How Unexpected Bleeding Lead to a Cervical Cancer Diagnosis: 'I Was Shocked'

Institution Partners | Cancer Centers | <b>Hackensack Meridian John Theurer Cancer Center</b>

One woman explains how after experiencing irregular bleeding, she found out she had cervical cancer and her life changed immediately.

When Denise Giancaspro experienced some unexpected bleeding at 58, it was cause for alarm.

“I immediately made an appointment with the doctor who found what appeared to be a tumor,” explained Denise, the mother of two grown daughters.

A biopsy confirmed that Denise had cervical cancer. “I was shocked, I’ve never had any problems and no family history of cervical cancer,” she said.

Denise is one of the more than 14,000 women in the United States diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer each year. In many of these cases, including Denise’s, there were no prior symptoms until the irregular bleeding.

“So many questions came to mind when I was diagnosed, most especially, how would treatment impact my life,” said Denise, who explained that she works for her local school district implementing services for children with special needs, and she and her husband, Nick, often travel. “I didn’t want my life completely disrupted but I was obviously going to do whatever I needed to to get healthy.”

Cervical cancer used to be the leading cause of cancer death for women in the United States. Today, thanks to innovative changes in the prevention and treatment of the disease, the mortality rate associated with cervical cancer has declined by nearly 50% since “the war on cancer” was first declared by President Richard Nixon in 1971.

“I never questioned my physicians, who were incredibly positive, I just did exactly what they recommended,” Denise said. She underwent a robotic hysterectomy first, followed by five treatments of low dose radiation and five treatments of low dose chemotherapy at the John Theurer Cancer Center at Hackensack University Medical Center.

“I did insist on robotic surgery because I knew it would be much less invasive, the recovery time was faster and I could potentially go home the day after the procedure,” said Denise who did, indeed, go home the next day. “Other than a few small incisions for the robotic instruments, you really wouldn’t know I even underwent surgery.”

Cervical Health Awareness Month is marked every year, in January, to encourage women to be more aware of the signs of cervical cancer, like unexplained bleeding, and to get screened right away.

A new study found 26% of women surveyed did not schedule a cervical screening during the pandemic and nearly a quarter of women (24%) ages 40 to 60 say it’s been more than 36 months since their last appointment with their obstetrician-gynecologist.

“Don’t delay your screenings, early detection is so incredibly important,” Denise said.

Screening tests do offer the best chance to have cervical cancer found early when treatment can be most successful. Screening can also actually prevent most cervical cancers by finding abnormal cervical cell changes (pre-cancers) so that they can be treated before they have a chance to turn into a cervical cancer.

One year after Denise’s diagnosis, she found out her cervical cancer had spread to her

lungs. Cervical cancer spreads most often to nearby tissues in the pelvis, lymph nodes or the lungs. When cancer spreads from its original place to another part of the body, the new tumor has the same kind of cancer cells and the same name as the original tumor.

“While this is not uncommon, I was pretty shaken up but my doctors recommended I participate in a clinical trial for a new drug to treat it and I’m so happy that I did,” she said.

Denise was enrolled in the phase 1 clinical trial for a new lung cancer treatment by Merck along with Keytruda (pembrolizumab), a type of immunotherapy, also by Merck, that works by blocking the PD-1 pathway to help prevent cancer cells from hiding. The drug is meant to help the immune system do what it was meant to do: detect and fight cancer cells.

“My doctor thought this combination would be the best course of action and he was right,” Denise said. She is proud to be one of the first people to partake in the Merck clinical trial.

Today, Denise gets a CT scan every nine weeks and is cancer free.

“I want every woman to know that they should never give up, stay strong, and I’m proof, a positive attitude, can make a tremendous difference,” she said. She added that it helped that her family and her doctors stood by her every step of the way.

“My husband never missed one of my 35 treatments or any of my doctor’s visits, he still goes to my follow-up appointments with me and my daughters, Gillian and Tracey, are my biggest cheerleaders,” explained Denise who said they kept telling her, “You never know how strong you are, until being strong is your only option.”

The couple are still traveling as much as they can and living life to the fullest. “I want others to know they need to go for regular screenings and that there are innovative treatments available that can save your life while allowing you to go on with living.”

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