Changing Your Stars

A cervical cancer survivor’s story of overcoming life’s challenges

by Michelle Whitlock

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Star light, star bright, cancer came into my life one night. Initially, it turned my universe upside down. Cancer shook the ground beneath my feet and blinded my sight.

“Why me?” I was young, just 26, and felt healthy. This couldn’t be happening. I was too busy for cancer. I was focused on my career and climbing the corporate ladder. I had a plan, and cancer wasn’t part of it.

Cancer was uncharted territory. I wasn’t prepared. I didn’t have a map or a guide. I needed direction. I thought about my destiny: How would I survive? I thought about how our ancestors once used the stars for direction and guidance. Could I do the same? I wondered.

It was then I realized I could change my stars. My cancer journey didn’t have to be a negative experience. I was determined to give it purpose in my life. I felt a surge of courage and strength. I discovered my secret weapon, the power of “choice.” I couldn’t control my cancer, but I could choose my attitude. With that simple realization, I put in motion the steps that realigned my stars and changed my life forever.

With knowledge comes power, I told myself. I wanted to feel powerful again. I researched cervical cancer and fertility. I found treatment options that would leave me a chance to have children. I made a list of questions and mentally prepared myself for my doctor. His plan would leave me infertile. Not acceptable.

Armed with this new power, I sought a second opinion. I asked the tough questions. I insisted my doctors listen to me. I needed them to consider not only my cancer but also the life I still wanted to live – a life that included conceiving a child.

I weighed my options, the risks and benefits. Preserving my fertility was as important as saving my life. I chose physicians who understood my vision. They offered me a treatment option that would rid me of cancer and leave a 50 percent chance of conceiving. They weren’t great odds, but it beat nothing.

Cancer forced me to slow down. As I gave in to this new slower paced life, I learned. For the first time, I put my guard down and began asking for help. It was difficult and didn’t come naturally to me. To my amazement, people lined up. I discovered it was easier to just ask for what I needed. By removing the need for others to read my mind, I eliminated many hours of disappointment and frustration. And I conserved my energy.

My cancer returned two years later. I was shocked, but I had no regrets about my previous treatment. I had entered it fully aware and as part of the team. It bought me enough time to get married and to learn about other fertility sparing options. Now it was time to make a different choice. A choice that centered around saving my life first and my fertility second. A team of physicians harvested my eggs and froze my embryos. Armed with a sort of “fertility insurance” plan, I was prepared to fight my cancer aggressively. I kicked its butt!

Four years later and cancer-free, it was time to deal with my infertility. I knew I was unable to create life inside me. I drew on my walk with cancer for courage and inspiration. I applied the principles I used to battle cancer and found the world of gestational carriers (surrogacy). When my first carrier lost the pregnancy, I chose another one. Once again, these principles led me through my darkest hours and brought me safely to the other side. My daughter, Riley Grier, was born on October 27, 2009 via a gestational carrier.

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Michelle Whitlock is a five-year cervical cancer survivor. She is a healthcare advocate and the director of PearlofWisdom.us. She lives in Cordova, TN, with her husband, Mark, two dogs, and a bouncing baby girl. For more about Michelle, visit MichelleLeeWhitlock.com.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2010.