A Cervical Cancer Diagnosis Highlights the Importance of Regular Screening

By: Emory Women's Health Services
Date: Mar 4, 2024

When Amber first faced the possibility of cervical cancer, the stress felt overwhelming. Because she has human papillomavirus (HPV), Amber had received many abnormal Pap smear test results over the years. An abnormal Pap test result does not mean cancer. In fact, most people with abnormal results don’t have cancer. An abnormal Pap result can be caused by HPV infections or cell changes. An OBGYN may decide to monitor the condition through more frequent Pap smears, conduct more tests or start treatment to prevent cervical cancer.

Amber’s OBGYN had been closely monitoring her condition. After a Pap test in 2021, Amber’s results showed “a different type of abnormal.” Because Amber had high-risk HPV, her OBGYN urged her to come in immediately for further testing via a colposcopy and biopsy—a procedure where the doctor takes a sample of cervical tissue to test it for cancer. Amber’s doctor explained the seriousness of the test results, but Amber put it off out of fear.

"I kept making excuses not to go in because I didn’t want to go through the pain again,” says Amber, who had done a couple of colposcopies in the past."

“I kept making excuses not to go in because I didn’t want to go through the pain again,” says Amber, who had done a couple of colposcopies in the past. “All the while, I knew something was wrong, and I believed it was serious, but I made a bad decision not to go.”

The next year, in August 2022, Amber came in for her annual check-up. Instead of performing a Pap test, Amber’s OBGYN performed the colposcopy that day. “I walked out of that office, got in my car, and I knew. I just sat in the parking lot and wept.” A week later, Amber’s doctor called her with the results: Amber had a type of cervical cancer called adenocarcinoma.

Causes of Cervical Cancer

“HPV causes over 95% of cervical cancer cases,” says Susan Modesitt, MD, director of Gynecologic Oncology at Emory Healthcare and Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University. It can also cause cancers of the penis, anus and throat. “And really, all of us have been exposed to HPV. Anyone can transfer it through close skin-to-skin contact, not just sexual contact. It’s more common than the common cold.”

She compares it to chickenpox: You get the chickenpox virus once, and it can stay with you and lie dormant. For some people, the virus flares up, and they get shingles as adults. The same thing can happen with HPV; it can eventually cause cervical cancer in some people.

Cervical cancer happens when cells grow out of control in the cervix–the bottom part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. It doesn’t usually start as cancer. The cells first show abnormal changes. For many people, these abnormal cells can be cleared away by the body’s immune system without treatment. But for some, the abnormal cells can become cancer cells if not treated in the precancerous stage.

Find the Right Care Team

“My boyfriend, now husband, made phone calls to find the best cervical cancer specialist in Atlanta,” recalls Amber. That’s how they met Dr. Modesitt, who has more than two decades of experience as a surgeon and oncologist for women with cancer. “She was very detailed, sensitive and didn’t sugarcoat things, which I appreciated.”

Amber had a PET/CT scan and MRI, which helped Dr. Modesitt see a more detailed view of the cancer. The cancer was likely still early and typed as Stage 1.

“Dr. Modesitt and her staff made themselves available to me anytime I needed them,” says Amber. “They would message me back any time of day for any question I had. Although this is standard practice for them every day, they knew it was my first time, and that’s how they treated me.”

Surgery Removed Amber’s Cervical Cancer

Patients with cervical cancer can receive a variety of treatments that include surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Each Emory provider works with their patient to find the right treatment for their goals and condition. Because they caught Amber’s cancer early, Dr. Modesitt was confident surgery alone could cure it. Together, they chose a more intense surgical procedure because it gave Amber the best chance at becoming cancer-free and avoiding additional treatments, like radiation or chemotherapy.

In September 2022, Amber had a radical hysterectomy with sentinel lymph node biopsies (the sentinel lymph nodes are the first few lymph nodes cancer typically spreads to). A radical hysterectomy removes the uterus, cervix, tissue around the cervix and the upper vagina. Dr. Modesitt also took samples of the lymph nodes to see if the cancer had spread—and it had not.

Dr. Modesitt performed open surgery, a method proven to lead to better results for patients like Amber. Dr. Modesitt used a “bikini cut” incision, which made the scar less noticeable. For women who want to try to have children, surgeons can potentially perform other procedures that preserve fertility.

Amber’s recovery took over six months because she had a more intense surgery. For the first few months, Amber coped with post-operation pain. She had frequent check-ups with her doctor to monitor her recovery.

“All through my recovery, the nurses that cared for me were so sensitive and kind; it just floored me,” recalls Amber. “They knew me, and we talked about my kids. This was the best it could have been, and I am really grateful for it.”

Over a year later, Amber is cancer-free. Her surveillance exams with Dr. Modesitt have been normal, and a Pap test confirmed that there are no cancer cells. She’ll continue to get exams every few months and Pap tests yearly to monitor her health.

Care for Amber’s Emotional Health

In less than a month, Amber got a cancer diagnosis and had surgery to remove it. “The experience was terrifying, to say the least,” she says. “I chose not to tell anyone until the week before my surgery. I didn’t want to give them time to worry before I knew the stage and treatment plan.”

But Amber underestimated how much the experience would emotionally tax her. “I recommend people engage in therapy or group sessions. Find a support system from the beginning and throughout your recovery.”

The experience has prompted Amber to reprioritize her life. As part of a family business, she felt essential at her job. Now that the business has been sold, she can focus on herself. “My recovery opened my eyes to how stress impacts your body’s ability to heal. I can prioritize my physical and mental health over corporate success.”

Take the First Step for Your Cervical Health

Amber wants her story to encourage others to “stay on top of OBGYN annual visits and heed your doctor’s advice!”

Regular screening can detect any signs of cancer at an early stage and save lives. “Each year in the U.S., we see 12,000 cases of cervical cancer and nearly 40,000 other HPV-related cancers that could have been prevented with two simple steps: HPV vaccination and screening,” says Dr. Modesitt.

Here’s how you can protect your health:

  • Get the HPV vaccine to prevent cancer. Both males and females should get the vaccine. While the ideal age to get vaccinated is nine to 12 years old, talk to your provider to see if you could benefit from the HPV vaccine. It is approved up to age 45.
  • Get screened to detect changes. Pap tests and HPV tests screen for cervical cancer. The exact combination and frequency depend on your age. Dr. Modesitt says, “Women who do these screenings will almost always have their cancer caught early, when it’s easiest to treat.” Learn more about when to get a screening for cervical cancer and testing during a wellness visit with your gynecologist.
  • Share any symptoms with your provider. While most people don’t have symptoms when they first develop cervical cancer, you should still mention any health changes to your doctor. Symptoms can include bleeding after sex, heavy or abnormal periods and pain.
  • Reduce your risk with healthy habits. Because the HPV virus causes cervical cancer, you can stay healthy when you support your immune system. Don’t smoke, eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly to help your immune system fight off cancer before it grows.

Take Care of Your Health

To take the first step for your cervical health, make an appointment with an OBGYN at one of Emory Healthcare’s convenient locations.
Schedule your appointment today.
If you’ve been diagnosed with a gynecologic cancer, the experts at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University are ready to help you. Visit our website to learn more about gynecologic cancer or find an Emory Healthcare specialist who treats it.

About Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University

Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University is Georgia’s only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, a prestigious distinction given to the top 3% of cancer centers nationwide for conducting cancer research and providing training that is transforming cancer care, prevention, detection and survivorship. Winship discovers, develops, delivers and teaches some of the world’s most effective ways to prevent, detect, diagnose and treat each patient’s unique cancer. Cancer care at Winship includes specialists with deep expertise and experience in cancer; multidisciplinary evaluation, treatment planning and care coordination that caters to each patient’s individual needs; therapies supported by the latest advances in cancer research; and comprehensive clinical trials and support services.

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