For 20 years, Patti Murillo-Casa had served as a police officer for the New York Police Department. In August 2008, she retired.
“Life was going well, and about to get better, so I thought,” said Murillo-Casa who was in her 40s and ready to spend time with her retired husband. “We had so many plans. We were going to travel and just enjoy life.”
The excitement of retirement was short-lived when she received the diagnosis of cervical cancer.
After surviving decades as a police officer, she wondered that after retirement, now I’m going to die from cervical cancer.
“I did not know what it was, I did not know where it came from, and I did not know how I got it,” said Murillo-Casa. “But I got a crash course.”
The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 12,800 new cases of invasive cervical cancer were diagnosed in 2017. It was estimated that 4,010 women would die from cervical cancer in 2017. Congress designated January as Cervical Health Awareness Month to educate the public that cervical cancer is virtually preventable with vaccination and appropriate screening.
“A few months before I retired I had started bleeding on and off between menstrual cycles, so I did what a lot of us do, I ignored it and diagnosed myself as the result of stress,” Murillo-Casa said. “I finally saw my doctor in October 2008. After several tests, including a vaginal sonogram and several colposcopies, I knew that what was coming next was not good.”
On Nov. 5, 2008, Murillo-Casa learned she had Stage IIB Squamous Cell Carcinoma Cervical Cancer.
Cervical cancer is common and occurs during child-bearing years. Geographically, the cervical tumor is found worldwide but it is especially common in women in the western world.
“The number one predisposing factor for cervical cancer is infection with the Human Papilloma Virus,” said Dr. Israel De Alba, an academic internist and preventive medicine specialist with a focus in cancer screening and disparities. “Any factor which increases a woman’s risk of contracting Human Papilloma Virus will increase the risk of cervical cancer, such as unprotected sex, multiple sexual partners, sex with a partner who has penile warts; and cigarette smoking doubles a woman’s risk of getting cervical cancer.”
“My husband, at no time, questioned me or looked at me with any doubts, instead he began to educate me about the virus and the disease,” she said.
With her husband, Freddie, they learned everything they could about the disease.
“Due to my lack of education and misconceptions of the disease, I was ashamed that I had cervical cancer due to the Human Papilloma Virus, a sexually transmitted infection,” she said.
“I had not visited my OB-GYN for more than three years for many reasons: too busy, no time, I feel fine, I hate it, I’ve been married for 10-plus years,” she admitted. “These reasons are not valid and carry no weight. I learned this the hard way.”
“Cervical cancer is caused by HPV, so the best way to make sure your kids don’t get it is to ensure they get the HPV vaccine,” said Dr. Kathleen Schmeler, co-leader of our HPV-Related Cancers Moon Shot at the University of Texas Anderson Cancer Center. “If you’re too old to have received the HPV vaccine, it’s important to make sure you get your regular Pap tests, which can help your doctor detect cervical cancer — sometimes before it’s even become cancer. That’s when the disease is most treatable.”
“HPV is a family of viruses,” said De Alba. “Only some types of viruses out of the 150 varieties could cause cervical cancer.”
De Alba recommends that men and women should request the HPV screening.
“One of the main methods to prevent the spread of HPV, condom use is recommended,” De Alba said. “Unfortunately, the virus can be located on the surface of the genital skin.” There may be no visible change to the skin and the virus can live on the skin indefinitely.
Schmeler shared five cervical cancer myths.
Myth No. 1: I need a Pap test every year. Truth: If your Pap test and HPV test are both normal, you don’t need to get a Pap test every year. Anderson recommends the following cervical cancer screening guidelines for women with previously normal Pap and HPV test results: ages 21-29: Pap test every two to three years; ages 30-64: Pap test and HPV test every five years; and ages 65 and older: Speak with your doctor about whether you need to continue Pap and HPV tests.
“Even if you don’t need a Pap test or HPV test, you should still get a well-woman checkup every year,” Schmeler says. “And even if you’ve received the HPV vaccines, you still need to be screened.”
About 79 million Americans currently have HPV.
Myth No. 2: HPV isn’t that common and only affects people with multiple partners, so I don’t need to worry about the HPV vaccine or HPV test. “HPV is very common,” said Schmeler. “Approximately 80 percent of men and women are infected with HPV at some point in their lifetime.”
The Centers for Disease Control recommends that 11- to 12-year-olds receive two doses of HPV vaccine at least six months apart rather than the previously recommended three doses to protect against cancers caused by HPV.
It is passed on through genital contact (such as vaginal and anal sex). It is also passed on by skin-to-skin contact.
At least 50 percent of people who have had sex will have HPV at some time in their lives. HPV is not a new virus. But many people don’t know about it. Most people don’t have any signs. HPV may go away on its own — without causing any health problems.
Myth No. 3: HPV infection clears up on its own. “Most people clear the HPV infection without ever knowing they were exposed,” Schmeler said. “However, in some people, the infection persists and can lead to serious health problems, such as genital warts and several types of cancer, including cervical cancer.”
Myth No. 4: I can’t have children now that I’ve had cervical cancer. “Yes, cervical cancer patients typically undergo a hysterectomy and/or chemotherapy and radiation therapy to the pelvic area,” Schmeler said. “But there are a lot of new treatment options that enable our doctors to spare patients’ fertility so they can become parents.”
“My doctor brought up the fact about my fertility, due to the treatments of chemotherapy and radiation I would lose the ability to have children,” Murillo-Casa said. “My husband and I had already decided not to have any children for personal reasons.”
Myth No. 5: Cervical cancer is hereditary. “Though some female cancers — such as breast cancer and ovarian cancer — are passed down from parent to child, cervical cancer is not,” Schmeler said.
“My oncologist, as gentle as possible, said to me, “the bad news is that you have cancer, but the good news is that it can be treated,” Murillo-Casa said. However, her tumor was too big, and she was not a good candidate for a hysterectomy.
“If detected early, it is treatable and can be cured,” said De Alba, an advocate for universal quality access to health care and a leader in the Hispanic community. He currently serves as professor of medicine at UC Irvine and is quality officer at the UC Irvine Medical Center. “In advanced stages, it is not curable.”
“My treatment was going to consist of chemotherapy, external and internal radiation (brachytherapy),” she said. “I was going to get radiation every day for the next seven weeks and chemo once a week for seven weeks.”
Murillo-Casa began her treatments on Jan. 5, 2009.
“I had two treatments of internal radiation,” she said. The procedure entailed the insertion of an implant inside the cervix with radiation rods. “It was extremely painful.”
At the end of April 2009, she had a PET scan to determine if the treatments had worked.
“On May 5, 2009, my tumor was gone and there were no visible cancer cells,” she said. “My doctor said I was cancer free.”
Murillo-Casa said, “I educate other women and let them know that my journey did not have to be theirs, and that they do not have to become a statistic.”
Her mantra is, “No woman should feel alone in this fight. No battle is fought alone. No woman should die or lose their fertility from cervical cancer.”
Cancer free for eight years and counting, life is good for Murillo-Casa.
The American Cancer Society hotline can provide information for no or low-cost pap smear testing centers.
American Cancer Society – www.cancer.org
The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center – www.mdanderson.org
National Association of County and City Health Officials – www.naccho.org
National Cervical Cancer Coalition – www.NCCC-online.org
Patti Murillo-Casa – www.heavygirltohealthygirl.com
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – www.cdc.gov
U.S. Food and Drug Administration – www.fda.gov
Marie Y. Lemelle, MBA, a public relations consultant, is the owner of Platinum Star PR and can be reached on Twitter @PlatinumStar or Instagram @PlatinumStarPR. Send “Health Matters” related questions to firstname.lastname@example.org and look for her column in The Wave.