Two years ago, Sandie Bigler wondered what her future would be. Diagnosed in the same month with cervical cancer and breast cancer, she was immediately thrown into a whirlwind of doctor appointments, diagnostic testing and hospital visits.
Today, she’s trying to encourage others to follow through with annual Pap smears to avoid the same fate. January — Cervical Cancer Awareness Month — marked her first complete year of remission.
“I do feel if I had been keeping up with my exams I think we could have caught things sooner and it wouldn’t have been as traumatic on my body as it has been,” the 45-year-old Mesa mother said.
Bigler has an 11-year-old son, but after his birth, and the adoption of her now 5-year-old son, life got busy and she lapsed on visits to her gynecologist. In January 2007, she wasn’t feeling well. Abdominal pain turned fierce, “like labor pain, lots of pain,” and she knew it had been several years since her last Pap smear.
“I was scared. I thought, ‘This can’t be good,’” she said. “I don’t know what it is about human nature that makes us want to bury our heads in the sand. I called my doctor’s office and unfortunately, I couldn’t be seen right away, even with my symptoms. It was four or five weeks.”
She finally got her Pap smear. And shortly after that she felt a lump in her breast.
“I thought, ‘No way. This can’t be happening,’” she said. Like her gynecological exams, she had lapsed in performing self-breast exams.
“I was too busy living life. I felt the lump and was sent in for a mammogram,” she said.
In April 2007, she was officially diagnosed with stage 2 cervical cancer and stage 3 breast cancer. She began receiving care at Mesa’s Banner Desert Medical Center.
“There were no case studies to follow with a situation like mine,” she said. “Not too many people get two primary cancers diagnosed at the same time.”
A month later, she had a mastectomy. In June 2007, she started chemotherapy and radiation therapy. That followed for several weeks, making Bigler weak and sick. She suffered respiratory infections and urinary tract infections. She underwent more procedures and landed back in the hospital, requiring nine units of blood.
But then her body started to heal.
“I will say, the doctors, I had every faith in their plan for me,” she said. “They got me to where I am today. I’m very, very grateful.”
Cervical cancer strikes seven of every 100,000 women in Arizona each year. Breast cancer strikes 103 out of every 100,000 women each year in Arizona, according to The Kaiser Family Foundation’s Web site, statehealthfacts.org.
Health care workers tout the benefits of self-exam and regular appointments to catch both cancers early, when they are most treatable.
Cancer was always in the back of Bigler’s mind. When her mother was 44, she died from breast cancer that had spread to her liver. As Bigler approached her 40s, there was that fact staring at her.
“I know after this experience, so many of my friends have told me it’s been three, four, five, six or more years since their last gynecological exam,” she said. “I didn’t nag them, but I said, ‘Please, you don’t want to have to go through this. I don’t wish this on anybody.’”
Dr. Snehal Bhoola is a gynecological oncologist at Banner Desert who has worked in the field for seven years. Though some patients come in aware of the disease and what it can do, there are still many who need education.
Recent advances in medicine have provided a vaccine to help wipe out cervical cancer, Bhoola said.
The human papillomavirus vaccine is not a complete cervical cancer vaccine, but it protects against two strains of HPV that are linked with about 70 percent of cervical cancer cases, he said.
According to the Arizona State Immunization Information System, there were 120,149 doses of HPV administered to 85,732 girls and women 18 years and younger in Maricopa County in 2008. The vaccine is administered in three doses. The Centers for Disease Control recommends girls start the vaccine at 11 or 12 years of age.
Women 19 and older who choose to be inoculated do not need to be reported to the Arizona State Immunization Information System.
“Most cancer occurs in older patients, but cervical cancer tends to appear in young or middle-age patients,” Bhoola said. “We will typically see people who have not seen a doctor or had a Pap smear in three to five years.”
Women should not only be regular with their exams, but aware of their bodies. While there are not early signs for the disease, some pain or discomfort, as well as bleeding, may indicate something may be wrong, Bhoola said.
“I truly believe I’ve been blessed,” Bigler said. “I’ve been given a second chance. I did not think I had a second chance. I did believe I had one foot in the grave. One doctor said, months after remission, ‘When you first came to us we didn’t have a lot of hope for you.’ ‘Neither did I,’ I told them. Somehow I pulled through it. I’m more the exception to the rule.”