“Here’s How I Knew I Had Cervical Cancer”: One Survivor’s Story of Discovering Unexpected Symptoms

Cervical cancer symptoms might not present in the ways you'd be inclined to guess. One woman's story highlights how important it is not to question your own questions: "It was the look on my doctor's face."

Despite standard gynecological practices, the CDC says more than half of women diagnosed with cervical cancer say they never or rarely had a Pap test nor were tested for the human papilloma virus (HPV) that leads to many cervical cancers. “This is a travesty,” says Pari Ghodsi, MD, FACOG, an OB/GYN and women’s health specialist in Los Angeles, CA, “because the symptoms of cervical cancer can be very subtle, yet they can be detected very early on with regular screenings.”

The American Cancer Society recommends that all individuals with a cervix, including lesbians and transgender men, follow these cervix-screening guidelines:

  • Age 25: Get your first cervical cancer screening

  • Age 25 to 65: Get a primary HPV test every five years. This may be combined with a Pap smear. Otherwise, if you’re getting just a Pap smear, get one at least every three years. (Many doctors advise that an annual Pap test is preferable.)

  • Age 66 and older: If you’ve had a regular screening in the past 10 years with normal results, then you no longer need screening for cervical cancer.

  • The American Cancer Society adds: “If you have a history of a serious pre-cancer, you should continue to have testing for at least 25 years after that condition was found, even if the testing goes past age 65.”

“There are about 5,000 deaths per year from cervical cancer, and the majority of these were preventable,” Dr. Ghodsi says. “With regular testing we can catch it early, while it’s still curable, or even prevent precancerous cells from developing into cancer. No woman should die from cervical cancer and we must push for more women to be screened!”

Christie O’Sullivan, 48, of Trinity, FL, is one of these women whose life was saved when symptoms caused her to request a cervical cancer screening. Here O’Sullivan, now in her late forties, shares her story of how she knew she had cervical cancer.

Stay inspired to stay well—get The Healthy @Reader’s Digest newsletter

How I knew I had cervical cancer

From Christie O’Sullivan, as told to Charlotte Hilton Andersen

It started with clear vaginal discharge—a lot of it

It was the look on my doctor’s face. Before she even said a word, I knew it: Something was very wrong.

For several months I’d experienced bleeding during intercourse, and had noticed an unusual amount of clear vaginal discharge—so much that I’d started continuously wearing a pad.

Still, I wasn’t too worried. I was in the best shape of my life. I was doing triathlons, I ate a healthy diet, and I stayed current on all my check-ups. Plus, I was only 37. So on that fateful day in April 2012 when the doctor told me that I had cervical cancer, I was beyond stunned.

She continued talking…but I couldn’t hear anything past the word “cancer.” I was terrified, numb, then crying. My children were only six and seven years old. How would I tell them Mommy was sick?

I had to overcome my shock quickly, as time was of the essence for treatment.

Cervical cancer diagnosis & treatment

I was diagnosed with stage 1b adenocarcinoma. Since we’d caught it early, my treatment would be a partial hysterectomy.

I underwent the surgery on May 5, 2012, as my family wore team T-shirts to cheer me on. The surgeon who’d performed the procedure used a da Vinci robot, which is utilized for high precision in small anatomical spaces (and ideally, faster recovery). Recovery wasn’t comfortable, but I got through it. A few weeks after surgery, I was overjoyed to be declared cancer-free.

Each year for the next seven years, I celebrated my “cancerversary” with a margarita and a PET scan to make sure the cancer hadn’t returned. Each year everything came back clean. In fact, the rate of recurrence from stage 1 cervical cancer after five years is so small that my insurance company decided to stop covering additional PET scans.

Three years later I would realize what dire consequences that would lead to.

7 Early Signs of Cervical Cancer, According to an OBGYN

My cervical cancer returned, this time starting with constipation as the first symptom

A couple months after celebrating my 10th anniversary of being cancer-free, I started noticing strange sensations—this time starting with terrible constipation. Nothing I did brought relief!

Then I started to feel pelvic pain that eventually grew so severe I was taking Advil regularly. I made an appointment with a nurse practitioner and I remember joking around with her: “Could be constipation, could be a tumor!” Turned out, it was no joke—in July 2022 I was diagnosed with cervical cancer for a second time.

I received the news just as I was embarking on a cruise for my sister’s 40th birthday. I spent the rest of vacation terrified and wondering what cancer had in store for me next. I underwent a PET scan as soon as I got home and was diagnosed with stage 4 cervical cancer—the cancer was back and it had metastasized, spreading throughout my body. I had an umbilical tumor (connected internally to my navel), another abdominal tumor that doctors found was inoperable, and cancer in my pelvic lymph nodes.

My kids were now 15 and 16 and here I was again, wondering how I would tell them Mom has cancer. This time it was an even scarier conversation, as my prognosis was bleak: A 15% survival rate. I went through every phase of emotion, including anger. (One day I even went to a rage room.)

I had surgery to remove the umbilical tumor and some lymph nodes. The oncology team also placed a port in my chest for the chemotherapy that would begin that November of 2022.

8 Silent Signs of Cervical Cancer You Should Never Ignore

Beating cervical cancer again

The first time I was diagnosed with cervical cancer, I did whatever the doctors advised me to do. The second time around, I did a ton of my own research. I would not accept that stage 4 cancer could be a death sentence.

I eventually decided on a treatment plan that blended Western and Eastern medicines. I did immunotherapy and chemotherapy, but I also meditated daily, received vitamin C IV treatments, chelation therapy, hyperbaric chamber therapy, oxygen therapy, group and individual therapy, infrared sauna treatments, and colonics. I took supplements and herbs, drank gallons of fresh vegetable juice and changed to a no-sugar, plant-based diet. They were huge adjustments, but I was willing to make them to heal.

I personally wish more practitioners were open to combining Western medicine with Eastern medicine, and that insurance would cover holistic therapies. I feel like these modalities made a vital difference in my recovery.

Cervical cancer remission for a second time

On March 9, 2023, I was found to be in remission again. My inoperable tumor shrunk away into nothing. I pursued six weeks of holistic therapy, which improved all my liver values and further minimized the small remaining signs of cancer. After that was complete, my husband and I went to the Maldives to celebrate.

It is now December 2023. This time last year, I was headed into the holidays wondering if they would be my last. This year my husband and I just bought our dream house and celebrated my the sixteenth birthday of our younger child. What a rollercoaster this has been!

29 Things Doctors Wish You Knew About Cervical Cancer

What I want everyone to know about cervical cancer

Cervical cancer can be hard to spot. My early symptoms were just a little blood, discharge and constipation. Thankfully I listened to my body and kept pushing my doctors to find out what was wrong.

For more wellness updates, subscribe to The Healthy @Reader’s Digest newsletter and follow The Healthy on Facebook and Instagram. Keep reading:

Sources

The American Cancer Society: "The American Cancer Society Guidelines for the Prevention and Early Detection of Cervical Cancer"

Pari Ghodsi, MD, an OB/GYN and women's health specialist in Los Angeles, California

Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Charlotte Hilton Andersen, MS, is an award-winning journalist, author, and ghostwriter who for nearly two decades has covered health, fitness, parenting, relationships, and other wellness and lifestyle topics for major outlets, including Reader’s Digest, O, The Oprah Magazine, Women’s Health, and many more. Charlotte has made appearances with television news outlets such as CBS, NBC, and FOX. She is a certified group fitness instructor in Denver, where she lives with her husband and their five children.