Photo of Michelle and her husband taken at, Couples Resort, Jamaica
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Michelle Whitlock continued the interview.
In her words, “I was determined not to give cancer any power or control in my life. I would not allow cancer to rob me of my divine right to be a mother. Cancer could take my uterus but not stop me from having a biological child. My dream of motherhood became a reality Oct 27, 2009 with the help of a gestational carrier.”
She described her demons, “Cancer has a way of bring a person’s fears and insecurities to the surface. Facing my fears opened my world in ways I could never have imaged. Before cancer entered my world I was used to taking care of myself. The loss of my mother early and my dysfunctional childhood taught me early in life not to rely on other people. My motto was if you want something done and done right, do it yourself. I developed a tough outer shell—the version of me I showed the world—and I thought hiding behind this fierce exterior would keep me emotionally safe. I was wrong. Cancer made me vulnerable. My vulnerability made me insecure. Feeling vulnerable emotionally crippled me at times. I didn’t know how to need another person. I didn’t know how to ask for help. I feared if I was needy others would fail me or reject me and I couldn’t bare the idea, not now. I wanted others and especially my partner to read my mind and offer the help I needed. Ridiculous, I know. Really, who can read minds? Truth be told, waiting for other to do this silly task just causes stress and unneeded drama. Then it hit me, all I owe myself or any other person was the truth. So I started saying what I needed and giving others the opportunity to decide if they wanted to help me. To my surprise, with direct and specific requests, people jumped at the chance to help me. It made me feel supported and loved to have so many people come through for me. My loved ones were relived to be able to give back to me. Today, I know I am not an island onto myself. I am part of a community. Today, family is more than the people I am related to by birth or marriage. Family, for me, is about the people who choose to show up in my life and there are many.
My second demon was physical, emotional, and psychological. Cancer wreaked havoc on my body. Before cancer, I was a curvaceous woman and a lot of my own self-image and wealth was tied closely with my physical image. During treatment I lost my reproductive organs, all but 2 inches of my vagina, and I then dropped 21 lbs, I was 109 lbs with a 5’8” frame. I was skin and bones. I didn’t feel attractive, sexy, or desirable. My body hurt physically. I couldn’t imagine having sex; and yet I couldn’t imagine not having sex because I believed sex and intimacy were one in the same. Suddenly, I found myself insecure in a way I had never felt before. My husband, Mark needed a release from the stress of my illness, but when he would go out for a drink with his brother, I found myself full of anxiety. I knew Mark was an attractive, healthy twenty-nine year old with a normal sex drive. I couldn’t fight back my concern, what if some hot woman made a move on him? I knew he had needs and I wasn’t meeting them. I tried to shove these thoughts from my mind. I told myself I trusted my husband; that my anxiety while normal was silly. And it was. Mark loved me and was committed to our family. I knew that, but it didn’t stop me from feeling like damaged goods and undesirable.”
Her advice to others suffering, “I feel it is so important for women going through cancer, especially gynecological cancer, to remember they will experience a wide range of emotions. All of them are normal and none of them should ever be suppressed. Suppressing emotions is unhealthy and has physical and psychological consequences. Allow yourself the permission to feel what you feel, even if it seems irrational to others and move on. Talk about your feelings. Find at least one person: counselor, friends, partner, parent, who you can bare your sole to. The only way to move beyond emotions to a solid foundation is to explore them.
Do your own research. Ask your healthcare provider the tough and uncomfortable questions. Remember, while your healthcare provider may be an expert on the disease; you are the expert of yourself. You know what matters to you and what type of life you want to live; tell your healthcare provide so they can tailor a treatment plan that’s right for you.
Stay connected to who you are and what you like to do. Finding time to take part in hobbies and activities you enjoy is important to not losing yourself and your identity.
Your loved ones want to help you; allow them to. Being a caregiver can be difficult because often these people feel helpless. They have no control over your disease or the way you chose to treat it. They love you and want to make you better so give them things to do: prepare a meal, sit with you, walk a dog, run an errand, etc. Everyone wins here; you get support and they feel needed, like they are making a difference.”
Michelle’s life today, “I am married to an amazing, loving and supportive man, Mark. We have two children both gifts to us, each with a unique story: Riley-Grier, 3, our biological child was born via gestational carrier after I lost my uterus to cancer and Shelby-Kay, 19, is a biological niece whom I helped raise and has chosen to call me mom. Being a mom is so much more than I could have ever imagined and I’m so blessed to be their guide in this life. Motherhood is the most important and rewarding job ever.
We with all live in Arlington, TN with are two four-legged friends, George and Charlee. We are so happy and blessed with a beautiful new home in which to make memoirs. I have the privilege of sharing my story, heartache and blessing with the world in hopes that someday no other woman will lose her life or fertility to this preventable disease. I get to use my voice to help remove the stigma associated with the HPV virus so no one else suffers alone in shame, embarrassment, fear, or pain. All of these things fill my life with passion and joy. I am living my best life.”
Michelle talked about rehabilitation.
Her healing process, “I had to turn inward and exam myself—thoughts, feeling, beliefs, expectations, desires, etc. I had to rip down all the emotional walls I had spent a life time building and learn to let others in and ask for what I want and need.
The journey was mentally and physically painful and yet freeing at the same time. My husband and I had an active sex life before cancer but afterwards it was non-existent. We tiptoed around the subject at first, and insecurity and anxiety crept into our life bringing distance with it. Then I decided to take back control. I convinced myself that having a healthy sex life would take work. It would be a tough job but I had to go through the pain if I was ever going to enjoy sex again.
Before cancer sex was something we did, an instinct we acted on. Now it was something we had to talk about. My husband and I had to relearn my body. Cancer changed it and it didn’t feel the same. We explored together slowly. I learned to provide feedback about what I wanted him to do or not do. He had to put aside his ego and listen for directions...that was challenging for him. He doesn’t like to be told what to do.
We spent time naked cuddling together, kissing, holding, and caressing each other without the pressure of performing a sexual act. This stimulated trust, understanding, intimacy on a new level and eventually desire followed. I asked my healthcare providers for suggestions on dealing with my physically challenges: my vagina was only two inches deep and I didn’t have any natural lubrication any more. I was afraid of the pain I would experience with penetration and I stressed that Mark would not enjoy being inside me anymore. In time I wrapped my brain around the idea that the vagina is a muscle. It stretches for childbirth and therefore could stretch for sex. I was given a set of dilators to length my vagina and increase the diameter. I shared them with Mark and asked him to join in. We dilated while watching TV and made jokes about it. I told him I was making him a custom fit vagina. The laughter helped lighten our mood and made it easier to talk about. We tried different lubricants, who knew there were so many options out there.
When I wanted to give up, he let me, for a while. Then he would remind me practice makes perfect and all good things in life take work. Eventually we were able to discover new tricks and move beyond the pain to experience an active sexual life again. This experience showed us the true depth of our love, the strength of our bond, and intimacy we had never known before.”
Her purpose motivates her.
She shared, “My belief that I am here for a reason and that my job is to explore the experiences that I am given, both good and bad for the lessons and growth opportunities. I read a saying once on a metro in DC that said, ‘The next four years are going to go by no matter what. The only question is will you be in the same place you are today?’ That struck a chord in me and I have never forgotten it. In my darkest hours I tell myself, I can do anything for a (# of days or years). I can do anything for 6 weeks (chemo and radiation). I can do anything for five minutes (getting through that first penetrative sexual experience after cancer w/ a glass of wine...LOL). I can do anything I set my mind to. Sitting here I am reminded of the story I read my daughter tonight, The Little Engine that Could. That train said the same thing, ‘I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.’ My grandmother, my angel, use to read that same story to me and instilled a belief in me that all things are possible with goals, action, and tenacity.”
Her closing words, “My battle with HPV and cervical cancer was terrible and no other woman should ever suffer from this preventable disease that kills woman, robs many of their fertility and can damage their self-image and sexual life. I feel blessed to have survived and to be a mother today; educating others about this disease and fertility options and removing the stigma associated with HPV is my passion. No one should suffer alone. I truly believe it is my duty and my purpose to share my story with others. Every time I tell my vagina stories and when another person opens up and shares one back with me, I am elated. We all have them but not everyone is comfortable sharing. I have found sharing the journey of my lady parts gives others the permission they feel they need to share back. Gynecological cancer is still hush, hush in comparison to other cancers like breast cancer. Today, everyone knows pink is for breast cancer. I want to paint this world teal. I want women everywhere to tear down the walls we whisper behind and grab a megaphone and come out on their front porch to talk about their vagina stories and lady parts including gynecological cancer, HPV, sexual experiences, etc. I am honored to be a part of this movement.”