For the past six years, Lauren Whiteside has been in and out of her doctor's office hoping that the looming threat of cervical cancer is a reality she can avoid.
She never wants another woman to live with the same fear.
About six months ago, the 28-year-old Mount Pleasant resident started the South Carolina chapter of the National Cervical Cancer Coalition to raise awareness of the disease and help women who are facing it.
"It's devastating to read some of these women's stories. Cervical cancer is such a not-talked-about thing," Whiteside said.
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And because human papillomavirus, a common sexually transmitted infection, is the leading cause of cervical cancer, "this type of cancer is stigmatized. It stigmatizes women as being promiscuous, but you could have only one partner who carries HPV and get this infection," she said.
According to the coalition, about 11,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, and about 4,000 of those women will die from the disease.
NO LONGER ROUTINE
Whiteside's journey from a seemingly healthy and active young woman to activist began while she was studying communications at the College of Charleston.
She scheduled annual appointments with her gynecologist and had routine Pap smears, a test during which cells are scraped from the cervix and examined under a microscope to detect abnormalities.
It was during one of those checkups that revealed Whiteside had developed low-grade squamous intraepithelial lesions on her cervix. According to the National Cancer Institute, such lesions differ in size and shape from normal cervical cells and "are considered mild abnormalities caused by HPV infection."
Doctors soon performed a colposcopy, an exam that allows doctors to view the cervix in more detail, and they advised Whiteside to have a Pap smear every six months to monitor any further irregularities, she said.
Between 2006 and 2009, Whiteside's Pap smears were negative of any additional suspicious findings. But in 2010, Whiteside's test revealed high-risk precancerous lesions on her cervix, and she quickly was faced with surgical options to remove the abnormalities.
Whiteside turned to the Internet to research her options, and anxiety set in.
"All these things run through your mind, things like, 'Am I going to be able to have kids?' " she saID.
JOINING A COMMUnity
The apprehension eased somewhat after Whiteside found the coalition's website, which offered anonymous community forums, a safe haven for women to talk about their experiences ranging from those newly diagnosed with HPV to women who have been battling cervical cancer for some time and others who are simply curious about the growing awareness surrounding cervical cancer.
Whiteside ultimately decided to have a procedure to remove the abnormal cells and later had a second preventive surgery to determine whether the cells had spread.
"I went through a range of emotions," she said. "I cried. I kept thinking about 'Am I going to have cervical cancer?' You cant these thoughts out of your head."
She started the application process to form the state coalition chapter in November.
Right now, Whiteside is the chapter's lone member. She raises awareness by posting fliers throughout the Mount Pleasant area and aims to hold a fundraiser later this year. Eventually, she hopes to be able to sponsor free screenings and raise money to help cover lab fees.
The National Cancer Institute describes cervical cancer as a slow-growing disease that often does not exhibit symptoms, making routine Pap smears essential.
"I want to get the word out, break the silence," she said. "If more people are informed, they'll be more comfortable talking about it."
Whiteside is willing to talk to everyone who will listen. Anyone interested in learning more about the disease or joining the fight against it can email her at email@example.com.
She admits she is lucky to have a loving support system of family and friends as she battles to stay cancer-free, but from participating in the online community forums, it's evident that some of her fellow patients aren't as fortunate.
"Ten women a day are dying from cervical cancer," she said. "That's someone's daughter, mother, sister, friend."