Five years prior to learning that she had stage 1B2 cervical cancer, Darlene Blais was experiencing some symptoms of the disease. She went through a series of tests, all of which came back negative. The one condition for which her gynecologist did not test, however, was the human papilloma virus (HPV).
“Had I been tested earlier, I would have known that I had high-risk HPV and it may have prevented the onset of cancer. Everyone should be tested. It is so important. I was told before my diagnosis to wait five years to get a pap smear, and this cancer was probably brewing all of that time. I want to tell all women, do not wait five years to get a pap smear,” Darlene says.
One reason why the United States Congress designated January Cervical Health Awareness Month is that the disease is highly preventable when vaccinations and appropriate screenings are performed. In fact, pap smears can detect pre-cancerous cells as well as HPV. According to the American Cancer Society, while cervical cancer was once one of the most common causes of cancer-related death for women, the aforementioned prevention methods have decreased the death rate by more than 50 percent.
In November 2015, at the age of 56, Darlene was told she had adenocarcinoma cervical cancer, which occurs higher in the cervix than other types and has an elevated rate of recurrence. It was the recurrence rate that motivated Darlene to participate in the Outback Trial, which researchers hope will reduce recurrences, after she completed the standard of care.
Darlene started standard of care treatment after Christmas, simultaneously receiving six weeks of daily radiation, five brachytherapy treatments and five chemotherapy treatments.
“The brachytherapy was the most horrific experience of my entire life. I had been determined to continue working throughout treatment, but after the second session, I had to stop,” Darlene says.
It was during the standard of care treatments that Darlene registered with Imerman Angels for a Mentor Angel.
“I learned about Imerman Angels online after searching for support groups. I attend a monthly support group at my hospital, but it is not specific to cervical cancer. Also, there is no cancer in my family so I am a newbie in that respect. As a result, I could not draw from the experience of any family members. And talking to a survivor was very important to me,” she says.
Darlene was matched with cervical cancer survivor Kris Bernardo, who has had no evidence of disease for more than 12 years. Additionally, just as Darlene was preparing to do, Kris had participated in a trial during treatment. That trial later became the standard of care for cervical cancer.
“Kris is a very powerful woman who wanted to make sure she had a voice throughout her experience. What I learned from Kris is, you need to use your voice and ask questions until you get answers that help you understand exactly what is going on with your situation. She also showed me that you can have a life; you don’t have to be cancer. You can be yourself and manage a real life. Before I spoke with Kris, I felt like I was being cancer,” Darlene says.
Support became even more important to Darlene once she commenced the Outback Trial, which consisted of five full dose chemotherapy treatments, each spaced three weeks apart.
“I was very, very sick from the trial. My immune system was so low, I could not even do everyday things like accepting flowers at the door or eating unpackaged food from the deli. If I got so much as a pinprick I was told to go to the emergency room because I was at such a high risk of infection. Also, I now have peripheral neuropathy in my feet, so I have a hard time keeping my balance. I have really bad chemo brain with cognitive issues, as well. I was told that I have the brain of an 80 year-old,” Darlene says.
Darlene’s struggles with her side effects made her especially grateful for Kris’ outlook on life.
“Kris had such a positive attitude. She was not going to let her own long-term side effects stop her,” Darlene says.
The challenges Darlene faced from treatment paid off when she received two clean PET scans and was declared to have no evidence of disease. She is eager to start giving back and to help banish societal stigmas of cervical cancer.
“There is a lot of shame attached to cervical cancer due to the HPV factor. I would urge cervical cancer fighters not to be ashamed,” she says.
If you are a cancer fighter, survivor or caregiver, you can REGISTER at Imerman Angels for a Mentor Angel. Conversely, you can make a difference in a cancer fighter or caregiver’s life by SIGNING UP to become a Mentor Angel.