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I Was Told I Had an STI. It Was Actually Cervical Cancer



Aisha McClellan, 39, from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, was diagnosed with metastatic cervical cancer when she was just 32. Now she spreads awareness about the disease on TikTok. Cervical cancer is usually preventable if you get the HPV vaccine, routine tests for the virus (the vaccine doesn’t protect against every single type), and regular Pap smears (to screen for precancerous cells). Here’s her story, as told to SELF’s associate health conditions director Julia Sullivan.

As a single parent of three, I’ve always been super active and involved in my kids’ lives. However, I’ve struggled a bit. We live on very little income, and I don’t really have any people around to help. However, I’m diligent about the health of my entire family—I’ve never slacked in that department. And that means I need to look after myself too. I go in regularly for all my screenings, which include Pap smears. I had my first abnormal result back in 2011, but after doing a colposcopy, my doctor found no issues. [Editor’s note: A colposcopy is a procedure to closely examine a person’s cervix, vagina, and vulva to look for cancerous cells.] I’ve never had an HPV vaccine and the doctors treating me never offered me an HPV test (and I never knew to ask for one). They just told me that I needed to come in regularly to get more Paps. Sometimes I’d continue to get abnormal results, but my doctors told me this kind of thing was to be expected. I was never really worried.

In early 2016, I bled for about 10 minutes right after having sex. It happened again a second and a third time, so I went to a local clinic to get checked out. The staff tested me for STIs and put me on a 10-day course of antibiotics (even with no positive result for an infection). It felt weird that they didn’t want to give me a pelvic exam. When I got back home, I felt off. Usually, I’m up at 6 a.m. singing—I’ve always been high-energy. I felt fatigued but wondered if it was just a side effect of the medication. I eventually felt odd back pain, too, so I went back to the clinic with my concerns. The staff told me I just needed to give some time for the antibiotics to kick in.

After I finished those meds, I started bleeding after sex again. I still felt exhausted and my back was killing me. Then a friend told me I looked gray and that I should go back to the clinic—which is exactly what I did. I basically demanded to receive a pelvic exam. A nurse practitioner told me that my cervix looked “angry and inflamed,” but also said it was probably some sort of STI. I told her, “Listen, I just don’t think that’s what this is. I really don’t.” They brought in a different nurse practitioner who saw what might be a mass on my cervix. I asked her, “So do you think it’s cancer?” She said she couldn’t tell exactly what it was, but she suggested I get a biopsy at another facility (they didn’t offer this test at the clinic). Since I was uninsured, they gave me a number for my local hospital. Trying to get that biopsy appointment was a nightmare—you could only call at certain times and the hospital would only have a few appointments per day. I’m like, Okay, I might have cancer. Maybe I can get a biopsy, or maybe not, depending on how lucky I get. I couldn’t get an appointment with the hospital, so I called every clinic within a freaking 50-mile radius to see if someone would see me.

Source: Self

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