Vulvar Cancer Survivor: ‘I Won’t Let Cancer Define Me’

photo of Melba Lozano

When Melba Lozano was diagnosed with vulvar cancer at age 51, she had never even heard of it. This type of cancer starts in the vulva, which is the outer part of the female genitals. Though Lozano had noticed some soreness and itching, she blamed it on the padding in her cycling shorts. Before her diagnosis, Lozano rode up to 50 miles a day on weekends with a cycling group in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.

It wasn’t until she went for a regular wellness checkup that Lozano’s doctor started to suspect cancer. A Pap test found abnormal cells and led to a biopsy, which confirmed the diagnosis. “I was numb,” said Lozano. “You always have in the back of your mind that you could have cancer, but you never think it’s going to be you.”

The next step was to visit a gynecologic oncologist, a doctor who specializes in cancers of the female reproductive system. He told Lozano vulvar cancer is very rare, especially for someone her age. Her treatment options would depend on the size of the tumor and whether it had spread to other parts of her body. She would need surgery to find that out. The worst case scenario, he said, would be removal of her rectum and bladder.

Christmas break

When Lozano was diagnosed in November 2012, she had just begun a new job as a high school principal. She timed her surgery for the school’s holiday break in order to miss as few work days as possible. Her surgeon suggested waiting until after Christmas, so she could spend it with her family – her husband, 3 children, grandchildren, and parents. She had the surgery at the end of December.

Recovery was painful. After vulvar surgery, some women feel pain when going to the bathroom or having sex. Lozano compared the experience to recovery from an episiotomy after childbirth. Fear of the pain, she said, was as bad as the pain itself. But she began to feel better after 2 weeks, and after 3 weeks had very little pain at all. Today, she says she feels completely normal.

When she returned to school, she was moved by the concern and the support she received from the entire campus. Students had decorated her office with a Christmas tree and ornaments they had personalized with encouraging notes. But she was uncomfortable with the sad faces she saw. “You have to think positive,” she said. “It’s about not feeling sorry for yourself and not allowing anyone else to feel sorry for you either. I’m going to be fine. We’re not going to cry. I’m going to beat this.”

‘I Won’t Let Cancer Define Me’

"I'm not going to let cancer define who I am. I don't want to be known as the lady who got cancer. I want to be known as just who I am."

Melba Lozano

When Lozano received the test results after her surgery, she felt she’d won the toughest battle of her life. The tests showed that her cancer had not spread, and she wouldn’t need any more treatment. But at the end of the school year, she learned she’d lost her job. “My battle with my cancer was much easier than the battle I have with the school district,” she said.

Though Lozano believes she was treated unfairly, she is determined not to dwell on the negative. “Going through cancer is a scary experience,” she says, “But I’ve learned so much – not just about my cancer but all cancer. You never really understand unless you’re in the same situation.”

The hardest part, she says, is fear that the cancer will come back. She deals with the fear by distracting herself with something positive and healthy – reading, swimming, or laughing with friends. “I’m not going to let cancer define who I am,” she said. “I don’t want to be known as the lady who got cancer. I want to be known as just who I am.”

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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