Cervical Cancer Survivor Teaches Others to Speak Out

Written By:Stacy Simon

Editor’s Note: Guidelines on recommended ages to get the HPV vaccine are updated as scientific evidence continues to evolve. Please read the most recent vaccination recommendations here.

Editor’s Note: Cervical cancer screening guidelines are updated as scientific evidence continues to evolve. Please read the most recent screening recommendations here.

Tamika Felder wants her generation to be the last women to ever get cervical cancer. “I don’t want anybody to have to go through what I went through,” she says. As part of her work with the National HPV Vaccination Roundtable, established by the American Cancer Society and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2014, Felder encourages cervical cancer survivors to share the message about protection through vaccination and screening. The organization she founded, Cervivor, helps survivors connect and trains them to speak publicly about the disease.

“I want to help more people know about HPV vaccination and understand that it can help prevent cervical cancer,” said Felder. “Not enough people understand how important this is because not enough cervical cancer survivors are speaking out. My Cervivor School trains people all over the world, and I also speak to communities of color about HPV vaccination, clinical trials, and getting support. Our voices are being heard, not just in the cervical cancer space, but also about cancer in general.”

Tamika’s story

There was no HPV vaccine when Felder was under 18, the age by which the American Cancer Society recommends all girls be vaccinated. For many years, she stayed up-to-date with her Pap tests, which can prevent most cervical cancers by finding abnormal cervix cell changes so they can be treated before they have a chance to turn into cancer. But then Felder’s circumstances changed, and she fell behind in her screening.

After college, she moved from South Carolina to Washington DC to follow her dream of becoming a television producer. She worked freelance jobs covering political, local and national news and was moving into a new full-time position that included health insurance benefits. But when she had a routine medical visit with a new doctor, she had a bad experience.

“I’m a plus-sized woman and I usually have very high self-esteem, but that doctor shamed me and it hurt me,” said Felder. As a result, she avoided going back and missed her next Pap test.

Then one day in 2001, Felder took herself to the emergency room because of a pain under her right arm that turned out to be an abscess. The doctor treating her noticed that Felder’s routine questionnaire indicated she was not up-to-date on cervical cancer screening, and he recommended she see a gynecologist.

Felder did see the gynecologist, and then returned 2 weeks later for a follow-up. The doctor told Felder her Pap test showed she had early stage cervical cancer. She would need surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Felder was just 25.

Cancer as a young adult

Felder got a second opinion, then another one, and then another one, hoping to find a doctor to tell her the other doctors had gotten it wrong and she could keep her uterus. “I didn’t believe the doctor. I thought cancer was death. I didn’t even want to say word ‘cancer’ let alone talk about it,” she said. At age 25, she was unmarried and had no children. Her treatment plan included a radical hysterectomy – the removal of her uterus and cervix, and with it her ability to ever get pregnant.

“It wasn’t something I was prepared to do,” said Felder. “I didn’t want to die, but I’d never even had a broken bone before. This was crazy to me. At the time, I felt like everything I thought made me a woman I had removed. I thought no one would ever want to marry me.”

Even though Felder’s family and friends were kind and helpful, she found they didn’t necessarily understand what she was going through and couldn’t give her all the support she needed. “My friends were starting their careers and getting married and having kids. I was dealing with death and losing my fertility,” said Felder.

‘People like me’

Felder noticed organizations for young adults with cancer getting off the ground, but no one specifically addressing cervical cancer. “I wanted to find other people like me,” she said. So she started her own organization, first called Tamika and Friends, now called Cervivor. On its website, Cervivor describes itself as “a community, a learning tool, an advocacy resource, and an online retreat for healing, connecting and thriving.” It’s a place for women to tell their stories, to connect with and support each other, and to educate women about protecting themselves from cervical cancer.

“I never went into this wanting to be an advocate,” said Felder. “I wanted to get back to my life and never think about cancer again. But once you have cancer, you’re branded as a person who had cancer. If you get a cold, you panic and worry the cancer is back. You can become afraid to live. I choose not to be that person anymore. I want to live life – to taste it, smell it, breathe it.”

“I choose to be happy and I actively work to be happy,” said Felder. “Before I had cancer, if someone hurt my feelings I’d mull over it. Now whatever is causing me pain or making me unhappy – I deal with it and move on. Time is precious. I try to be happy and be with people who make me happy. I don’t hang around negative Nellies.”

14 years after cancer

"I don't know what's going to happen in the future, but I'm going to keep on living. And I'm not taking one step at a time. I'm running."

Tamika Felder

Today, 14 years after her diagnosis, Felder still has no evidence of cancer in her body. She is married and has a 13-year-old stepdaughter. She recently quit her job and has decided to devote herself full-time to cervical cancer advocacy.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but I’m going to keep on living,” said Felder. “And I’m not taking one step at a time. I’m running.”

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Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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