Liz Ellwood was just 24 when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. The diagnosis came as a surprise. After having a normal Pap test just 7 months earlier, Liz noticed some unusual bleeding, cramping, and spotting. She went for another Pap test, which came back abnormal. After further tests she was diagnosed with a rare type of cervical cancer called clear cell adenocarcinoma. This type of cancer is often quite advanced by the time it shows up on a Pap test, and it can be hard for doctors to tell how far it has spread.
But that wasn't the only surprise - Liz was shocked to learn that her cancer may have been caused by an infection with HPV (human papillomavirus), which is a sexually transmitted infection (STI). Liz had a very low risk for STI: she had become sexually active fairly late in life, had few partners, used condoms for protection during sex, and her partners were tested for STIs.
Before deciding on treatment, Liz did her research. Because she has always dreamed of having children, Liz froze some of her eggs and opted for a new surgical procedure called trachelectomy. This procedure can help increase the chances that a woman will still be able to bear children. But because her doctors couldn't be sure that surgery had completely gotten rid of her cancer, Liz had to undergo chemotherapy and radiation as well. Due to the radiation damage to her uterus, it's unlikely that Liz will be able to carry her own children. "Since I was 5 years old, I said to myself, 'I'm going to have two kids, a boy and a girl,'" she says. "Other people plan their weddings, I planned my children."
During her fight with cervical cancer, Liz had to face a lot of challenges: the surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy; the fertility issues; the fatigue and premature hot flashes; and the missed time from a career she enjoys. "It's a big battle to go through and if it can be prevented it should. I want to help prevent other girls from having to go through what I went through."
Because cervical cancer is "a huge loss for a woman," Liz urges other young women to get informed about HPV and cervical cancer. There are many ways to get informed - talk to your doctor and do your own research. And remember that any sexually active woman could be at risk. "You never know," says Liz, "If it happened to me it could happen to anyone."
It's important to keep in mind that this is one woman's story, and other women's experiences with HPV and cervical cancer may be different. Not every woman infected with HPV will develop cervical cancer. However, HPV infection causes most cases of cervical cancer, so it's very important to get informed. Make time to speak to your doctor about HPV and cervical cancer.
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