Cervical Cancer Survivor Urges Women to Get Screened
Like any busy woman, Paulette Apostolou has a lot of things on her mind. But at age 48, cervical cancer wasn’t one of them.
Apostolou’s life was turned upside down three years ago when she received a diagnosis of Mucinous Adenocarcinoma stage 1B1, a form of cervical cancer that shows up in less than 20% of cases. Fortunately, with her positive attitude and help from her physicians, urogynecologist Nahla Merhi, M.D., Co-Director of the Center of Excellence for Minimally Invasive Gynecology at Silver Cross Hospital, and gynecologic oncologist Nita Lee, M.D., on staff at the UChicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center at Silver Cross Hospital, Apostolou has been cancer-free more than two years.
These days she travels throughout the country, passionately sharing her story at national conferences. “I urge women to get screened and not let my story be their story,” says Apostolou. “I want them to know that they can come out on the other side of cancer with a brighter outlook on life.”
Apostolou has become a local and national patient advocate and is serious about talking to women about the HPV vaccine, cervical cancer, and the importance of having routine screenings. “After attending ‘Cervivor’ School in Louisville, something awakened in me,” said the Elwood resident. “I was toying with the idea of creating an awareness project, but became truly inspired after this trip. So I started Operation Teal, which is an awareness ribbon project where information can be attained at Facebook.com/OperationTeal.”
In April of 2015, Apostolou started feeling not like herself. She was tired all the time, had irregular periods (sometimes two a month), was bloated and had a constant dull ache in her lower back. The backache, which she thought was sciatic nerve pain, had been going on for several years. She attributed these new symptoms to being perimenopausal.
During the next couple of months, she experienced light spotting and then an unusual odor developed. That’s when she made an appointment to see Dr. Merhi. “When Dr. Merhi asked when my last Pap test was, I hesitated because it was over 14 years ago,” said Apostolou. “I am so appreciative of how Dr. Merhi treated me during this moment. She was so kind and didn’t lecture me that I shouldn’t have waited so many years to have a Pap test.”
A few days later, Apostolou’s life would be forever changed when she got the news her Pap test results were abnormal. “Everything the nurse said on that call was a blur. I sat in my car in a store parking lot and cried for what seemed like hours,” she remembers. “I contemplated how my next step was to have an endocervical biopsy and colposcopy.”
At that point everything stopped. “All I could think about was cervical cancer. I didn’t want to believe this was my fate. I’m married to the most incredible man and couldn’t believe I was not going to have my ‘happily ever after’ with him. It took a long time for that anger to subside,” she said.
In January 2016, Dr. Merhi performed a robotic hysterectomy at The Midwest Institute for Robotic Surgery at Silver Cross Hospital in New Lenox. Silver Cross is one of the first hospitals in the Midwest where skilled surgeons use the robotic surgical system to perform hysterectomies through a single incision with virtually scarless results.
“I figured the surgery results would be good because I chose to have a hysterectomy to prevent cancer, little did I know cancer was already hiding in my cervix,” she added. After being diagnosed with cervical cancer, Apostolou was referred to Dr. Lee. “Dr. Lee patiently and thoughtfully discussed my case,” she said. It was determined that Apostolou needed another surgery very soon, so a PET scan was ordered to see if cancer had spread, and thankfully the scan came back clean.
“Dr. Lee was fantastic,” said Apostolou. “She compassionately talked me off the ledge and told me not to give up. She explained my cancer was caught early and patiently answered all of my 24 questions.” Fortunately after the second surgery, Apostolou was told there was no evidence of disease, but she would be monitored closely for the next five years.
Embracing a New Journey
Today, Apostolou is a successful local and national patient advocate who speaks at numerous conferences throughout the country – something she never saw herself doing. In addition to her important advocacy work through Cervivor (cervivor.org), she is a trained Silver Cross Woman to Woman mentor through Dr. Lee’s program for peer mentoring in gynecologic cancers. Apostolou provides local and online support to many women affected by cervical cancer or HPV. She and Dr. Lee are also members of the ACS HPV Roundtable Planning Committee that is planning an educational and advocacy conference called HPV Cancer Free Illinois American Cancer Society that will be held in Chicagoland on Nov. 15, 2018.
Photo caption: Pictured at a recent conference is Paulette Apostolou sharing her cervical cancer survivor story, which includes the innovative treatment she received at Silver Cross Hospital.
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If you or a loved one has been affected by cervical cancer or another HPV-related cancer or condition, and are interested in attending this conference, please register for free directly at
http://www.everthriveil.org/event/mission-hpv-cancer-free-illinois-roundtable, or call Everthrive at 312-281-7240 (Ceci Tipiani-Fuentes).
“Ironically, cancer gave me a gift. I am living a more grateful life,” Apostolou adds. “Now I actually hear the birds sing in the morning, and I stop to watch the sun rise and set. Amongst all the ugliness in this world, I truly take a moment to pause to see all the beauty there is as well,” exclaims Apostolou. “My light shines brighter now. I attribute my new outlook to three things – the amazing support from my husband, the expertise of my physicians, and the cutting-edge care I received at both the Midwest Institute for Robotic Surgery at Silver Cross Hospital and the UChicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center at Silver Cross Hospital.”