A Rollercoaster of Emotions during a Cancer Journey
- A 29-year-old English mother of two was diagnosed with cervical cancer in March 2021 after a pap smear came back positive for HPV. Then, just six weeks after receiving an all-clear from doctors following treatment, Gemma Denham was told her cancer had spread. She’s now considering a clinical trial and hopes to take her girls to Disneyland to enjoy every moment with her girls.
- Cervical cancer begins in the cells lining the cervix – the lower part of the womb (uterus). Treatment options for cervical cancer include surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy. HPV (human papillomavirus), a sexually-transmitted virus, causes more than 70% of cervical cancer cases.
- A cancer journey comes with a complex range of emotions. Even the most resilient and positive fighters know it’s important to let out the negative emotions too.
The 29-year-old English mother of two was diagnosed with cervical cancer in March 2021 after a pap smear came back positive for HPV. She then went through 11 rounds of chemotherapy, 28 sessions of radiotherapy and three sessions of brachytherapy (internal radiation therapy) for treatment. But she was relieved when doctors told her she was in the clear on Oct. 5, 2021 after an MRI.Read More
“I was completely over the moon,” she said. “I couldn’t quite believe it but felt a sudden edge of bravery – I was finally going to be okay for my children.”
Unfortunately, this would not mark the end of her cancer journey. She began having pain in her butt and leg in the weeks that followed. She even started to limp and knew something was wrong. She went to have another MRI of her cervix, and the Nov. 7 results were devastating. Doctors told her that her cancer had spread across her pelvis and lower spine, and they weren’t sure if something had been missed with her earlier scan or if her cancer had grown back rapidly in the following weeks.
“My whole body felt like it was on fire when the consultant told me the cancer was back,” she said.
But the worst news of all was that Denham was told her cancer was terminal, and that she only had a few years – maybe even months – left.
“They told me I had months-to-early years left to live – devastated was an understatement,” she said. “I wasn’t going to be there for my babies after all. We had so many plans for our future and I was so scared I would miss their life – they are still babies.”
Her doctors also told Denham there wasn’t much more they could do to try and help her, but she is being considering for a clinical trial.
“They think there may be a clinical trial available for me which will be immunotherapy,” she said. “I’ll be undergoing tests to find out if I’m a good candidate to participate.”
But despite overwhelming unknowns and a battle ahead of her, Denham is determined to stay positive for her two girls: Faith, 7, and Ellison, 1. She’s hoping to take them to Disneyland with the donations she’s received from her GoFundMe page.
“[My biggest worry] is not being the best mum I can be for my beautiful babies, and not being able to guide them through the most important journeys in life,” she said. “[Going forward] my life will be very different, but I will not let cancer define me… I need to defy the odds and not be labelled ‘terminal.'”
Understanding Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancer begins in the cells lining the cervix – the lower part of the womb (uterus). Treatment options for cervical cancer include surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy. HPV (human papillomavirus), a sexually-transmitted virus, causes more than 70% of cervical cancer cases. But it’s important to note, however, that other risk factors like smoking can make you about twice as likely to get cervical cancer as those who don’t smoke.
Every year in the United States, approximately 14,480 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer. Cervical cancer screening is critically important because an earlier diagnosis can mean a better prognosis with broader treatment options. The American Cancer Society recommends that cervical cancer screening begin at age 25, and people aged 25 to 65 should have a primary HPV test, an HPV test done by itself for screening, every 5 years. If primary HPV testing is not available, however, screening may be done with either a co-test that combines an HPV test with a Papanicolaou (Pap) test every 5 years or a Pap test alone every 3 years.
The most common symptoms of cervical cancer can include:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding, such as bleeding after vaginal sex, bleeding after menopause, after douching, bleeding and spotting in between periods or having heavier or longer (menstrual) periods than usual.
- Unusual discharge from the vagina that may contain some blood and may occur between your periods or after menopause.
- Pain during sex.
- Pain in the pelvic region.
Processing the Emotions of a Cancer Journey
Denham has been through a roller coaster of emotions so far during her cancer journey. She’s bravely trying to focus on the positive right now, but it’s very normal to have negative feelings throughout a battle with cancer – and it’s okay to express them too. Anger, shame, fear, anxiety – they’re all to be expected. But how you handle all of the emotions that can come with a cancer journey is up to you.
Evelyn Reyes-Beato, like Gemma, is a resilient woman who’s also had to deal with the complexity of emotions during a cancer journey. The colon cancer survivor comes from a culture where health issues and feelings aren’t normally talked about, but she found that expressing her emotional pain was a big factor in helping her overall physical health.
“You have to let it out,” Evelyn previously told SurvivorNet. “Your mental and your emotional help your physical get in line. If you keep all of the emotions in, the way I see it, is that stuff is going to eat you up inside and it’s not going to let you heal.”
Danielle Ripley-Burgess, a two-time colon cancer survivor, is another inspiring cancer survivor. She was first diagnosed with colon cancer in high school and proceeded to beat the disease not once, but twice. Understandably so, Ripley-Burgess has had to work through a lot of emotions that came with her cancer and its recurrence. Even still, she’s always managed to look at life with a positive attitude.
“As I’ve worked through the complex emotions of cancer, I’ve uncovered some beautiful things: Wisdom. Love. Life purpose. Priorities,” she previously told SurvivorNet. “I carry a very real sense that life is short, and I’m grateful to be living it! This has made me optimistic. Optimism doesn’t mean that fear, pain and division don’t exist – they do. Our world is full of negativity, judgment, and hate. Optimism means that I believe there’s always good to be found despite the bad, and this is what my life is centered around.”
She moves through life with a sense of purpose unique to someone who’s been faced with the darkest of times. Happily in remission today, she’s determined to, one day, leave the world better than she found it.
“We can choose to stay positive, treat others with respect and look for the light in spite of the darkness,” she said. “This type of attitude and behavior will lead to the kind of legacies I believe all of us hope to leave.”