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“Knowing the facts is important”: A conversation with cervical cancer survivor

Kiara L. Bell, who was diagnosed with cervical cancer as a teenager, shares her story of survivorship.

Professional headshot of woman smiling After a regular gynecological checkup in 2005, Kiara L. Bell learned she was early stages of cervical cancer. (Kiara L. Bell)

By Amy Lacey and Teya Whitehead

January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. According to the American Cancer Society, cervical cancer was once one of the most common causes of cancer death for American women. However, the mortality rate dropped significantly with the increased use of the Pap test and a better understanding of human papillomavirus, more commonly known as HPV.

Kiara L. Bell is a cervical cancer survivor who was diagnosed at age 16.

The following interview was first published in the Brunswick Times-Gazette through a partnership with VCU Massey Cancer Center.

Ms. Bell, thank you for being willing to share your story of survivorship. Can you tell our readers what you learned during your cancer treatment?

Bell: I would like to thank you for the opportunity to share my journey. At 16, I was planning for my high school graduation, ordering my cap and gown and class ring, scheduling my SAT and preparing myself for college life. In August 2005, my life changed. I went for my regular gynecological checkup, and a week later, my doctor reached out to inform me that my Pap test was abnormal. After several biopsies between May and July, I learned that I had cervical cancer in its early stages. At that point, I had heard of cervical cancer but thought diagnoses were in older women. I was wrong.

I learned a great deal during this time: What is cervical cancer? How did I get it? Is it preventable? I had so many questions. During this journey, I learned about HPV and the strains that can lead to cervical cancer. I also discovered that skin-to-skin contact can transmit HPV, but the vaccine can offer protection from strains of the virus that can cause cancer. I also discovered that, depending on the severity level, not all cancer diagnoses result in death. If caught early enough, some cancers can be treated, including with surgery or chemotherapy.

What type of treatment did you receive?

Bell: My treatment lasted a year. I received the HPV vaccine. I also had to undergo a LEEP procedure that involved my doctor using a heated wire loop to remove abnormal cells from my cervix. I had no side effects, just a little discomfort and scar tissue. Plus, the doctor advised that in the future I will be able to have children.

Why should women stay up to date on their Pap tests and annual gynecological exams?

Women should stay up to date on their Pap tests and gynecological exams because they're important and can save lives. They saved mine. I was only 16 years old. Not having any symptoms or signs while your body is going through these changes is scary. I can’t express it enough. Keep your annual visit with your doctor; it could save your life. Know your family history too. I had no family history of cervical cancer, only breast cancer. I learned about my cancer because of a routine screening.

Why should families consider the HPV vaccine for both girls and boys?

Bell: Knowing the facts is important. If you are not sure, ask questions, do research, talk with your doctors and learn as much as you can. Understanding how important the HPV vaccine is and how it can protect against strains of HPV that cause cervical cancer is key. Educating yourself and your children is definitely lifesaving.

I am grateful for my support system and the prayers I received. I did not let my cancer diagnosis stop my mission. I graduated from Greensville County High School, went on to receive my bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Norfolk State University and then continued my education. I received my master’s degree in digital forensics and cyber investigation from the University of Maryland Global Campus, and I am currently a lead cyber security risk analyst.

Thank you for sharing your story and stressing the importance of the HPV vaccine and screening, Ms. Bell.

Learn more about cervical cancer and our gynecological cancer care team by heading to VCU Massey Cancer Center’s website.

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