My Bout With Cervical Cancer
Age Rating: 13 +
Picture Credits: Nancy Pawley
In the autumn of 1999 I decided to start looking after my health and made an appointment to see my family doctor after 15 years of procrastinating. I had a complete physical on November 30th, 2 days before my birthday. I received a call from Dr. Collins' secretary on December 9th and she told me I had an abnormal pap smear. She in no way mentioned how bad it was but suggested I go see my gynecologist. I told her I didn't have one, so she set up an appointment for me to see Dr. Ronald Cucina, who was relatively new to this area and still accepting patients. The appointment was set for December 15th at 10am.
I went to Dr.Cucina's office and saw him about 10:45. He asked if I knew why I was seeing him and I said yes, because of my abnormal pap smear. He said they were very worried about me because cancer cells had been found on my cervix. I didn't know what to say or think so I sat there in silence. He gave me some pamphlets to read and left the exam room. When Dr. Cucina came back in he explained that he wanted to do a biopsy, so I filled out all kinds of forms, had blood drawn, and had my blood pressure checked. I signed paper after paper in order for him to do a colposcopy..it's a way of looking at the cervix through a special magnifying instrument called a colposcope. The mild vinegar solution he used to cleanse my cervix stung like alcohol poured on an open wound. I felt like he was pinching a piece of my skin as hard as he could between his fingers and then cutting it off. He did that on both sides of my cervix..there were no painkillers involved for this procedure because I had had some of my cervix removed in 1981 due to over active cells.
When the procedure was finished, Dr. Cucina explained that even though cervical cancer is rare it is the most treatable of female cancers. That helped to ease my mind. He then mentioned I might have to go see a woman's cancer specialist in one of the big cities such as Atlanta, Birmingham, or Jacksonville, as there were none practicing in Albany. It would all depend on how far the cancer had spread. I went home and called my husband, telling him what I knew. We waited 2 days for the biopsy results which confirmed the fact that I had cancer with numerous bad spots on the left side of my cervix. He scheduled an appointment for a LEEP PROCEDURE to be done on Thursday, December 30th.
It was difficult for me to believe I had cancer..my perceptions were of persons who dwindled away to nothing, while feeling sick and in pain. Nothing of that sort happened to me. I felt good..I had no pain..I didn't feel sick and I certainly had not lost weight.
My husband drove me to Dr. Cucina's office because we knew the procedure would be more extensive and I would require someone to drive me home. We arrived at Dr. Cucina's office at 10:45am and I was called in to see him at 11:15. The nurse took my blood pressure and I signed away my life on all the forms she put in front of me. I went into the same room that I had the biopsies done in and had the non-pleasure of sliding off my pants and underwear..at least I got to keep my socks on so my feet wouldn't freeze to death. The table was set, but not with any of my alltime favorite foods. I stared at the metal instruments the good doctor needed to perform the surgery, feeling like I had the starring role in a grade b horror movie. Dr. Cucina and his nurse came in and he explained right up front what he was going to do. The LEEP PROCEEDURE is a biopsy that is performed by electrosurgical excision. He gave me 2 shots of a local anesthetic on both sides of my cervix and I felt no pain. A thin wire loop carried an electrical current to remove the abnormal areas from my cervix. This part of the procedure went well, but things got worse as the afternoon progressed.
After Dr. Cucina removed the damaged tissue, he used more electrical energy to close off the blood vessels on my cervix in order to reduce the risk of bleeding, but my blood kept flowing..I knew something was wrong because my heart began to race a million miles a minute. I heard him tell his nurse that he needed more gauze, and to get Dr. Klemann. Everyone kept asking if I was OK..I was too scared to utter a word, but the Red Hot Chile Peppers singing their delightful rendition of ' Scar Tissue ' ran through my mind. It was the song that had been playing on the radio right before my surgery took place. I do remember thinking, " Is this going to be the last thought to cross my mind? " I collected my wits and breathed deeply as they finished stitching me up and packing me with a ton of gauze.
I was still laying flat on my back when Dr. Cucina told me I would have to sit up and then walk around the office in order to go home. They set me up in small increments, allowing me time to get used to sitting upright. After 3 hours I was thirsty and asked the nurse to bring me some water..she also gave me some pretzels to munch on. I felt better and regained a bit of strength. Dr.Klemann and the nurses left me in the room with Dr. Cucina and I did just fine while he stood in front of me, talking. He said he needed to leave for a minute and I said OK, never thinking there would be a problem. Right after he left the room, I began to see brilliant starbursts in front of my eyes..they were quite coloful and beautiful..and then blackness as I closed my eyes and passed out for a few minutes. I heard someone calling my name from a distance and when I opened my eyes, Dr. Cucina asked me questions to make sure my brain was still functioning and I had not had a seizure. I became sick to my stomach and threw up the water and pretzels on myself, the floor and the waste basket. He gave me a shot for my nausea and I felt better, but with everything that had occurred, I knew there was no way I would get to go home.
Dr. Cucina told me my blood pressure must have dropped suddenly, but he did not believe I had a seizure, which was a relief. He allowed my husband and daughter to come see me for a few minutes. They were both scared and Kristina mentioned I looked as white as a ghost. Dr. Cucina then said he was going to admit me to Phoebe Putney Hospital, which is right across the street from his office. He asked if I wanted to go in a wheelchair..I didn't want to chance fainting again so I nipped that idea in the bud. He then said they could borrow a stretcher from the hospital's emergency room and that is what they did. The first stretcher was too big to fit into his office, so they got a second one and managed to bring a big, burly orderly along with it. He helped lift me onto the stretcher as I was dead weight. They wheeled me out the front door and I kept my eyes closed so I wouldn't get sick again, but once we were outside I peeked at the sun and blue sky above me through the bare branches of the oak trees lining the street. The weather was cool, with a slight breeze blowing and it was a very short ride to the emergency room. We went through the doctor's entrance, and the ceiling lights shone in my eyes as they rolled down the hallway to a private room where I was hooked up to an IV. 3 bags of saline solution were pumped into me in about 45 minutes. Blood tests were done and vital signs taken to make sure I was doing ok. I had no energy to use a bedpan, so the nurse inserted a catheter, then I was transferred to a private room on the 5th floor. Trying to sleep was a difficult task to accomplish because of many factors..there were nurses coming in and out of the room checking on me every 15 minutes, the IV's made me uncomfortable and I couldn't move my legs because of the catheter. By Friday morning I felt better and was allowed to get up with help..I took a shower, ate breakfast and was doing well enough by 1pm to go home. Needless to say, I didn't get to go out and celebrate ringing in the Millenium New Year. I came home and went to bed, but woke up in time to watch the fireworks go off in New York City. The first 2 weeks I took it easy, slowly regaining my strength and stamina..life went on as normal and there were even times I forgot that I had cancer.
Dr. Cucina called me on January 4th, 2000 to tell me about the biopsies from the LEEP PROCEDURE. He said the cancer had spread further than what he had removed from my cervix, but not so far I would have to go see a cancer specialist. My husband and I went back to see him for a post-operative check-up on January 21st. He said everything was looking fine, but in order for me to be cured from this cancer I would need to have a complete hysterectomy. The surgery date was set for Friday, March 3rd, 2000, so my body would have time to heal.
On Thursday Feb.17th, my husband and I went back to see Dr. Cucina. My hemoglobin was checked to make sure it was within the normal range and it was. Then he checked my heart and lungs and they were in good shape. He told me that my incision would be on the bikini line and then he discussed the risks involved in any kind of surgical operation. On the day before my operation the rule of thumb were going to be laxatives, enemas, and a liquid diet. When I left his private office I went to see their insurance nurse..she called my insurance provider and they said they would pay for 90% of the cost and I would pay the remaining 10%. I breathed a huge sigh of relief as I signed consent forms galore allowing the doctors to do what needed to be done. My upcoming surgery would take place at Phoebe Putney Hospital, only 5 miles from my home
After seeing Dr. Cucina I walked to Phoebe Putney Hospital for pre-surgery admission and tests. I got there at 11am and waited for 15 minutes before they called me in to read and sign more consent forms. I was asked to go back out to the waiting area and I drank a cup of Maxwellhouse coffee that was strong and definitely 'good to the last drop'. 45 minutes later, I had a nurse's assessment..blood work-up, an ekg, and a chest x-ray.
For the next 2 weeks I stayed busy with reading, writing, cleaning house..taking long walks, and contemplating life in general. On Thursday, March 2nd, I was not allowed to have any caffeine, so I missed my morning java. In place of that I had chicken noodle soup with whole wheat crackers. Most of the morning was spent running errands..buying groceries, getting stamps and thank-you notes, because I knew I would not be going anyplace anytime soon. For lunch I had chicken with rice soup, and 7-Up instead of my usual diet Dr. Pepper. At 2pm, I opened the refrigerator and was confronted with the 2 ten-ounce bottles of Magnesium Citrate I had been ordered to drink. It was cold and tasted like a liquid version of lemon-lime Sweetarts, with more emphasis on the tart than the sweet. 2 swallows was more than enough, but I kept plugging along so I could get 'Unplugged.' I finally finished them at 4pm and spent the rest of my afternoon and evening close to the bathroom. At 10pm I used the 1st Fleet enema, then took a shower at 10:30. I was up and down all night, going back and forth from the bed to the bathroom, and I certainly didn't get much rest.
My digital clock was set for 4am, and the alarm went off just as programmed. I knew what had to be done..get my rear in gear for the 2nd enema. I spent the next 2 hours in the bathroom, the first hour cleaning out anything that had been left in my system, and the second hour, taking a hot shower. I dried off and dressed in a white t-shirt, black sweat pants, black socks and white sneakers..items that would be simple to take off when I got to the hospital. I wore no jewelry, no make-up, no perfume, and no deodorant per hospital orders. My husband, son, daughter and I left at 6:30 am to get to the hospital by my check-in time of 7am. We arrived at 6:45am and walked through the empty parking lot to the inside elevators, riding to the 2nd floor where my mother-in-law waited to meet us. Everyone had a seat except for me. I went to the nurse's desk to sign my life away..umm..to sign in. As I ambled back towards my family, my mouth watered with the aroma of freshly brewed coffee. I had not been allowed to eat or drink anything past midnight..not even have a sip of water, although I did get to brush my teeth. At 7:15 the nurse called my name and I followed the her to my private room, then removed all my clothes. I slipped into the hospital gown provided and sat in the chair so she could draw blood and take my blood pressure. After that was done, I climbed into the bed. She put an IV in my left hand, securing it with enough tape so it would never come loose.
My family was allowed in after that and we chatted for 20 minutes or so. Everyone walked as a nurse and orderly rolled me down halls and into elevators to destinations unknown. We said our good-byes and I was taken into a huge pre-surgery room in the shape of an 'H'. The cubicles were lined up against the walls while the nurses' station was in the middle. The cubicles were separated by curtains and I was placed in # 10. At that early hour there were few cubicles occupied by other patients. I had 4 different nurses come ask me the same questions..what was my name..did I have anything to eat or drink before coming to the hospital..did I have on any jewelry..did I have any loose teeth..did I know I was to have a complete hysterectomy? I answered all the questions correctly. Finally I was wheeled down to the real operating room..the sign over the door read ' OPERATING ROOM
ONE. ' That made me feel very special. The bed was put in it's proper place and Kathy, one of the nurse's from Dr. Cucina's office came over and said she would be assisting him with the operation. A minute later the anethesiologist, Dr. Smith, told me he was putting something into my IV so I would sleep. He did and I had one minute to feel like I was floating on air.
I woke up about 2pm in room 739 of the Women's Only section. It reminded me of a classy hotel..in a small sitting area was a wine colored couch and a small round table beside it. On the table was a lamp with a cream colored shade. A wine colored curtain could separate this portion from the main room where my bed set in the very middle. On the far left end was a couch covered in green floral print and a hard back Queen Elizabeth type chair to sit on. There was a window just past the couch and a square table beside it. The bathroom was the length of the hospital room with a sink on the far left end and the commode on the far right end. The shower was in a small recess between the sink and commode. There was a wooden hutch with a 21" screen tv for my viewing pleasure and a closet to the left of the bathroom.
After I was settled in and not feeling too groggy, Dr. Cucina came by for a short visit. He told me that the operation had gone smoothly and said that I was going to have leg compressors put on my legs to reduce the chance of blood clots. The air being pumped in and out of them felt strange, but they were necessary. The oxygen tube in my nostrils was a first for me. I didn't mind the catheter this time around as I knew I wouldn't be up and about until Saturday morning at the earliest. Tylox for pain was administered through my IV and Dr. Cucina told me I could use the morphine pump once every 10 minutes for pain. I dozed off and on throughout the afternoon and evening. I was encouraged to drink as much water as I could and for supper I had a liquid diet consisting of unsweetened tea, apple juice, broth, cherry jello, and a Sprite..yummy! I didn't want the broth or jello, but I drank everything else on my plate!
I kept up my dozing attitude for the rest of the evening while everyone watched tv or did whatever. I slept in spurts while nurses came in and out of the room, checking on me and my vital signs. I made it through the night with no major problems.
The nurse woke me up at 6am on Saturday, March 4th and took my vitals..blood pressure and temperature, then told me I was going to start on hormone replacement therapy. She gave me Premarin, a tiny maroon colored pill which I still use today.
For breakfast I had 2% milk, orange juice, broth and GRITS! The grits were soft and salty and tasted like a slice of heaven on earth, they were so good. Around 7:30 Dr. Cucina came by and did a quick exam, then looked at my staples. My catheter was taken out so I could sit up and start walking. At 9am another nurse came to help me take a shower. She removed my leg cuffs and the oxygen tubes, but not the IV..the nurse stretched a rubber glove over my left hand so I wouldn't get the tape wet where it held the needle for my IV. It hurt like the dickens to get out of bed, but I managed, swinging first one leg and then the other over the side, scooting my fanny up little by little until my feet touched the floor. I walked at a turtle's pace to make it to the bathroom, rolling my IV along with me. It took a while to lower my aching body to the toilet seat, and even longer to rise. I was glad there were metal bars that I could hold onto. I plodded slowly to the shower stall and sat on the wooden chair the nurse had provided for me to sit on. I washed as much of my body as I could and the nurse helped me with the rest. I rinsed off and toweled my front and the nurse dried the rest of me, and I felt very helpless. I put on a clean hospital gown, walked back into the room and sat in the chair by the window for 15 minutes. By that time I was worn out and went back to bed. The leg cuffs and oxygen tubes were put back into place and I spent the better part of the day reading the paper, watching tv, dozing off and on, and going back and forth to the bathroom when nature called.
For lunch I had tea and apple juice that I mixed together, jello, broth, and vanilla ice cream, then I went for my first walk. I wore my robe over my nightgown as I didn't want my backside shining in the light. It was slow going because I couldn't leave my room without my IV in tow. I held onto the wall railings to keep my balance, while Kristina walked beside me. One round trip was enough and I went back to bed. Supper was a rerun of lunch and on my second walk was further and at a faster pace. Kristina and I made it all the way to the window that overlooked the parking lot..such a thrill! Later that evening I ran a temperature of 101 degrees so the nightnurse had me drink 4 containers of apple juice, a Sprite, and plenty of water and by morning, my temperature was normal.
On Sunday morning, March 5th, I wasn't hurting quite as much. I was finding it easier to get up and down, so I took a walk before a real breakfast. Coffee with caffeine, eggs, bacon, toast, grits, orange juice, and an apple. I didn't eat the apple or bacon, but did finish the rest of my meal. Dr. Cucina came by and said since I was making such good progress he had the leg cuffs removed and replaced them with surgical stockings after I took another shower. I was able to stand up and Kristina washed my back. I dried off, put on a clean gown and robe, then walked down the hall without having to hold onto the rails. Lunch was a tunafish sandwich, vegetable soup, jello salad, apple juice, Sprite, tea, and vanilla ice cream.
Dr. Cucina came by around 3pm with great news..he told me I was cancer free and doing well enough to go home if I wanted. I decided that sleeping in my own bed would be best for me and I went home with a prescription for Tylenol 3 with codeine which dulled the pain and helped me sleep.
On Monday, March 6th, my husband drove me to Dr. Cucina's office to have my staples removed. It didn't hurt, but felt like little pricks on my skin. He gave me some Neosporin ointment and bandages and told me to keep my incision clean and dry.
An appointment was made for me to see him again on March 17th for a check-up. Dr. Cucina said the incision was healing nicely and I was given permission to drive by myself and do light duties around the house. My 6 weeks check-up appointment was made for April 14th and I had a full pelvic exam which showed that everything was fine.
I made an appointment to see Dr. Cucina on November 23, 2000 for my 6 months check-up. Everything was normal with my physical and 1 week later I got the results of my pap smear..it was normal with no signs of cancer, giving me a fantastic early birthday present.
I am very thankful that my cancer was caught before it had a chance to spread to the point where nothing could be done. For my own sake and the sake of my family I will never neglect my health again. This includes a yearly pap smear and general check-ups, because early detection of any cancer or disease is the best way to catch, treat and cure it.
It has been 2 years since this happened. I consider myself lucky and fortunate to have been given a second chance at life and living the way I'm supposed to..with happiness and joy and having a positive attitude despite all the negatives I encounter.