Two weeks into my time at the Stratford Festival I got a phone call. I was sitting in their cafeteria (called the Green Room, which I find confusing) at lunch, surrounded by people I can now call friends. My phone doesn’t usually ring in the middle of the day and the number was blocked. I took a chance and answered the phone. It was Gayle Veira, the nurse from the gynecology department at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. ‘You’re clear,’ she said, ‘you no longer have to come back here for biopsies. Continue seeing your family doctor and good luck with everything,’. I was elated but subdued.
I have HPV. For five years, since September 2013, I’ve been tested for cervical cancer every 6 months. Tested meaning biopsies. I have had over a dozen appointments where a small tissue sample was plucked from my cervix (yes, it’s painful) to test for abnormal pre-cancerous cells. For three and a half years the tests came back inconclusive and I had to return for more biopsies. One year I had an endometrial biopsy and, let me tell you, the pain is off the scale. I remember Gayle sidling up to me and holding my hand with the warning that this one was going to hurt. Do you know how scary it is to have a nurse warn you about approaching pain? Stoicism is not your friend when a pincer penetrates the endometrial lining. The two ibuprofen I’d taken an hour before were useless.
More than 70% of sexually active adults have HPV. There are over 100 strains, of which 13 are cancer-causing; I am infected with one of the high-risk strains. If you have undetected cervical cancer you’ll be asymptomatic until it’s too late. Once you start experiencing symptoms like pelvic pain, abnormal bleeding, and frequent urination you may be Stage-three or four. When Gina Wilkinson died in 2010 it was a wake up call for me and I never missed a Pap smear appointment afterwards.
If you’re old enough to get a Pap smear then you’re old enough to hate them and hopefully, endure the discomfort to do it. After three weeks of excruciating pain and heavy bleeding I made an appointment for a Pap smear. The doctor looked at my chart and said I wasn’t due for one until 18 months later but relented when I insisted I get it done early. I was sitting in the Winter Garden on September 11, 2013 ready to watch a TIFF film when I got the call saying, ‘your tests came back with abnormal cell development and you need a colposcopy.’
Since that day I’ve been diagnosed with pre-cancerous lesions that had to be removed by the Loop Electrosurgical Excision Procedure LEEP, consumed an unhealthy amount of Advil and Johnnie Walker to dull the pain, and written 7 plays. It’s remarkable how prodigious you can be when you think death is sitting in your living room. Through it all I have developed an optimism that keeps me buoyed. In spite of everything that’s happened, I am a very happy person. I have boundless gratitude for the life that I still have because as Stephen Hawking said, ‘However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. Where there’s life, there is hope.’ None of us are here for very long so eat the butter tart, sleep in, submit that play, and take the leap because you never know where you'll land.