During one of Bethany Hart’s first exams while she was pregnant, she underwent a routine Pap smear only to discover that the results were abnormal. At the time, the then-30-year-old was around 10 weeks old and the nurse assured Hart that she was probably fine.
“I remember hanging up and having this nagging feeling, like, ‘Well, that’s weird. That had never happened to me before,’” Hart, now 36, of Noblesville, Indiana, recalls to TODAY.com. “I called a couple of my friends, and I think two of the first three I spoke to said, ‘We had that before, too, and it was nothing.'”
When Hart was 16 weeks pregnant, her doctor performed a colposcopy, a test that allows a closer look at the cells of the cervix. After that, his doctor recommended seeing an oncologist. He soon learned that he had a rare and aggressive cervical cancer.
“The oncologist looked at me and said, ‘It’s cancer,’” says Hart. “That’s where our whole world turned upside down out of nowhere.”
Cervical cancer and pregnancy
Before her abnormal Pap smear, Hart had always had normal results from the test, which detects changes in cells on the cervix. At first, it seemed that he could carry the pregnancy to term, his first, but when he learned that his cervical cancer was small cell, a rare and aggressive type, everything became uncertain.
Hart did not experience symptoms or warning signs, like many patients with this type of cancer. Her doctor described the condition to her as “explosive tumors,” which perfectly captures her own story, she says. Hart visited the OB-GYN regularly during the first weeks of her pregnancy and “there was never any sign of a problem,” she recalls. But by week 16, “they could see the tumor very clearly and knew it was dangerous. It just came out of nowhere.”
Hart’s cancer was stage 1. As doctors tried to plan her treatment, which had to be aggressive to beat the intensity of the cancer, Hart tragically miscarried at 19 weeks.
“There was just no ability to process what was happening,” says Hart. “You are so entrenched in the fight for your life and dealing with the physical side effects of the treatment.”
Treatment was intense and included a radical hysterectomy, 28 rounds of external radiation concurrent with five rounds of chemotherapy, and three final rounds of internal radiation.
Hart recalls that his doctor told him that the treatment strategy was to “throw him down the kitchen sink.” “I knew going into it I was going to be almost dying to save myself from cancer,” she says.
Small or large cell cervical cancer
According to MD Anderson Cancer Center, small or large cell cervical cancer is rare, accounting for about 100 of the nearly 11,000 cases of cervical cancer each year, less than 1%. It is aggressive and has few or no symptoms.
“Most cervical cancers have no symptoms,” Dr. Meera Ravindranathan, medical director of OncoHealth, a group that supports people with cancer diagnoses, tells TODAY.com. “Often when you do have symptoms, it’s a more advanced cancer.”
Symptoms of cervical cancer can include:
bleeding between periods
bleeding after sex
an unusual download
People often experience these symptoms for other reasons, making it hard to know when to talk to a doctor. But Ravindranathan says it’s important to tell your doctor about the bleeding and discharge so they can rule out cervical cancer.
“There is shame and embarrassment in talking about women’s bodies,” says Ravindranathan. “It’s very important that women have a relationship with their doctors where they feel comfortable and confident to talk about their bodies, especially younger women.”
Screening can lead to an earlier diagnosis of cervical cancer. He American Cancer Society recommends screening for cervical cancer between the ages of 25 and 65 with one of three options: a primary human papillomavirus (HPV) test every five years, a Pap smear only every 3 years, or a combination HPV test and a Pap smear every five years, TODAY.com previously reported.
HPV is a “ubiquitous virus” that causes most cases of cervical cancer, says Ravindranathan. Most people contract it through bodily fluids, Dr. Marshall Posner, co-leader of the Cancer Clinical Research Program at the Tisch Cancer Institute at Mount Sinai, formerly he told TODAY.com. For most people, the body can eliminate HPV so that the virus is no longer active in their system. But for a small portion of people, the virus reactivates and can cause cancer; I do not know why.
“Some people get a persistent infection in those cells on the cervix, and then the virus stays there long enough to cause those cells to become precancerous,” says Ravindranathan. “If we don’t detect those precancerous cells or HPV infection through a Pap smear, the precancerous cells turn into cancer. However, the only thing to remember is that the process takes between 10 and 15 years.”
HPV causes more than 95% of cervical cancer, according to the World Health Organization, but the type of cancer Hart had—small cell cervical cancer—has no definitive link to HPV. “The cause is not fully understood,” MD Anderson noted.
These cancers have “a natural propensity to grow rapidly and spread, and no matter how quickly we catch it, we always use chemotherapy and radiation because we know it’s very aggressive,” says Ravindranathan, adding that surgery can also precede chemotherapy. .
creating a legacy
After treatment ended, Hart faced the pain of losing his daughter, Hallie. She and her husband had just bought a house and set up a day care center, which became a constant reminder of her loss.
“Every time I walk past his room, it’s just this reminder,” she says. “Losing your daughter, having to face cancer, having to face the fact that we will never have a biological family at the same time, those are three big life events in and of themselves. But the three of them together were extraordinary.”
In 2018, Hart started the Hallie Strong Foundation to honor the daughter she lost. Send funny and comfortable socks to cancer patients.
“Socks are a very real need. Hospitals are horrible. They are so sterile, and a lot of times when you’re in the hospital, socks are the only thing you can wear,” she says. “We purposefully do something to create this constant reminder that every time they are worn, you are not alone and there is a legacy of a girl who lost her life due to a cancer diagnosis.”
Hart has not had cancer, but because of how aggressive this cancer can be, he is still concerned about a recurrence.
“There’s always this little (fear) forever in the back of my mind,” she says. “As a cancer survivor, it’s hard to know when it’s a cough because you have a sinus infection or if it’s a cough because it’s lung cancer. I think I will always look at life through that lens.”
Thanks to the adoption, she and her husband now have two boys, ages 3 and 1, who are her “saving grace.” She serves as a peer mentor with Iris by OncoHealth, an oncology-focused app, sharing her experiences to help others feel less alone.
“No matter your diagnosis, no matter what type of cancer it is, it’s impossibly difficult,” says Hart. “Sharing your story just opens the door for someone looking at it now to say, ‘Hey, what you’re feeling…it’s totally normal. We all get it. And the more you open up and let people in, the better you can survive.”
This article was originally published on TODAY.com
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