Surviving Cervical Cancer and Fighting Back
Colorado native Tracy Jimenez was diagnosed with cervical cancer just four days after her 46th birthday on October 26, 2016. A single mother of three, grandmother to five, and surrogate mother to a 24-year-old nephew with cerebral palsy, Tracy had her hands more than full. Her busy life and endless responsibilities made her life-altering cancer diagnosis even more terrifying. In an interview with the Colorado Children’s Immunization Coalition, Tracy explains how cervical cancer caused by a human papillomavirus (HPV) infection impacted her life, and how it’s driven her to speak up for the vaccine that has the power to prevent cervical and other kinds of cancer: the HPV vaccine.
You’re a survivor of HPV-associated cervical cancer. When and where were you first diagnosed, and what was your diagnosis?
I had been back and forth to the ER for a few years with symptoms of extreme back and leg pain. During a visit in October of 2016, my doctors decided to conduct a cat scan and found a mass. They told me I needed to go see an oncologist as soon as possible. On October 24th, four days after my 46th birthday, I went to see an oncologist and she told me I had developed cervical cancer as a result of a previously-contracted human papillomavirus (HPV) infection.
How did you feel when you received your diagnosis?
I felt like my world was about to end. I didn’t know anything about this kind of cancer and to be honest, I was afraid I was going to die. It was terrifying.
What was your treatment journey like?
My treatment was very hard. I didn’t have the family support that I needed, and I often felt so alone. Over the course of my treatment, I had 28 sessions of radiation, six sessions of chemotherapy and four sessions of brachytherapy, a type of radiation that involves placing radioactive material directly inside or next to a tumor. My career was also affected by the cancer and my treatment because I couldn’t work full time.
What did you know about the human papillomavirus (HPV) before you were diagnosed with cervical cancer?
I didn’t know anything about HPV. I wasn’t taught about it while I was growing up and had never heard of it when I received my diagnosis.
What would you say to a young person about receiving the HPV vaccine? What would you say to a parent?
I would say that this vaccine is just like any other vaccine—it has the power to save your life. If the HPV vaccine had existed when I was younger, I would have gotten it no question. And if I’d have known about it when my daughter (who is now 29) was younger, I would have gotten it for her. As parents, we should do all we can to protect our children from harm. The HPV vaccine is an incredible way to protect their futures.
From the day she was diagnosed, Tracy’s motto was “never give up.” She’s translated this motto into a personal hashtag, #nevergiveup, which she uses to motivate others in her life to always keep fighting. Tracy’s physician declared her cancer-free in August of 2017. When asked what motivates her to share her story with others and advocate for use of the HPV vaccine, Tracy said:
“I am a survivor, and I know what HPV and cervical cancer can do to a person. I’ve lost many friends to it and I don’t want to see anyone else die from a cancer caused by a preventable infection. I really am a new person after my experience with cancer, and I want everyone to know that if you have cancer, you can fight. And when it comes to cervical cancer, you can fight before it ever has the chance to appear in the first place! You can fight with the vaccine.”
HPV currently affects nearly 79 million people in the United States, and 80-90% of people will get at least one type of HPV in their lifetime. Approximately 33,700 Americans are diagnosed with an HPV-associated cancer every year. The HPV vaccine has the power to drastically reduce the instance of HPV infections and prevent cancers—including cervical cancer—caused by the virus, thereby protecting future generations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the HPV vaccine for boys and girls at age 11 or 12, long before they’re ever exposed to the virus and when the vaccine is most effective. The HPV vaccine is cancer prevention. Talk to your doctor about the HPV vaccine.
For more information, visit HPVFreeCO.org.