As a teen who had an unhealthy obsession with Mermaids, particularly the part where every time Winona Ryder kissed a boy, she thought she was pregnant, I too ALWAYS thought I was pregnant. Like every time a boy breathed on me. I had beyond regularly scheduled OB-GYN appointments as a young adult. Appointments that I had scheduled myself in a very paranoid—well I like to think of it as cautious—state.
Me and my gynecologist were basically besties. Of course, I switched doctors a few times by the time I had moved to Los Angeles from Cincinnati but still always felt comfortable oversharing my business, asking questions, and chit-chatting about my poor day-job choices with my doctors. And, they always seemed to want to discuss my current telemarketing job when they had me with my legs up in the stir-ups, fumbling for a special tool for my cervix, pictures of the many babies they had delivered plastered on the walls which did nothing to make me any calmer. In fact, it usually made me more anxious. My least favorite doctor, Dr. Q, always took the exact moment she had the cold speculum in its deepest spot and was doing that little scrapey part where I clenched my feet and held my breath, to tell me she thought standup comedy was an odd profession and that I definitely needed a backup. If I wasn’t freezing already her attitude always made the room extra frigid.
One year my dad was sick and I was back in Ohio on the date of my annual pap test, so I called my doctor in Los Angeles in a panic. She informed me that, because of my age range, I was 34, and because I had never had an abnormal pap, I didn’t need one every year. The guidelines are actually every five years. This was a little mind-blowing to me, but I was already married to my husband and life had gotten hectic, so I went ahead and like the obsessive person that I am, returned almost five years to the day.
I was almost excited to see my doctor, though I should first say, I do go to my primary care physician for my gynecological exam. She does everything and is by far the best physician I’ve had in my life—between me and my father, I have dealt with many. Anywho, she gets to the exam, and immediately she says, “oh that’s right, I forgot, you have that super deep cervix. I have to get a special tool.” Ok. Noted. Deep Cervix.
I felt awkward. She was down there. It was too silent. I started yammering away: “Um, I think I remember from before that your husband liked the band Phish. Did you go to the Vegas shows?”
“Omg we did but it was so hot, and the room was spinning so I just went to the bathroom and laid my head on the cold floor for a while,” she said.
I’m pretty sure my doctor told me she did drugs at the Phish concert. Then nothing.
Did she blackout down there? In my Deep Cervix? I was concerned. She seemed to be going down a deep tunnel.
She finally wrapped it up. I left. It took days for her to get back to me—like it has after every exam I’ve had. When the Dr. called, not the nurse like in the past, she told me they found “a little red flag.” She stressed that she really didn’t think I should be worried about it. It was likely nothing. However, I did need to go to a special gyno to get another test. I needed to go for something called a colposcopy. I know—I’d never heard of one either. Basically, you are back in the stirrups, there’s a speculum, and now this crazy lighted, magnifying, binoculars-type thing called a colposcope is involved. They get in there with a vinegar solution and look at cells and if they are concerned, take some biopsies. Luckily, it only takes 5-10 minutes. Spoiler alert: Colposcopies are not my fave. Though in seriousness, if your doctor says you need one, get your ass there and get one.
I met with my new doctor named Taz, who I already don’t trust, because what is that name? Also, she refers to herself in the third person—a lot. She goes on and on and on about how “Taz is the shit” and that “Taz has tricks” I won’t even believe. She’s going to tell me to cough and then she’ll do like ten crazy things that I won’t even notice. She boasts. Taz concludes the meeting by doubling down on the fact that she’s the best in town. This is all said at me in a weird meet and greet in her very fancy, but somehow extremely scary, Beverly Hills office.
Then Taz took me into the exam room, took one look at my now famous Deep Cervix, and immediately said, “never mind, I take back everything I said. This is going to be really painful. Taz has nothing.” On the plus side, my other doctor wasn’t just flattering me with all that deep cervix talk. Mine is the depth of legends. If you’d like to refer to me as D.C. Gopman or Deep Cervix Gopman, I will totally respond.
On the downside, I blacked out during that colposcopy it was so painful. I screamed my head off, so I was told. I don’t remember anything after the second biopsy. When I exited out into the lobby full of young, pregnant ladies everyone was absolutely TERRIFIED. As if out of a movie, the receptionist looked at me and said, “that sounded REAL bad.”
After Taz’s results, I was told that I needed to go to another doctor, and Taz, clearly not known for her bedside manner, just gave me a number to call and schedule my next appointment: “You have reached the Samuel Oschin Cancer Institute…” WTF. Um, Taz, a heads up would have been great. I burst into confused tears as I made my appointment.
I met with my next doctor, we’ll call her by her initials, Dr. B.J., who I immediately loved. She told me to relax, that there was only a 2% chance it was cancer. Two percent. Dr. B.J. explained that I needed to get a procedure called a cold knife conization. Possibly the worst name EVER for a procedure. I mean, I feel like even a Hot Knife Conization would somehow seem less scary. This is basically like a biopsy but it’s also an actual surgery where they cut out part of your cervix. None of this is awesome. I haven’t had surgery since I had a birthmark removed in the third grade. And that was pretty traumatic. Bonus fun, I’m TERRIFIED of needles. Plus, there is a lengthy recovery time. Also, there will be a two week wait to find out if they find cancer in there.
After much trepidation, we scheduled the cold knife. I showed up at Cedars Sinai Hospital cradling my Cabbage Patch Kid, Hal Archibald, that my dad gave me when I had that surgery in the third grade. As my husband said, “nothing creeps people out more than an adult walking through a hospital clutching a Cabbage Patch Kid.”
But it was all happening. I’m lying in an operating room. All the anesthesiologists are there, but no medication. They are all panicked. Which is the last thing anyone needs. Panic. Dr. B.J. tried to distract me with conversation—it didn’t go well. She asked me if I had any pets. I told her my cat recently died. I almost burst into tears. She tried again.
“Do you like Vegas?”
“I actually love Vegas!” I said. Then, Dr. B.J. said she loves to go to the shows. So I tell her, “oh, I’m way too poor to go to the shows.”
“Well, I’m not rich,” she said, defensively. I felt like I insulted her. There’s a terrible, awkward silence. Finally, out of nowhere, she asked, “do you want to listen to some music?”
She asked, “do you like Freddie Mercury?”
“Um, sure,” I said. Random, I think to myself, but at that point, I practically wanted to get the surgery things were so weird. And right then the team rolled up with the anesthesia. Dr. B.J. excitedly hit play on her Pandora station, and “Another One Bites the Dust” came on.
“Um…don’t think of it like…think of it like the cancer is biting the dust! Oh, forget it,” she said. Just as I started to drift off, she hit fast forward.
Thankfully I did wake up, but then the worst part—the wait. The hardest part of dealing with any kind of health scare is the wait. And that’s what I was telling everyone at that point. I was in the middle of a health scare. I was still sure that it would be ok.
November 4, around 10 PM the doctor finally called me.
“I know it’s late, but I know you’ve really been anxiously awaiting the news. This is not the news I like to deliver—you have cancer.”
That’s all I heard her say. I knew she was still talking…but it really is like in all the movies. Everything just stops. Your heart, your brain, time, everything. I didn’t know where I was.
“WE DO NOT BELIEVE IT TO BE LIFE THREATENING! WE DO NOT BELIEVE IT TO BE LIFE THREATENING,” Dr. B.J. repeated over and over again. Apparently, she is used to delivering this kind of news because she had to say it many, many, many times before I could hear her. I also planned to put the call on speaker, but in a panic, I’d forgotten, so my poor husband found out I HAD CANCER when I gave him a thumbs down from across the room. Womp womp. We scheduled a follow-up appointment for the next week. Thankfully I brought my husband to ask questions and take notes because I loudly sobbed through the entire appointment.
The short version of a much longer conversation—I had to make some MAJOR life decisions immediately. Like…time to decide about that whole kid thing. And, if I was deciding yes, it was going to be VERY complicated. As in, might be best to grab some of my eggs right now. I had a really fun IVF informational appointment where I was called geriatric and told I would have to inject shots every day leading up to a major surgery to remove my cervix and uterus. Of course, then I would have to figure out a surrogate because I wouldn’t have a uterus anymore. This was the recommended course UNLESS I wanted to risk the cancer spreading and try to get pregnant immediately. While I have cancer. WTF.
Also—fun fact—I developed some NEXT LEVEL anxiety. I don’t want to brag, but at one point, I left SUCH a bananas message for the cancer center psychiatrist, that they insisted I come in, 911 style, and schedule an emergency meeting with my doctor. My favorite part of this meeting was my doctor trying to be very diplomatic and encourage me to make my own decision—between an aggressive procedure that involved cutting out part of my vagina (sorry for the overshare) and a more laid-back procedure which would save my vagina but increase the need for chemo and radiation. She ended up blurting out in frustration, “LISA, YOU HAVE AMPLE VAGINA!” Please consider putting that on my headstone.
I ultimately ended up having a radical hysterectomy. At 39 years old. I had to wear a catheter for a week at home which was truly a nightmare. Many people warned me that there were ways to ease the discomfort of the hysterectomy, in fact, I rationalized buying a very comfortable and amazing new chaise couch, but no one could sugarcoat the horrors of the catheter. It sucked. And alas, it was decided, no kids for me.
On December 22, my doctor announced, “now, this is the kind of news I like to give. You are cancer free…and I think you should see a psychiatrist.” The psychiatrist part is hilarious to me. Clearly my anxiety had become LEGENDARY, #bragging, but also, um, I had cancer. CAN YOU BLAME ME? And yes, I STILL have a therapist to discuss how frightening that shit was.
I just celebrated five years cancer free, but I have HPV 16 (Human Papillomavirus). It’s still scary. I asked my doctor, “why me?”
She explained, in what I think is an excellent way: “You know every year how there’s that cold that is going around and everyone is talking about the cold. Mike has it, your friend Dave has it, and Melissa has it. Then you hear about that one friend, they get really sick—they get pneumonia.” I’m the person that got pneumonia.
In fact, 8/10* women carry a high-risk strain of HPV at some point in their life. Any woman who has ever had sex, or sexual contact including skin-to-skin contact in the genital area can get HPV. Most people’s bodies clear it on their own and they never know they have it. My body didn’t.
I knew nothing about cervical cancer or HPV before all this happened to me. I think that’s the case with most people. Sometimes, I feel a little salty about it. Like, it doesn’t get much press because it has to do with, gasp, your vaginal area. Astoundingly, cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women worldwide. More than 13,000 new cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed, and more than 4,000 women die from the disease each year in the U.S.
In encouraging news, cervical cancer is almost always preventable through Pap and HPV tests. HPV, the cause of nearly all cervical cancers, can be prevented when kids are vaccinated against the virus. If your son or daughter is between the ages of 9 and 12, please, please talk to their doctor about the HPV vaccine which is safe and effective. Vaccinating your child at the recommended ages can help keep them healthy well into adulthood and is the best way to prevent 6 HPV cancers later in life. The vaccine is now approved for adults up to the age of 45. So, do your research, and look into getting it as an adult if you didn’t get it as a kid.
It’s hard for me not to imagine what might have been if only they’d had the vaccine when I was a kid. I am an anxious lady, I understand being nervous to get checkups and bad news, but I’m here to tell you, after all I’ve been through, I am so lucky that they found mine early. I have friends younger than me that haven’t survived. If my deep cervix can get through it, you can too.
After my cancer I found an organization called Cervivor that I now, gratefully, work with. It’s an amazing non-profit that works on education, advocacy, supporting women who are going through cervical cancer, and one of my favorite elements, teaching women how important it is to share their cancer story. Through sharing my story, I met my good friend and overall badass, Becky. She passed away at the end of 2021 at 38, leaving behind a husband and two, adorable daughters. Becky literally never stopped fighting. And I won’t stop fighting in her honor.
Believe me when I tell you, you can get past your fears of getting in those stirrups. You aren’t too busy to make time for this appointment. That’s why it is so important to get your Well Women exams regularly including your HPV exams. Make sure to ask for the HPV test. Your typical exam doesn’t always include that. Make yourself a priority. THIS IS IMPORTANT. It could quite literally save your life. It saved mine.
*CERVIVOR informed. empowered. alive. https://cervivor.org/