Time to Talk: How Former Miss Malaysia Fought Cervical Cancer
One of the misconceptions around cervical cancer is that it has something to do with sexual promiscuity.
I still remember the day I got the telephone call that changed my life. It was around dinner time, and I was feeding my children – Isabella, then four, and Alexander, only fifteen-months-old.
It was a call from my father, a gynecologist, about the results of a routine Pap smear test I had taken a couple of days ago. I remember my father telling me that the results were not normal, and that I had to come in for a few more tests.
With that phone call began the hardest seven months of my life.
Despite growing up in a medical family – my father was a gynecologist and my mother, a nurse – it was shocking how little I knew about cervical cancer before that day.
I Wanted More Kids But Had to Get My Uterus Removed
I was only 35, fit, healthy and active, with a successful modeling career, a loving husband and two beautiful children.
How could I possibly have cancer? I had gone in for routine pap smear tests before, on my mother’s insistence, but there had never been any symptoms, no indication of what was to come.
Two days later, I went in for a cone biopsy – a regular procedure for the treatment of cervical cancer. It was a minor operation, and I was back home the next day. But this was not the end of it.
More tests revealed that, in my case, the procedure had not helped. I needed a hysterectomy. I was devastated. I was young, and my husband and I were planning on having more children. But there was no other option. My disease was far more aggressive than even the doctors had anticipated. What usually takes five or ten years to spread, had happened in less than a year in my case.
My 4-Year-Old Used to Sit With Me and Tell Me ‘It’ll Be Okay’
On the day of the surgery, I sat with my husband and my cousin, wondering if I would make it out of this alive. But the thought of my kids, both too young to be left behind, kept me going.
Ten days after the long and painful surgery, as I lay recovering in the hospital bed, there was more bad news. The cancer had spread further, and I would need chemotherapy and radiation treatment. It seemed as if my nightmare would never end.
The side-effects of the radiation were the hardest to bear: severe vomiting, diarrhea, weakness, a burning sensation on my skin. I remember four-year-old Isabella would sit with me during those months, holding my hair when I vomited, telling me that everything would be okay.
Finally, after what seemed like years, things took a turn for the better. I was cancer-free at last. But this experience had changed me in ways I had not thought possible. I could not believe how little I had known about cervical cancer before it happened to me.
The Stigma Around Women’s Reproductive Parts Has to Go
I did not know that it was one of the leading causes of death for women around the world. I did not know that more than 5 lakh women are diagnosed with it every year, and that nearly half of them die.
Most importantly, I did not know that it was preventable through vaccination and screening and highly treatable if detected early.
Since then, I have made it my life’s work to educate women around the world about cervical cancer. But what continues to surprise me is the veil of silence around this disease, because of stigma and misinformation. In fact, when I ask the women I meet if they know what the cervix is, most of them only offer me a sheepish grin.
The stigma around talking about women’s reproductive parts has led to most women being unaware of this deadly disease.
Another misconception around cervical cancer is that it has something to do with sexual promiscuity. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have been with my husband since I was twenty, and yet I was diagnosed.
All women are at risk for cervical cancer. Effective vaccination for adolescent girls, and regular screenings (such as pap smear tests) for women over thirty are the only ways to ensure that this preventable disease does not become fatal.
It’s 2018. It’s time we started speaking up about cervical cancer. Talk to your mothers, daughters, nieces, friends. Urge them to go for regular screenings. I know when Isabella is ready, I will ensure that she is vaccinated. Because no woman should have to go through what I went through. It’s time we started this conversation.
(Genevieve Sambhi, cervical cancer survivor, is a former Miss Malaysia and a well-known model in the country.)
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