How I Lost My Uterus and Found My Voice:
A Memoir of Love, Hope, and Empowerment

Michelle L. Whitlock

"Straightforward, Educational, and Engaging!"
—Kathy LaTour, co-founder of Cure Magazine

A t age twenty-six, author Michelle L. Whitlock thought she had it all: her health, a promising career, and a budding new romance. Then she learned that she had HPV, and weeks later her worst nightmare became her reality: she was diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer. Adamant to preserve her fertility, she refused a radical hysterectomy and chose a less extreme, fertility-saving procedure. The surgery was a success, but just years later-a week after the love of her life proposed-Michelle discovered her cancer was back.

In this memoir, Michelle narrates her journey through and beyond cancer. She took charge of her health care by carefully choosing doctors and her treatment options. In just eight short weeks, she planned a destination wedding, harvested eggs, and with her fiancé, created embryos-their "maybe babies." She got married and ten days later underwent a radical hysterectomy, followed by chemotherapy and radiation. At twenty-nine, Michelle found herself with a new normal, which included menopause, hot flashes, a shortened vagina, and lack of sexual desire. She opens the door to her most intimate moments, frankly sharing how she worked to regain her sex life and providing other women in this situation a road-map to do the same.

This is one woman's story of falling in love, battling HPV and cervical cancer, facing sexual dysfunction and infertility, and becoming her own best advocate. Inspirational, educational and honest, How I Lost My Uterus and Found My Voice tells the emotional story of love and loss, resilience and survival, empowerment and hope for the future. So if you have a vagina or love someone with a vagina, this book is for you!


"Michelle Whitlock takes readers through a journey of loss and love and ends up giving a blueprint on how to make a comeback. How I Lost My Uterus and Found My Voice will make you laugh and cry and leave you wanting more. There will be no pages left unturned in this deeply personal memoir. This book isn't just for those who have survived cancer—it's for the masses. How I Lost My Uterus and Found My Voice is a thrilling look at life."
–Tamika Felder, founder of Cervivor.org

Awards

How I Lost My Uterus and Found My Voice

I've worked incredibly hard on this book, and it shows! Here are just a few of the amazing honors my book has been awarded with over the years...

 

Honorable Mention: Autobiography/Biograpghy, Los Angeles Book Festival, 2012

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...

Page 2

This can't be happening. Not again. Not now.

I sat straight up, sweat dripping from my forehead, startled by what had become a recurring nightmare. I wiped the sleep from my eyes. It's just a dream, I realized as I got out of bed, trying to shake the fear.

It was Friday, April 16, 2004, and that time again. It happened every three months like clockwork, despite my best efforts to ignore it. Most women only make an annual trip to the gynecologist, but not me. As a twenty-nine-year-old cervical cancer survivor, I visited my gynecological oncologist at the change of every season. I hated these appointments—the poking, the prodding. No matter how many times I went, it never got easier. This day marked two years since I had been declared cancer free. I should have been celebrating, but I was actually dreading this appointment even more than usual. My annual exams, like today's, were more extensive than the quarterly checkups. Plus, my doctor took extra precautions, given my cancer history. To treat my cancer, I had opted for a controversial procedure she wouldn't ever have recommended, but now the burden was on her to ensure that my cancer didn't return.

I tried to take my mind off the appointment by focusing on work. I was an assistant district manager for a national retail chain, which is just a polite way of saying district manager-in-training, or as my boss said, "Ain't a district manager yet." I was reading yet another e-mail when I heard the humming of the garage door opening. Mark, my boyfriend of three years, walked in and called up to me, "Honey, I'm home. Are you ready to go?"

"Be right there," I yelled.

"Hurry. We're going to be late!"

I jumped up and raced down the stairs to meet him. "Let me just grab the medicine she prescribed. I'll meet you at the car."

I grabbed the pills and a bottle of water before I headed for the car. As I settled into the passenger seat, Mark asked,

"What are those and why are you taking them?"

"One is Lortab for pain, and the other is Valium to help me relax so the procedure will go more smoothly." I added playfully, "That's why you need to drive, mister."

The medicine kicked in about twenty minutes later, as we arrived at the clinic. I reached for Mark's arm and held on as we passed through the doorway. We signed in, sat down, and waited for my name to be called.

Finally, I heard the nurse say, "Michelle Coots?"

Only professional people called me Michelle. My friends and family knew me as Michi, pronounced Mickey, like the mouse.

Introduction

Where does a story begin? Where does it end? As I sat to write about my journey and how it changed the course of my life, I struggled with these questions. Again and again, I found my mind drifting back to a college English assignment in which the professor asked me to write about the ten most influential or defining moments that shaped my life. Of course, I wrote that paper long before the majority of these events took place. But that exercise helped set the stage for the beginning of this book. In my long journey through the hell of HPV and cervical cancer, one particular week stood out above all others. I decided to start my story during that week and called it Part I. Those emotionally charged seven days seemed to divide my entire cancer experience into two parts: everything that came before (which I've included in Part II of this book) and everything that came after (which I've written about in Part III). I know it may seem unconventional to start in the middle of my story chronologically, and then to skip back in time in Part II and forward in time for Part III; but narratively, it felt right to launch from the point that shaped the course of my life. It perfectly encapsulated all that had happened and all that was about to unfold.

Looking back on that pivotal week, I also realized why I wanted to tell this story. We all go through those awkward teen years, when we are still adolescents but experiencing adult feelings. All those raging hormones catapult us into a new realm of sexuality, in which we try to figure out what feels right and how and when to express it. Most of us lack the foresight to see how our early sexual decisions—and every one that follows—can affect the rest of our lives. The fact that few adults seem to be willing to acknowledge that teens are having sex only deepens the confusion. The reluctance to talk about sex and sexual health doesn't go away as we get older. Now that I know firsthand the consequences of not talking about it, I think something needs to change.

The American Cancer Society reports that about 500,000 women worldwide are diagnosed with cervical cancer annually. More than 250,000 of them die from the disease. Even in a developed country like the United States, approximately 12,000 women are diagnosed with this preventable disease every year, and one third of them die. We now know cervical cancer is caused by certain strains of the sexually transmitted human papilomavirus, commonly called HPV.

Consider this: according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately twenty million Americans are currently infected with HPV. Another six million people become newly infected each year. HPV is so common that approximately 80 percent of sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives. And while not everyone who has sex or contracts HPV will get cancer, 3.5 million American women do have abnormal Pap tests annually. The treatment for abnormal Pap tests and cervical cancer can affect a woman's ability to bear children.

Just hearing the words "abnormal" and "Pap" in the same sentence can feel scary and isolating to a woman, but it can become downright paralyzing when she then considers whether or not to tell a parent, a friend, a friend-with- benefits, a boyfriend, a spouse — or anyone else, for that matter. An HPV diagnosis can make dating overwhelming and confusing: Do I have to tell a partner I have or had HPV? When do I tell? Can I still be intimate and engage in sexual activity? For those already in a relationship, additional concerns arise. Some are left to wonder if they contracted HPV from their partner, while others worry that if their beloved finds out about the diagnosis, he might leave. Any couple confronted with an illness inevitably faces the age-old concern: Can love truly survive both in sickness and in health? While I don't have all the answers to theses to these questions, I do have my own experience to share as a guide.

I want everyone who reads this book to know two things: you are not alone, and we absolutely must start talking about sex and sexual health. It takes only one sexual encounter to get a STD that could affect the rest of your life. No matter what your age, if you are having sex—and let's face it, most of us are—you are at risk for coming into contact with HPV. I want women everywhere to be empowered, to open up and talk freely and fearlessly about their bodies, sexual experiences, and sexual health. Your life and reproductive future, or the life and reproductive future of someone close to you, just might depend on it. And yes, it is possible to still have a fulfilling, romantic relationship. So if you have a vagina or love someone with a vagina, this book is for you.

Page 2

This can't be happening. Not again. Not now.

I sat straight up, sweat dripping from my forehead, startled by what had become a recurring nightmare. I wiped the sleep from my eyes. It's just a dream, I realized as I got out of bed, trying to shake the fear.

It was Friday, April 16, 2004, and that time again. It happened every three months like clockwork, despite my best efforts to ignore it. Most women only make an annual trip to the gynecologist, but not me. As a twenty-nine-year-old cervical cancer survivor, I visited my gynecological oncologist at the change of every season. I hated these appointments—the poking, the prodding. No matter how many times I went, it never got easier. This day marked two years since I had been declared cancer free. I should have been celebrating, but I was actually dreading this appointment even more than usual. My annual exams, like today's, were more extensive than the quarterly checkups. Plus, my doctor took extra precautions, given my cancer history. To treat my cancer, I had opted for a controversial procedure she wouldn't ever have recommended, but now the burden was on her to ensure that my cancer didn't return.

I tried to take my mind off the appointment by focusing on work. I was an assistant district manager for a national retail chain, which is just a polite way of saying district manager-in-training, or as my boss said, "Ain't a district manager yet." I was reading yet another e-mail when I heard the humming of the garage door opening. Mark, my boyfriend of three years, walked in and called up to me, "Honey, I'm home. Are you ready to go?"

"Be right there," I yelled.

"Hurry. We're going to be late!"

I jumped up and raced down the stairs to meet him. "Let me just grab the medicine she prescribed. I'll meet you at the car."

I grabbed the pills and a bottle of water before I headed for the car. As I settled into the passenger seat, Mark asked,

"What are those and why are you taking them?"

"One is Lortab for pain, and the other is Valium to help me relax so the procedure will go more smoothly." I added playfully, "That's why you need to drive, mister."

The medicine kicked in about twenty minutes later, as we arrived at the clinic. I reached for Mark's arm and held on as we passed through the doorway. We signed in, sat down, and waited for my name to be called.

Finally, I heard the nurse say, "Michelle Coots?"

Only professional people called me Michelle. My friends and family knew me as Michi, pronounced Mickey, like the mouse.

Page 3

The nurse directed me to the scale for the usual height and weight measurements. I kicked off my heels and stood against the wall. As usual I measured five feet, seven and a half inches. I always wished I were an inch or two taller, which is why I have to include the half. It's also why I almost always wear heels. I stepped onto the scale: 130 pounds.

The nurse escorted Mark and me into the examination room and continued to take the usual vital statistics. "Dr. C. will be in shortly," she said as she walked out.

I didn't need any instructions; I was a pro and knew the drill. I undressed from the waist down and positioned myself on the examination table with the always flattering white sheet draped over my lower half. The next few minutes seemed like an eternity as I sat half-naked, freezing my buns off, waiting for the doctor. I was beginning to feel like I had downed a bottle of wine. Oh, yeah, the medicine is definitely kicking in now!

When Dr. C. entered the room, she began with the usual battery of questions. "How are you feeling? Has anything changed?" Blah, blah, blah. Then she made her normal plea: "You make me so nervous. I wish you would just get pregnant and let me remove your uterus so we can be sure you're in the clear."

Dr. C. was the third in a string of oncologists that had been in charge of my follow-up care since the dreaded diagnosis two and a half years ago. Each doctor had recommended a hysterectomy, and every time, I had refused. I didn't know if I wanted children, but I knew I was not ready to give up my ability to make that choice. Instead, I had chosen a nontraditional procedure—a radical trachelectomy—to treat the cervical cancer. The doctors had removed a large portion of my cervix, but had left my uterus intact. Dr. C. was not a fan of my chosen course of treatment. She felt the radical trachelectomy was too new, that the overall long-term success rate was too uncertain. This was also the reason my annual checkups involved more than the traditional Pap test. She wanted to track my recovery closely because she was skeptical that my cancer was really gone for good.

Page 4

"Okay, are you ready, Michelle?"

"Ready as I am going to be," I said, reaching for Mark's hand.

"Slide down a little farther," she instructed, as she made a tent with the white sheet over my knees. Even though I had done this a thousand times, those words always made my stomach queasy. I couldn't think of a more vulnerable or awkward situation than lying with my bare butt exposed to the world, having a near stranger poking around inside my most private and personal spot. Reluctantly, I slid down until I felt the end of the table. I hate this position!

"Okay, this is going to be a little cold and you're going to feel me insert the speculum. Now I am going to open it up. How are you doing?"

"Fine." But not really.

"Okay, I need to numb the area with local anesthetic. Take a deep breath and hold it in. You are going to feel the prick of the needle and a little burning sensation."

As the needle penetrated the base of my uterus, where my cervix used to be, I felt the instant burn of the medicine. I had taken the Lortab, but the pain came anyway. My body tightened, and I clenched Mark's hand as I gasped for another breath.

"Are you still with me?" Dr. C. asked.

"Yeah," I mumbled.

"Remember, deep, slow breaths."

I didn't respond. I was too busy focusing on my breathing so I wouldn't knock her over and flee the room.

"Okay," she said, "two more quick sticks. Now we'll wait a few minutes and give the anesthetic time to take effect."

My head felt fuzzy and my eyes were heavy. Those few minutes felt like hours. Finally Dr. C. checked to ensure that the area inside me was numb. Once she was confident that it was, she proceeded with a wet Pap.

"I want to take an extra step today," she said when she was done with the Pap. "It's called an endocervical curettage, or ECC, and it will help ensure that there's no new cancer present."

She talked me through the procedure as she went, explaining that she was making a small incision at the base of the uterus. Next, she inserted a spoon-shaped tool into the incision. She scraped around the interior walls where the uterus and the upper end of the vaginal canal had been sewn together after my last surgery. I breathed in and gnashed my teeth in a feeble attempt to counter the extreme discomfort. A few blessed moments later, she finished and instructed me to get dressed.

"The results should take about two weeks," she said. "Assuming everything is okay, I shouldn't need to see you for another four months."

An extra month of freedom! I was elated with this news.

Bonus #1

My Top Ten Tips on Intimacy and Sexuality after a Gynecological Cancer Diagnosis

 
  • Find someone--a partner, friend, therapist, family member or another survivor--with whom you can be open and honest about your feelings and your fears. You have to talk about those feelings and fears to move past them.
  • Get outside your own head. Listen to your favorite music, read a book, take a long hot bath. A woman's mind can be her own worst enemy when trying to rekindled sexuality and intimacy.
  • It takes work, hard work, but your desire will return. Don't wait on it, go find it. Yes, there will be pain, but this too shall pass with time.
  • Your experience with cancer has changed you, mind, body and soul. Explore it all! The greatest levels of intimacy come from breaking down emotional walls and making ourselves vulnerable to another human being.
  • Naked cuddle time--kissing, holding, and caressing without the pressure of performing a sexual act stimulates trust, understanding, intimacy and eventually desire.
  • Ask your doctor for a set of dilators and use them daily!!!! Remember the vagina is a muscle. It can shrink from radiation treatment and surgery, but it can stretch back out for enjoyable sex again (just as it does during child birth).
  • It takes time. Think of this stretching as your new exercise program and stay faithful, after the pain comes the pleasure! As with any good exercise program, consistency is the key, so stay faithful. Use it or lose it. Invest in a good lubricant and don't be afraid to use it. (I love Astroglide, myself!)
  • Remember, you probably created boundaries with your partner during your treatment. Be sure to invite him back in and give him permission to touch your body. Don't be afraid to provide a little direction. He doesn't know what feels good unless you communicate.
  • Practice makes perfect. Take it slowly, don't impose any pressure on yourself. Initially you may only be able to handle penetration for a few minutes. It's OK and NORMAL! Do only what you can. Don't lose hope and don't get discouraged. Practice, practice, practice.
  • Be patient with yourself. It takes times, but you can achieve great sex again and experience even closer intimacy than you every did before!

Bonus #2

Tips from My Husband to Your Partner

 
  • Show your support! Attend as many doctor and treatment appointments as possible. Even when she tells you that you don't have to, go anyway. This allows you to live the experience with her,and it becomes something you are doing together.
  • Your level of knowledge and interest in her condition helps you to better understand and cope what she is experiencing. It gives her confidence, knowing she can talk to you because you are in this together.
  • Patience is the Key! Know your loved one needs space and permission to cope in her own way. I didn't want my wife to work while during chemo and radiation, but she insisted. Every night she came home exhausted and I'd lecture her. What I didn't realize was although it was draining on her physically, it uplifted her mentally. Working gave her a reason to keep fighting and made her feel needed. Let your loved one find her own way to cope and respect her choices.
  • When our loved one is in pain, we often try to 'fix' the problem. Resist this urge. Ask questions and truly listen to what she says. Validate her feelings, even if they seem irrational. Just be her life preserver and flow through the storm with her, knowing the sun will shine again. This act will increase emotional intimacy between the two of you.
  • In the sexual arena, remember to take cues from her. Let her know it is OK to give you direction and that you welcome the feedback. It can be as simply as how to rub her head or feet; or more intimate, like how to touch her in that special place. Let her walk you through exploring her body. Things are different now--be open to learning.
  • Remember, her emotional and psychological scars linger long after the physical wounds heal, so have patience and take it slow. Find new ways to create intimacy and closeness: cuddle, read together, take a bubble bath, back rubs, phone sex, etc.

Chapter Overviews

Get to know the book you're about to fall in love with!

Introduction

Introduction

This book doesn't proceed, as one would expect, chronologically, but rather conceptually - learn why here.

Part One

Part One

The Pivotal Week: One particular week stood out above all others, and for good reason. Here's why.

Part Two

Part Two

Everything Before: My life before cancer, and the people and events that shaped years to come.

Part Three

Part Three

Everything After: Decisions, Fertitlity, Health Insurance, Marriage, Round Two, Surgeries, and more.

Are you, or someone close to you, battling this disease? Have you won that battle and are now fighting to regain your life?

My book is more than my story - it is a guide to restoring what you think you've lost. Don't stop at just winning the battle, win the war and get back to normal!

Get Your Copy Now

What My Readers Are Saying...

Just a few reviews of real people who have read my book!

...

An amazing story... Get the book, you won't regret it!!

By Kitticat (5.0 out of 5 stars)

"This is an amazing story that everyone will relate to. At first glance, this is an account of one woman's medical trials and triumphs, but read further and you get a funny, candid and heartwarming account of experiences we can ALL relate to in one way or another. The author has a way of bringing you into her world and she humbly opens the door to her very personal thoughts. I found at the end of every chapter I just wanted to know what was going to happen next. You can't help but root for her to beat the cancer, get the guy, and have her happily ever after. In addition to telling her story, she takes the time throughout the book to stop and inform us about women's health and advocates for people to take an active part in their health decisions. Get the book, you won't regret it."

...

I'm a dude and I loved it!

By DudeDad (5.0 out of 5 stars)

"This book is for everyone to read: women, men, parents, etc. Michelle has a way of connecting with her reader in a voice that is conversational, inspiring, and real. As a parent of a daughter she really opened my eyes. Thank-you for sharing yourself with us."

Endorsements
Continued Praise for Michelle Whitlock and How I Lost My Uterus and Found My Voice

 
 
 

About the Author

Michelle Whitlock: Advocate, Author, Mother, Motivational Speaker, Wife

Michelle Whitlock

A Bit About Michelle...

Michelle L. Whitlock earned a bachelor's degree from Columbia Union College. She is a retail executive and a passionate advocate for women's cervical health and fertility options. Michelle lives in Cordova, Tennessee, with her husband, Mark; their daughter, Riley Grier; their niece by birth and daughter by choice, Shelby-Kay; and their four-legged children, George and Charlee.

Learning More...

Spreading awareness about the preventable virus, turned cancer, that nearly took my life is now my passion. I would love to work with you to spread this message! To learn everything you need to know about me, including how to book me for your next event, check out the My Journey page of me website!

Do you have questions about my book? Need more information?