but in other (rare) cases, the virus remains. Over time, a persistent, undetected HPV infection can develop into cervical cancer. Since HPV is quite common in young women, and there is no treatment, my healthcare provider told me not to worry, and to repeat testing in a year, giving my body time to resolve the infection.
After 12 months I got a reminder card in the mail to schedule a visit, and I went back in. This time, the results from my cervical sample collection were still abnormal, so another colposcopy exam was recommended to take a closer look. A tissue sample of suspicious areas was collected and sent to the laboratory.
I went through a series of treatments (including a "Loop Electrosurgical Excision Procedure" or LEEP procedure, to remove the abnormal cells from my cervix). I was told I had "adenocarcinoma in situ" which is a form of cervical cancer found slightly higher up within the cervix. I still had no symptoms. This was devastating, and completely surprising news.
My most recent procedure consisted of a hysterectomy (surgical removal of my uterus) in January 2018 and I am thankfully recovering well, with a positive, long-term outlook. My friends and family support system is strong, and I am ready to move forward.
I want to share my experience with other women, and be a source of information for young girls who are living like I did in my teens, more care-free and feeling invincible. I've learned that everyone is vulnerable to cancer, and all women should take their regular well-woman exams to the gynecologist seriously.
I did not know that sex at an earlier age, or with multiple partners, could increase my risk for cervical cancer. For girls like me who may not know yet, I want to help increase awareness about how they should think about protecting their health, beginning at age 21 with a first cervical cancer screening appointment. Even younger than this, girls and boys can get an HPV vaccination. I wish someone had told me this information, when it could have made a difference, before cancer developed.
All of us need to be able to talk openly about high-risk HPV, and not feel ashamed, or held back because of a reluctance to discuss a sexually transmitted virus. Cervical cancer is preventable, and knowing if you are at risk based on an HPV DNA test can help.
Your family and friends depend on you, so keeping your health a priority is important.
For women who do not have health insurance, here are resources.
Personal Story told 2018.