Her exam at 29 weeks showed stage 1 cervical cancer and a lesion nearly 1.5 centimeters long
Gina Zapata-Murphy was sitting down for dinner when she got the call that would change her life.
As the working mom of a three-year-old girl, Gina Zapanta-Murphy, 34, didn’t have time for complications during her second pregnancy.
She knew every pregnancy was different and told herself not to worry, but Gina never got that burst of energy she was expecting in her second trimester. In fact, she was so tired that she spent her 35th birthday in bed, and soon after she noticed a clear, watery discharge that was out of the norm for her.
Over the next few weeks, that discharge became so heavy that she needed to wear a pad. After developing a low-grade fever, Gina had a frightening thought: What if her amniotic sac had ruptured and was leaking fluid this whole time?
She called her doctor at PIH Health Women’s Health Center in Whittier, California, who directed her to Labor and Delivery for a pelvic exam. After a series of tests and an ultrasound, OB/GYN Brent J. Gray, M.D., and his team tested the fluid and confirmed that her amniotic sac was intact.
They had, however, noticed a little polyp that was biopsied and sent for testing. Gina spent Friday night in the hospital for observation and was released the next morning.
The biopsy results came in three days later, and Gina was sitting down for dinner when she got the call that would change her life. Rather than asking her to come in to break the news, OBGYN Sacha Kang Chou, M.D., told Gina right then that the lesion was in fact cervical cancer.
“Like most people who don't have cancer in their lives, I thought cancer equals death sentence,” Gina recalls. But her assumption was wrong: according to the American Cancer Society, the rate of cervical cancer deaths have plummeted 50 percent over the last 40 years thanks to the increased use of regular Pap smears.
After that phone call, Gina scheduled an appointment with her new gynecologic oncologist, Samuel Im, M.D., for two days later. In the meantime, she spent her time pragmatically planning for the worst: Did she have a will? Was her life insurance up to date? Who would help her husband raise the kids?
Though cervical cancer is notoriously slow-growing, being pregnant can kick its growth into high gear due to an increase in blood flow and major hormonal changes. Six weeks into her pregnancy, a pelvic exam had shown no signs of the disease.
But her exam at 29 weeks showed stage 1 cervical cancer and a lesion nearly 1.5 centimeters long—that meant Gina’s cancer was growing aggressively, and every day her baby was left to gestate was another day for the cancer to grow. Because of her pregnancy, doctors couldn’t use an MRI to monitor its growth (images are tough to interpret with a fetus in the picture), nor could they physically examine her cancer until the baby was born.
With nothing else to do, Gina says her doctors decided to keep an eye on the cancer the best they could, and would aim to deliver as early as possible without putting the baby in harm’s way.
Unfortunately, things didn’t get better from there: At her follow-up appointment two weeks later, Gina learned that her lesion was now nearly 2 centimeters long. The cancer was growing too fast, so Dr. Im decided to push the due date to 34 weeks—they would deliver via C-section and immediately perform a hysterectomy to remove the localized cancer.
Even though it was scary, Gina started preparing for her early delivery under the guidance of the PIH Health Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) team. “My priority is being around for my girls as long as I’m able to,” she says. “If they had to take off my limbs, I’d have said, ‘Take them off. Do whatever you need to do.’”
After receiving a betamethasone course—two shots of antenatal steroids—prior to the delivery to stimulate growth in the baby’s lungs, delivery day arrived. Gina underwent a series of back-to-back surgeries with obstetricians, surgeons, and oncologists all in the room.
“I begged to stay awake for the delivery, and they let me see my baby girl before I went under for the hysterectomy,” she says. “I remember kissing her little warm face. The next thing I knew, I was waking up in recovery.”
Just 24 hours later, Gina was nursing baby Valentina in the NICU when her final pathology report came back: It was cancer-free. And although she says “the recovery felt like a regular C-section recovery,” it was anything but: Doctors removed her uterus, fallopian tubes, and pelvic lymph nodes, but were able to save her ovaries and keep her from going into immediate menopause. Gina was overjoyed with the news, but knowing she’d never be pregnant again left a sting.
“I'm not going to cry about it, though,” she says. “Some people aren’t even able to get pregnant. I was lucky enough to have my two girls.”
The mental aftermath of remission isn’t all rainbows and sunshine, though: Every time she has an ache or pain, Gina worries that her disease could be back. But being vigilant about looking into those warning signs isn’t a bad thing: The five-year survival rate for women with cervical cancer is 68 percent, but when it’s detected at an early stage while the cancer is still localized, it jumps to 92 percent.
Regardless, Gina’s advice for all women—whether they be young, old, pregnant or not—is the same: “Don't be scared to face going to the doctor and hearing something that you might not want to hear,” she says. “Be proactive.” It could very well save your life.