TAKING A LEEP: With Cervical Cancer, Early Detection Can Save Your Life

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I made a comment earlier on Twitter about how this little blog has opened my mind to so many possibilities that I never would have considered before. The main catalyst for my openness? The fact that now, I'm able to write about things that a year ago, I may not have shared with anyone. Today's post will be one of those things. Get comfy and read on!

As I mentioned before on the blog, I recently had surgery to remove a pre-cancerous lesion from my cervix. I've been struggling with how to write this post - one edit was like a novel, and another was like a cold, impersonal WebMD article. I almost scrapped the whole piece until I read that Yvette Wilson, the actress who played Andell in Moesha and The Parkers, is currently suffering from aggressive cervical cancer and kidney failure. My goal is to share my experience with the hopes that at least one person out there will be educated, will embrace the importance of prevention/early detection of disease, and/or will realize they're not the only one out there dealing with this. So...how did this all start for me?

Recently, HomieLoverFriend and I decided we were ready to jump into parenthood. Annual checkups were done, the fertility/conception conversation was had with the doctor, and we were on our way. About a month after my annual GP/GYN visit, I got a call from my doctor that my Pap test (which checks for changes in the cells of the cervix) had come back with abnormal results. Before I had a chance to let that sink in, I was told that another procedure had already been scheduled to confirm the abnormality. My tentative diagnosis was HGSIL - high-grade squamous intra-epithelial lesion, and the procedure I was set to have was called a colposcopy.

Cervical Health Lesson: Thanks to my frantic Google search after I received my paperwork, I learned that cervical cell abnormality is also known as cervical dysplasia. Cervical dysplasia is not a one-size-fits all condition - there are varying levels of cell abnormality. Atypical squamous cells show some change in cell structure, and is the most common abnormal finding in Pap tests. Low-grade squamous intra-epithelial lesions show change in the size and shape of cells, and is considered a mild abnormality. High-grade squamous intra-epithelial lesions show more evident change in the size and shape of cells, and is considered a severe abnormality. You can read more here. HGSILs look extremely different from normal cells, and are listed as pre-cancerous, or carcinoma in situ. Needless to say, I clicked on that red X after seeing one too many cancer references. I did go back to Google the colposcopy procedure, but I'll tell you about it from my perspective.

A couple weeks after I got the news, I was headed to a downtown Toronto hospital for my colposcopy. Overall, a colposcopy is very similar to your average Pap test. However, the doctor uses a microscope and an acetic acid solution in the cervix (which turns the lesion white) for clear identification. My doctor had his microscope connected to a flat screen TV, so aside from the initial shock of seeing my lady parts in high-definition, it was cool to watch the entire procedure. I thought the lesion would be an actual raised area, but it was just an area of abnormal cells surrounding the cervix. The doctor decided to take 3 biopsies from the affected area, and let me just say, that was the strangest feeling I've had in a long time. No real way to explain it, but the pain was sharp, though it didn't last longer than a few seconds. Within the span of 15 minutes, I was done. The doc used a solution to help stop the bleeding and sent me on my way with a diaper-sized hospital pad for the spotting that would follow after the procedure.

"Spotting" actually became full-on bleeding that lasted for nearly a week. Being anemic as well, this wasn't a fun time. About a week after that, I followed up with my doc. He confirmed the HGSIL diagnosis, and expressed his concern at how quickly I had gone from Normal Pap Lady to HGSIL Sufferer. He explained that certain types of HPV (human papillomavirus) can cause cervical cancer, so he suggested I also get the Gardasil vaccine for further cervical health. HPV has been all over the media lately - this virus affects up to 75% of all sexually active Canadians, but is usually cleared up by healthy immune systems. So what would the next step for me be? A procedure called a LEEP, which would remove the pre-cancerous lesion.

LEEP stands for loop electrosurgical excision procedure, which uses a low-voltage electric current to sear off the affected area. The LEEP is preferred because it only requires local anesthesia, is a precise and quick procedure, and does not damage the removed tissue, which allows it to be sent for further testing. Last week on my birthday, I found myself back in the hospital and in that oh-so-stylish hospital gown. Once the anesthesia was administered, I was feeling warm, fuzzy, and in a calm albeit high-as-a-kite state. I heard the doc say he was looking for the lesion, then heard the whirring of the electrical wire. What seemed like 5 minutes later (but was really about 20), I asked the doc if he found it, to which he replied, "Found it? I'm almost done!" The area was cauterized and another special solution was applied to help stop the bleeding. Once I gathered myself, I was on my way - with another diaper-thick pad in my possession.

Going Forward: Once the anesthesia wore off a couple of hours later, I started to feel some serious cramping. Cramps and bleeding are common aftereffects of the LEEP, and I enjoyed all of that plus increased fatigue. I'm on a no sex-no tampon-no heavy lifting-no exercising diet for the next 3 weeks until I follow up with my doctor again. Can you tell how excited I am about that? In all reality, it's a small price to pay in exchange for a healthy cervix.

The moral of the story? As I said at the beginning of this post, early detection, if not full-out prevention, is your friend. Had I skipped this year's physical and decided to put it off until next year, things may not have been so simple. Having worked in global healthcare, I know all too well the disparities between various countries and access to quality care. However, being your own health advocate is worth more than gold. Keep up with regular appointments, and never shy away from the professionals if you think something is wrong. It just literally might save your life.

Whew! That was a doozy. If you made it this far, I thank you! Have you been through something similar? Do you have any questions about the LEEP procedure or any other cervical health issues? I'm not a doctor, but could give you my perspective and/or point you in the direction of some good information! Let me know!

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