My Health Journey & Beginning of RVA Fit Foodie, Inc.

I’d like to start this blog post by sharing a few of my hopes…

My hope is that I’ve created a judgement-free zone for the RVA Fit Foodie community.

A platform for people to share their vulnerabilities, their truths, their fears.

A place where we come together to better enrich one another’s lives through uplifting, support and education.

This will most likely be my most vulnerable blog post yet and one that will hopefully open up the conversation to a topic that I know needs the attention. Please respect that what you are about to read is MY EXPERIENCE as I’m not a doctor, an expert, or a health professional. 

The truth is, we all face adversity at some point in our lives and my journey is no more difficult than yours. If anything, I was extremely blessed to have an incredibly, healthy outcome because there are currently women fighting for their lives, in a much harder place than I ever was.

In the summer of 2015, I was 25 years old and had just accepted my dream job at the organization I’m currently employed at. I was living in a loft in the hottest neighborhood in Richmond with my best friends surrounding me and was in a long-term relationship with a great guy with no rush to settle down. I wasn’t living the healthiest lifestyle in terms of food, staying active and partying but I felt pretty unstoppable. I was going out most nights, drinking pretty heavily and just living like a normal 20 year-old… it was kind of awesome at the time. I made sure to follow all the #adulting rules like getting car inspections, oil changes, visiting my gynecologist and getting my annual pap smear. Although I kept up with my annual gynecology visit, I never really thought about the consequences, other than getting pregnant, of having sex and not keeping up with your health history.

In August 2015, after my annual pap smear, I received a call from my gynecologist while sitting at my desk at my very brand new job. Unlike the other calls I received from her regarding results, my doctor seemed on edge and asked if I was alone because she needed to deliver urgent news. She wasn’t able to wait for me to come into the office because I needed to be referred to an oncologist due to the cancerous cells that were found in my pap. Well sure enough, this 25 year old girl that thought she had everything under control, ran out of that office crying hysterically calling her mom… confused, terrified and feeling as helpless as ever.

To give you some background, there are more than 100 types of HPV, of which at least 13 are cancer causing (also known as high risk). HPV infections are the most common sexually transmitted infections in the United States. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (source) estimates that more than 90% and 80%, respectively, of sexually active men and women will be infected with at least one type of HPV at some point in their lives (source). There are many ways to prevent and treat HPV and in most cases, HPV is suppressed by the body before any problems develop. As mentioned previously, I'm not a doctor and therefore encourage anyone looking for HPV resources or need to learn more about scheduling annual gynecology appointments, please visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention here.

Over the course of the next two months, test after test and many cries later, I was diagnosed with Stage 1a1 Cervical Cancer. There are two types of cancerous cells that can be found in a pap smear: squamous cell carcinomas (this type of cervical cancer accounts for 80-90 percent of cases) and adenocarcinomas (this cancer makes up 10-20 percent of cervical cancer) (source). Unfortunately, I had the adenocarcinomas cells, which were more rare and spontaneous. Because of this diagnosis, my family and I met with three different oncologists to receive opinions because of the severity and quick growth of the cells. Every oncologist we met with was concerned that the cells would jump from my cervix to ovaries or to other areas of my body unless my entire cervix was removed. Each opinion led to me receiving a hysterectomy. THANKFULLY, at that point in time, the results of my tests seemed to show that the cancer had not spread beyond my cervix so the fact that I knew I was going to live made it more bearable. But of course this didn’t change the fact that it felt like a dream of mine wouldn’t be possible. If I followed the opinion of these field experts, I wouldn’t bare my own children, something I have always deeply wanted for myself.

The hardest part of this news wasn't anything physical, but the mental state it put me in at such a young age. At 25, I had to have the very hard and awkward conversation with my boyfriend at the time about a potential invasive hysterectomy procedure and the effects that would have on our future, that hadn’t even begun. I had to explain to my, at the time, boss why I was missing work and why I randomly left the office crying during the diagnosis process. I had family constantly checking in on me or showing up to my loft to make sure I was okay. I made the decision to keep the news very private and only told a handful of friends. I didn’t post about it, share on social media or confide in colleagues. I was truly ashamed of the position I was in and blamed myself for it entirely. I had convinced myself that if I were more careful or if I had gone to the doctors a few months earlier, things would have been different. I went into depression at night and would cry until I fell asleep then wake up trying to pretend like everything was okay as I dragged myself through my daily routine. As you can imagine, the entire situation put major stress on my relationships, on my friendships and my career.

After meeting with multiple oncologists, I wasn’t ready to settle with their advice of receiving a total hysterectomy. My family used our connections in Richmond to get a referral to a young, female, Gynecologic Oncologist who has advanced surgical training in minimally invasive surgery while offering fertility-sparing options to young women with cervical cancer. From the moment we met with her, she put us at ease and ensured me that my cancer stage was early enough to pursue other options, which would still allow me to possibly carry my own children one day. The process from that meeting forward was pretty simple… I would receive an invasive, robotic, surgery that would remove the area of my cervix containing cancerous cells and I would be closely watched, receiving specific cervix tests every 6 months until I made the decision to bare children. I was informed early on before the surgery that many women who have taken this route struggle with miscarriages later on because of the surgery and face emotional stress because of the waiting game after each check up in anticipation that the cancer doesn’t return. I was willing to take this risk because I knew it would be worth it one day when I have a family of my own.

My surgery day and the days that followed were tough on my body but went smoothly. I’ve been in the clear at every check up and have appreciated my health beyond words because of this experience. I could not have asked for a bigger miracle than being referred to this incredible doctor and having my family’s support, emotionally and financially. My parents had to make out of pocket payments for some of my medical bills because our decision to forgo a hysterectomy. The entire process made me so appreciative to have had this option because I knew there were women out there without the financial ability or knowledge on other options to have a choice in the matter.

So here I am, almost three years later, with a platform that stemmed from a moment of adversity. After being cancer free, I turned my health around and looked to food as medicine, exercise as a mental release and sharing my health journey as a form of gratitude. As previously mentioned, I believe everything happens for a reason and I try to see the good that came out of that time in my life. My family grew closer than ever before, I found out that I’m much stronger than I thought and I found a passion for holistic health that I love sharing with my community. It’s taken me time to open up about this particular period in my life because I felt defeated and ashamed but I’ve come to respect and love that side of my journey. Instead of shame, I’m hoping to use my story to help others feel less alone because I was there at one point.  I want to share that this topic is not something to hide or be embarrassed of because I now know that women around the world are struggling along with me and although it may be a quiet struggle… it’s a very real struggle.

Again, my entire goal of this platform is to share, encourage and educate so I hope I at least connected with one person while sharing this story.  I am sending so much love to those women in the midst of their prognosis or those who have ventured this journey at some point in their lives, no matter what stage or outcome.

-Austin