Member Stories: Maria Franklin Raises Cervical Cancer Awareness

We’re extremely proud of our members. Over the years their work out agendas and sporting endeavors serve as healthy examples of how it feels to be “Elite,” and how exercise not only adds years to your life, but life to your years! Today we’d like to highlight another member’s experience:

January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. The American Cancer Society estimates almost 13,000 new cases of cervical cancer were diagnosed in 2015, I’m on a mission to make sure this number goes down, way down.

My story: When I was 27 years old, I started noticing some vaginal discharge and went to my primary care doctor who diagnosed me (without examination) with a vaginal infection; he prescribed some medication but the infection didn’t go away. I went back again and again with no resolution. Eventually, the discharge turned into profuse bleeding with huge blood clots coming out of my body; after seeing this, I immediately went to the ER where I was told “this is your period”; I argued this statement but, despite having approx. 15 years of experience with my monthly visitor, my opinion didn’t seem to matter and I was sent home.

A week later I landed back in the ER just to be told (once again without examination) that it was most likely a miscarriage, even though I had never been pregnant. A week later I landed back in the ER with the same hemorrhage and blood clots, this time I demanded an examination by OB/GYN. The OB/GYN saw “a mass” and transferred me to another hospital immediately for a closer look and a much needed blood transfusion. On March 17, 1999 I was diagnosed with Stage 2B Squamous Cell Carcinoma of the Cervix.

Hearing the words “you have cancer” has been by far the worst experience of my life, and if that wasn’t scary enough, the next few words would do it: “the treatment will be aggressive and you will not be able to have children”. I was single and didn’t have any children; the news was devastating and I didn’t know at the time if this cancer was something I would survive.

Treatment: My treatment consisted of 30 courses of radiation, followed by 3 days of intracavitary radiation, and then 8 courses of chemo. Treatment wasn’t without complications as I had a pulmonary embolism and a blood clot on the right atrium of my heart. Despite that, approximately 1 year later, I found myself 20 pounds down, weak, and gray but cancer-free!

Side effects: Cervical cancer changes you, physically and mentally. Treatments are invasive and tough and so are the long-lasting side effects: early menopause (enter hot flashes!), loss of fertility, colitis due to radiation, peripheral neuropathy (I blame my inability to properly do some yoga poses on this one), cystitis, stenosis of the cervix, way too many gray hairs, and chemo brain (I swear it is real!), and depression. I’m fortunate that most of my symptoms have eased over the years with diet changes and the addition of a good exercise routine that includes Pilates and cardio; however, other survivors continue to struggle with serious side effects and recurrences, while others have died.

Why I talk about my experience: Deciding to talk about it was a huge decision because it involves talking about things that make most people uncomfortable and the stigma attached to Cervical Cancer doesn’t make it any easier; however, talking about it is necessary because Cervical Cancer is preventable and I want to make sure others around me know what to do to stay healthy.

Cervical cancer facts: The majority of cervical cancers are caused by the Human Papillomavirus (HPV); a very common virus that most people get at some point in their lives and will not even notice it because it usually doesn’t cause any symptoms. The good news is that most HPV infections will clear on its own! However, in some cases the infection persists and it can cause problems such as cervical cancer; unfortunately there is no way to determine who will clear the infection and who will not.

There are more than 100 types of HPV but only certain strains cause cancer; HPV 16 and 18 cause 70% of all cervical cancers. HPV has also been linked to 5 other types of cancers: vaginal, vulvar, penile, anus, and oropharyngeal.

Women can be checked for HPV on their annual well-woman exam when the doctor will perform a Pap and HPV test; this simple tests can help detect HPV infections before they become a problem. Unfortunately, to date, there is no HPV test for men.

The good news: Today we have vaccines that can protect our children against HPV. These vaccines are proven to be safe and when administered early, can protect our children from HPV infections and prevent cervical cancer. Vaccinating children early is vital because HPV is spread by skin-to-skin contact (not necessarily by sexual intercourse as commonly believed) so we want to make sure our children are completely protected way before they even want to look at the boy or girl next door.

Action plan: In my case, I failed to get regular Pap tests and paid a high price for that choice. Also, I never heard of HPV until approx. 2 years after my diagnosis when I was fortunate enough to connect with the Gyn-Onco Dept. at Johns Hopkins Hospital and was given so much information I couldn’t just keep the information to myself. So, here’s what I hope you would do now:

  • Schedule your Pap and HPV tests; if you are a man, remind your wife, girlfriend, sister, mother, aunt, cousin, friend, or daughter to schedule their tests.
  • Talk to your Doctor and/or Pediatrician about the HPV vaccine. The vaccine is cancer prevention and it is safe; protect yourself and your loved ones!
  • Listen to your body; if something doesn’t feel right, go to the doctor. You live in your body and know it well. Speak up, and find a doctor that will listen. Don’t be afraid to be your own advocate.

Life today: Facing cervical cancer was the biggest battle of my life; it changed me, it took things and people from my life, but somehow, it made me stronger and determined and dare I say, happier. After cancer, I grew into a whole new person—I found a career path I love, married a wonderful man and gained 2 awesome stepchildren in the process. I also fell in love with Pilates and running (I used to be a couch-potato!) Life has been good to me but I still have one wish: to eradicate cervical cancer. Help me by taking action; take the next steps to protect your health and the health of those you love.

Maria Franklin – Cervical Cancer Survivor and Elite Sports Clubs Member

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