I had cervical cancer, caused by the human papillomavirus, or HPV.
A C-section immediately followed by cancer treatment saved my and my newborn son’s lives.
I’m sharing my story so others going through the same diagnosis don’t feel the same way I did.
With my legs akimbo and feet in stirrups, 35 weeks pregnant with my second baby, my OB-GYN checked my cervix for delivery. I listened for a report of “high and closed” or “effaced and dilated.”
Instead, she said “irregular” and suggested a Pap smear, a cervical-cancer screening diagnostic, to determine what came next. My stomach dropped when she pulled out the swab dripping with blood.
Follow-up tests confirmed her concerns. There was a rapidly growing 7-centimeter tumor cradling my womb where my son also grew. What should have been the last exciting weeks of my pregnancy turned into panic as we made plans to deliver our son and also save my life.
My cancer was caused by HPV
The next evening I clutched my belly while my husband and I listened to her describe the modern medical feats designed to treat stage 2B cervical cancer in pregnancy – emergency C-section, chemotherapy, radiation (which would then lead to infertility) – and side effects like menopause, bladder and bowel impairment, and sexual dysfunction.
Summoning the strength to speak, I asked the question to which I already knew the answer. “Cervical cancer – it’s caused by HPV?” Yes, my doctor confirmed, high-risk strains of the human papillomavirus, like mine, cause cervical and other cancers. HPV is incredibly common: Almost 79 million Americans have it, though it’s highly stigmatized.
In shock and grief-stricken, I swallowed hard the feelings of shame. Instantly, my feminine identity shattered. Worse still, the thought of telling people that I had preventable, sex-related cancer was suffocating.
Days earlier I’d been fearless in boardrooms, on stage presenting to hundreds. Now I lacked the courage to disclose the “cervical” in my diagnosis to the few I brought into my inner circle. When I spoke, I’d break eye contact, whispering “cervical” before properly intoning “cancer.” Searching for hope, I watched women on YouTube bravely speaking out against the stigma.
I was swiftly in treatment. By day I endured brutal therapeutics and procedures, studying them to cope. At night I researched the societal, racial, and socioeconomic barriers that lead hundreds of thousands of women diagnosed with cervical cancer to die.
After treatment, I recovered with the COVID-19 pandemic as a backdrop and traced women’s cervical-healthcare experiences, discovering a dated system demanding sex-positive disruption.
Barriers to care are everywhere
Life-threatening barriers to care begin early and are almost imperceptible.
For example, misinformation and discomfort prevent pediatricians from recommending the lifesaving HPV vaccine. Many public schools still teach abstinence-only curricula, while those that teach sex ed never mention HPV’s connection to cancer. People who’ve experienced childhood abuse and sexual assault are at far greater risk for developing cervical cancer and are less likely to access care.
I understand my outcome is unusual, predicated on privilege, world-class care, a just-in-time diagnosis, and extensive paid medical leave. For many women, these are insurmountable barriers.
Eventually my shame evaporated; my pain gave way to purpose. Now in remission, I’ve become a determined woman’s-health advocate, using my voice to destigmatize and modernize cervical-health care. I’ll pray I’ll be considered cured, a rarified distinction of cervical cancer, as my daughter sits for her first HPV vaccine.
Cervical-cancer eradication is possible through vaccination and screening, and it requires elevating women’s health from whisper networks into a public dialogue where women and families seek out the HPV vaccine, understand risk factors, and create screening and prevention plans with providers.
At 35 weeks pregnant, I felt shame that threatened my survival. I’ve now become the woman I’d hoped to find in my darkest moments, proud of her triumph over cervical cancer and normalizing sexual health to protect future generations from preventable cancer.
Eve McDavid is a Google strategy executive, stage 2B cervical cancer survivor, devoted wife, and mom to two young children. She’s joined the World Health Organization’s fight to eradicate cervical cancer by 2030 and is collaborating with Weill Cornell Medicine to redesign treatment devices to improve women’s care, access, and outcomes.
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