Roanoke mom encourages regular screening after cervical cancer scare

Published: Jan. 28, 2022 at 7:01 PM EST
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - At 33 years old, Roanoke mom Jes Curtin underwent a hysterotomy just months after giving birth to her second child.

It started with a phone call from her doctor; her journey into motherhood punctuated with an ominous finding.

“It hit me like a ton of bricks,” said Curtin. “I did not know what to think.”

Curtin had her first child, her daughter, in February 2019. During the pregnancy, her pap smear results were what doctors consider “abnormal.” Not needing urgent attention, but a follow-up. Curtin said the follow-up procedure, her colposcopy, was forgotten following her daughter’s birth.

In 2020, Curtin became pregnant with her second child. Her pap smear again yielded abnormal results. In September, when her baby was just nine weeks old, Curtin underwent a colposcopy which showed precancerous cells.

“It just punched me in the gut,” she said. “And my initial feelings around it were anger and frustration that this is happening. It’s not fair that this is happening when my kids are so young.”

In November, she underwent a conization which confirmed the need for a hysterectomy.

Curtin said, apart from the abnormal pap smears and the follow-up tests, her body never indicated something was amiss.

“I had no clue that anything was wrong,” she said. “I had no symptoms.”

Then, just before Christmas, as she was still breastfeeding her son, Curtin underwent the hysterectomy.

“I feel like had I not ignored my abnormal pap back in 2018/2019, maybe it wouldn’t have gotten to this point of needing to have something more invasive done,” she said.

She recently shared her story in a blog post for Cervical Cancer Awareness Month by Huddle Up Moms, a Roanoke and New River Valley-based group that focuses on advocacy for women’s health.

Curtin’s story is the type of advocacy the group’s Executive Director, Carilion Clinic OB-GYN Dr. Jaclyn Nunziato, said is vital.

“It is actually the number one cancer diagnosed between the ages of 30 and 45,” she said.

Nunziato noted the number one risk factor for cervical cancer is the Human Papillomavirus. Other risk factors include smoking, number of sexual partners, early sexual activity and genetics.

But cervical cancer is due to HPV and HPV related diseases about 95 percent of the time, Nunziato said. The virus is also known to cause five other cancers, both in women and men.

And while some bodies can fight it off, not everyone’s immune system can.

“You just never know that generic component where you won’t be the person that gets rid of it,” she said.

But there is a greater assurance of healthy outcomes for patients inoculated with the HPV vaccine, which she said prevents more than 90 percent of cervical cancer.

The vaccine has been around more than 15 years, and the doctor said, has robust data to back its efficacy and safety.

There’s an access and awareness issue, though, she says, noting Black and Native American women are most likely to die from the cancer. Rural America struggles too. In fact, recent studies suggest Appalachia’s overall cancer mortality rate is 10 percent higher than the national rate.

There is also a barrier to access Dr. Nunziato believes is caused by a stigma around HPV.

“Cervical Cancer is very tricky and the conversation is, you know, quote unquote “taboo” because this cancer is linked to, technically a sexually transmitted disease. You know it’s not like some of the others - gonorrhea, chlamydia. This is a virus that 90 percent of the patient population has,” she said. “But because it’s linked to women’s health, there’s always a stigma to it and it prevents people from coming to us in the first place to discuss you know preventative care.”

While regular screenings through Pap smears and HPV vaccinations have yielded positive results in reducing incidence rates overall, Dr. Nunziato says the pandemic has disrupted regular and preventative care for so many people.

“Now I’m not seeing people for their regular and annual visits and a lot of falling our of their window of what the actual recommendation is for screening,” she said. “...Just this week alone I saw a number of people that I hadn’t seen since 2018, 2019 because they’re waiting out the pandemic.”

She encourages people to not let it deter them - urging regular screening, conversations with doctors and advocacy to get people preventative care.

Propert and regular screening is what Curtin is working hard to echo.

“Make sure you do that as recommended for your age group,” she said. “Because it could literally could save your life.”

You can watch the full conversation with Curtin and Nunziato on the WDBJ7+ Digital News Desk:

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