My name is Shari Ruesga, and I am from Wisconsin, USA. My husband and I share 3 kids, ages 23, 19 and 18, and a 1 year old grandson; all of whom I am not at all prepared to say good-bye to. However, on Thursday, July 25th, 2013, I heard the words that would change my life forever; I was challenged to face a cervical cancer diagnosis that statistics said I may not survive.
I was 38 years old, and told I had Stage 4 Cervical Cancer by a healthcare provider that did not know me very well, and who admitted he did not know “much about cervical cancer and treatment” either. I work as a registered nurse, and you might assume as a medical professional that I am very well informed, and up to date on the latest knowledge about cervical cancer prevention. However, despite my job profession, it was clear that I did not know anything beyond the importance of getting regular Pap tests (sometimes also referred to as a Pap “smear”).
I also did not know the role of Human Papillomavirus (also called “HPV”) in my disease and that certain high-risk HPV types are known to cause cervical cancer. I remember thinking, “I’m not going to die from this. This is not how my story ends.” Millions of thoughts and emotions flooded my mind. How do I tell my kids this news? How do I prepare myself and my family for a fight that enters our lives so invasively?
Prior to my diagnosis, I attended regular well woman exams, and had a series of normal Pap test results, indicating everything was fine. Even after I developed cervical cancer symptoms – with episodes of post-coital bleeding - an ultrasound and Pap test still came back reported as “normal”. It was 11 months later, at the time of my next well woman exam and still with cervical cancer symptoms that had progressed to urinary symptoms, that a high-risk HPV test was ordered, and the result came back positive. Shortly thereafter, I underwent colposcopy with biopsy, and was diagnosed.
As I celebrate a 4 year “cancerversary”, I am today grateful and doing well! However, this cancer diagnosis has changed me, and is shifting my priorities in ways I would have never imagined before my diagnosis. Cervical cancer is highly preventable and yet still quite poorly understood. I want all women to know that Pap tests, while significant successes for many decades in reducing the number of cervical cancer cases, are no longer good enough. They can miss disease, and compared to newer HPV DNA testing technologies available today, are not adequate prevention solutions by themselves.
Treatment was not easy, but I got through 5 of 6 rounds of chemotherapy I was supposed to have. I also had 28 rounds of external radiation and 5 rounds of internal radiation. Fatigue, nausea, vomiting, a blood transfusion, bowel & kidney issues; yes, I had it all. I put all my focus on surviving; I convinced myself there was no other option. Then treatment ended. Despite wonderful support from family and friends, I felt alone; uncertainty of what was to come was at times debilitating. I knew I had to push through to rebuild; find my new norm. I began to redefine my life and reflect on what was best for me going forward.
Personal Story told 2017.