When Sylvia Zaro, 48, had her children vaccinated against the human papillomavirus (HPV) at the advice of her pediatrician, she didn’t fully understand the significance. Then, a routine Pap test revealed that she had an HPV infection herself. Within a year, the infection turned into cervical cancer.
Thankfully, Sylvia’s cancer was caught at an early stage. She underwent a simple hysterectomy at MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas in 2016, which successfully removed her cancer and now is a staunch advocate for regular cervical cancer screenings and HPV vaccinations. Sylvia, a high school secretary in Texas, even made it a point to share her story with the entire school staff. As a result, other coworkers confided in her that they, too, had HPV, and were glad to have someone to talk to about it.
Sylvia spoke with HealthCentral about how her diagnosis reinforced her belief in regular screenings and vaccinations, and why she chose to go public about her diagnosis.
HealthCentral (HC): How did you discover you had cervical cancer?
Sylvia Zaro: It was during my annual Pap smear. I am a strong believer in routine exams and regular screenings. I have done mammograms and Pap smears faithfully since I was old enough to do them. That’s the reason I was diagnosed early.
HC: How did HPV and cervical cancer diagnosis impact your feelings about your kids' HPV vaccinations?
Sylvia: In 2016, when my cancer was discovered, my daughter had already finished her three rounds of HPV vaccinations. My 12-year-old son had started the series but hadn’t completed it yet due to his fear of needles. I am a strong believer that everything happens for a reason, and my diagnosis pushed my son to finally finish getting his vaccines and helped several of my friends to start up having their annual Pap smears again.
When I told my son my diagnosis, I explained why it was so important for him to finish out the series. While women can get cervical cancer from HPV, in males it can show up as genital warts or even cancer in the throat or neck. It is avoidable. This is why it’s crucial to get your children vaccinated.
HC: How were you treated?
Sylvia: At that point, I switched to MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas. I had a cone biopsy to determine the actual size of the cancerous cells. That’s when my anxiety level went up. If the cells were bigger than 3 millimeters, it was going to mean that I would receive a radical hysterectomy, which involved removing part of the vagina and possible radiation and/or chemo. Fortunately, the biopsy revealed the cancerous cell size to be 2 millimeters, and a simple hysterectomy was ordered removing my cervix, uterus, and Fallopian tubes with no further treatment.
Since then, I’ve had checkups every four months. On my second anniversary, I will go to once every six months, and then at three years, I’ll be tested once a year. Hopefully, I will be declared cancer-free at five years.
HC: What did you learn through this experience, and what message do you want to share with others about HPV?
Sylvia: I learned that this is a very common diagnosis in my generation because we didn’t have a vaccine. A lot of women go undetected because they don’t go for their annual Pap smear.
My advice to everyone is to have your tests and encourage all females in your family to do so, too. Cervical cancer can be caught with routine testing and is preventable in youth with the vaccine. If you are sitting on the fence about vaccinating your children, please do it. This cancer is real and easily spread. Thankfully, there is now a vaccine that can prevent our children from getting HPV and possibly cancer.
HC: Why did you decide to share the news of your cancer diagnosis with your coworkers?
When I was diagnosed, I asked the principal at the school where I work if I could notify the entire staff because people should know what can happen and how to avoid it. I know the stigma that comes with HPV; after all, it’s a sexually transmitted disease (STD). But it’s showing up in our generation and a lot of people aren’t having their kids vaccinated. So, I shared everything I knew.
The response and support I received was amazing. People thanked me for my courage to share and said they were guilty of not going for their annual tests.
I hope I encouraged some people to think twice about ignoring their tests and not having their kids vaccinated. Perhaps I even saved a life.