Her Pap Test Was Normal—But She Did Have Cervical Cancer

by Katherine Malmo Health Writer

Carolann Tebbetts didn’t think she was at high risk for cervical cancer or the human papillomavirus (HPV), the sexually transmitted infection that can lead to the disease.

“I'm an upper-middle class woman who's been married to the same partner for 30-plus years," Carolann, a 52-year-old artist and art teacher, says. "I [didn't think I had] any of the demographic background that would normally be a flag for cervical cancer.”

But at the age of 43, she noticed some unexpected bleeding. Her doctor ran some tests, including a Pap test to screen for cervical cancer that came back normal, and the doctor passed off the bleeding as a symptom of perimenopause.

Five years later, when Carolann’s periods became so intense she worried that she would pass out, she went in for an ablation procedure to clear the tissue from her uterus. That’s when the doctor found a two-centimeter tumor on her cervix.

Carolann Tebbetts
Carolann Tebbetts

Now, Carolann speaks with HealthCentral about her surprising diagnosis and what she’s learned about cervical cancer and its surrounding misconceptions.

HealthCentral (HC): What happened when you noticed the first symptoms five years before your diagnosis?

Carolann Tebbetts: Bleeding is one of the first symptoms people notice with cervical cancer. And it's strange because the first time it happened, I was a little worried. The second time it happened, I Googled it and sat there in the middle of the night saying, "Oh my God, I've got cervical cancer." So, I went to my primary care doctor the very next day, and they kind of laughed at me and said, "This would be a really strange diagnosis. You've been with your husband for 30 years; you really don't have much to worry about."

HC: How did the Pap test miss the tumor on your cervix?

Carolann: The tumor was too high up in the cervical canal for a typical Pap smear to find.

Overall, I was very lucky they found the tumor during the ablation. The oncologist said that if they hadn’t found it, I would have continued to have clear Paps. Furthermore, I didn't need to have another Pap test for another two or three years. If I had waited that long, the cancer would have been more advanced and at a much higher stage.

HC: What do you wish people knew about cervical cancer?

Carolann: The number one thing I would say is to not stereotype yourself and assume it can't happen to you, because it can. I think the main reason mine wasn't caught earlier was because every medical person was looking at me as the kind of person this doesn't happen to.

However, HPV is so prevalent that if you've ever had one partner who's had one other partner, you can get it. And it lies dormant for so long. Neither my husband or I have had an affair, so it’s likely it was a previous partner of his that gave the virus to him and he gave it to me. Then it sat dormant for years.

HC: Is your experience of being diagnosed despite normal Pap tests unusual?

Carolann: It’s something I hear about more and more — Pap tests come back normal, and only when the symptoms become overwhelming does the person go back to the doctor. Then it's diagnosed when the tumor becomes visible to the naked eye during a colposcopy or potentially even a regular exam, as opposed to a Pap smear. I think this is why HPV testing — good HPV testing — is so critical.

HC: What support did you receive during treatment that was particularly meaningful?

Carolann: I have a friend who bought a pillow for me. She knew I liked the art nouveau style, so it was an art nouveau floral-patterned pillow. She just wanted me to have something beautiful and soft during my recuperation. It seems like such a small thing, but it really made a difference.

Another lifesaver during that time was our library bookmobile. The librarians would come to my home, and after the first couple weeks, they knew the type of books I was looking for. They would come in and visit and bring suggested readings. It was huge because I couldn't get to the library, and I was off work, so I didn't want to order books. My husband was at work, my kids were in high school, so I didn't see them most of the day. Having somebody from the library come in every few days made a huge difference. It framed the day and gave me something to look forward to.

Interview has been edited lightly for clarity.

Katherine Malmo
Meet Our Writer
Katherine Malmo

Katherine Malmo is a freelance writer and author who was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer 13 years ago. Her memoir, “Who in This Room: The Realities of Cancer, Fish, and Demolition,” was published in 2011 and a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. These days, she lives in Seattle and writes mostly about cancer and advances in cancer treatments.