The year 2013 was the hardest time of my life. It was also the start of a journey that would leave me scared, scarred, and stronger than I ever imagined possible.
I was living in my native country of Germany with my American husband and our 2-year-old son. We had waited for my husband’s Army career and deployments to wind down before starting our family. We were now thrilled at being new parents and eager to have more children soon.
Shortly after our son was born, my doctor discovered I had HPV infection, which can cause several types of cancer, as well as ongoing irregular PAP test results. For the next year I was tested every 3 months, which led to endless anxiety and worry. I even began having mini panic attacks. One night it got so bad that I went to the emergency department, thinking that I was having a heart attack. I was in the hospital for a week and undergoing tests. No definitive diagnosis was given. My stress level was very high.
In my mind, I knew that something was wrong. I could not sleep or eat, and I was taking anxiety medication with no relief. After a visit to a different hospital in the United States, the best advice I got was to “take it easy.” But I could not.
My worst fears were realized after we returned to Germany, and my doctor discovered an aggressive 4-centimeter tumor on my cervix: it was stage II cervical cancer. There was no time for discussions, second or third opinions from other doctors—nothing. I was scheduled for an emergency surgery the next day. I hugged my son and husband for what I thought could be the last time, and then packed a bag for the hospital.
The surgeons performed a radical hysterectomy (removal of the uterus and cervix), and they also removed more than 50 lymph nodes in my pelvic area during the 5-hour surgery. And although they removed all the cancer, they also removed any chance of me having more children. I had a huge incision, and my recovery was painful. I could not work, hold my son, take care of my house, or even walk without assistance.
In addition to the physical scars, I had emotional ones, too. I had a hard time trusting any doctor again. I felt that I had done everything asked of me, and yet they still missed the tumor until it was too late to save my cervix and uterus. Even though the doctors said I was now cancer-free, I almost wanted to make them give me chemo and radiation, because I did not believe the cancer was all gone.
The surgery also left me feeling incomplete as a woman. The fact that I could never have any more biological children was devastating. Even now, 7 years later, it is still very painful.
As a result, I now have PTSD and body dysmorphia, which is a mental health disorder in which the person obsesses over a flaw or flaws in his or her physical appearance (which may not exist). People with body dysmorphia may feel so embarrassed, ashamed, and anxious about that flaw that they may avoid social situations or wearing certain types of clothes.
Looking back, I wish someone had shared this important advice with me: find support as soon as possible. This could be through a support group, family, friends, or a professional, but it is important to get help early. It is perfectly normal to feel inadequate or incomplete, but it takes a lot of effort and time to overcome those feelings and find mindful healing.
For some people, it may not be as intense, but for me it changed my life and affected my family in negative ways that are not easy to fix years down the road.
Unfortunately for me, I kept my fears, my anger, and my worries all to myself. I realize now that this was not the right approach. Now 7 years later, I am finally receiving help through counseling; I avoided dealing with my feelings at all back then.
I locked all those negative emotions in a drawer and threw away the key. However, the drawer did not disappear, and its contents have kept haunting me. If I would have, or could have, dealt with my feelings as they emerged, I am convinced that I could have moved on from these feelings sooner.
Making It Work
About 1 year after my surgery in Germany, my husband was notified by his employer that we would be moving to the United States. Although we had visited the United States several times together, I had never lived there before. I was incredibly nervous and scared, realizing I would be without my support system of close friends, family, and doctors.
After arriving in Tampa, Florida, I finally felt able to go back to work. Even though my husband was working 12-hour shifts, we needed the money. However, we had limited options for our 3-year-old son, because day care was expensive. I decided I could clean homes to make a few extra dollars. It was not much, but it was honest work.
My first clients were extremely happy with my work and started recommending me to their friends, family, and neighbors. Then those new clients started referring “the cleaning lady from Germany” to their friends and neighbors. To me, I was “just” cleaning. But to them it seemed that I performed magic, I guess.
Finding a Purpose
It was not long before I had to hire someone to help me, because I was getting more work than I could do alone. From those simple beginnings I created a business called “Custom Cleanups.” Initially, I didn’t think I could build my own business. My negative frame of mind nearly convinced me that I would fail.
But I kept working my magic, cleaning homes, and began searching for a way to give back to my community. I found a non-profit organization in Texas called “Cleaning for a Reason.” This organization partners with cleaning companies across the country to offer free house-cleaning services to patients with cancer while they are receiving treatment.
Finally, I was able to give back to people who are in a similar situation I was in. My business gave me purpose and an outlet to stay busy, by helping others. I had always said that I loved my work, but I love it even more when I can help people during the most difficult time in their life.
Strength Through Change
It has been 7 years since I was lying in a hospital bed in Germany, not knowing if I would live or die from cervical cancer. I am stronger than I ever imagined I could be at this point. I am proud of myself and of my family for their endless support, and I am thankful to God for giving me a second chance.
I had a career before cancer that I didn’t want to go back to. It took some time for me to heal and discover a new path, but since I love to clean (I know that’s hard to believe!) it came naturally to me to start a cleaning business. I could not have done that in Germany, but I’m thankful for the opportunity to do that here in the United States.
If I could help others find strength in their journey with cancer, I would tell them, “Find and follow your passions. Find things you may have been too timid or unsure of before, and do them, even if it means taking a risk. Don’t talk yourself out of an idea that you might have thought may seem silly at first. Be adventurous. Try new things!”