Alice Steingold lost her life to cervical cancer in 1993 but chose not to shout about her time on the battle field. Now she is back — and open about her agonising recovery, including the tumours removed from her vagina
It’s about time I was brave enough to fight back. When I first found out I had cervical cancer, I didn’t ask questions. I was determined to deal with it quietly. I’d have given it a few years before I got help. I wasn’t prepared to disclose details of the disease.
I was 20 years old when I was diagnosed. My parents were devastated but supportive. They cried when I told them my treatment plan. I chose not to ask them anything. We tried to maintain as normal a life as possible.
A planned commitment to Royal Ascot, with my horse, Beatrix McQueen, meant long, stressful days for me and my mother. Mum came down with pneumonia and, while I was caring for her, Mum could only watch on as I felt my marriage crumble and then divorce. I felt on my own and I felt totally alone.
Seven weeks after treatment was over, the result was dreadful. I had five benign tumours, including two that I now know were the precursors to cervical cancer. At 26 years old, I was losing my husband, my job, my friends, my home. Everything was in bits.
I went to a specialist with details of where the disease had been found. She told me to forget about the bad news and get some mail because, one day, I would be on a piece of paper that detailed everything the clinic knew.
What followed were two years of intense counselling, including sessions that saw me through my menstrual cycle to include my cancer’s early stages. The messages from women suffering from the disease and those who had lost loved ones were more personal than I had expected.
I chose not to ask questions. I was determined to deal with it quietly
There was a woman who was pregnant when she was told of her cancer, a 10-year-old girl who had survived mastectomies. They were encouraging messages that helped me go on with treatment.
I lost everything in my 20s. It was a catastrophe. It changed everything. At 32, I became a lesbian. I met two other women and was happy. Then, in my 40s, I met a beautiful woman called Joe and we got married. But Joe later died of cancer, too. That was a hard time for me. I buried myself in research, attending parties and enjoying my life.
By now, I was on the last stages of my health insurance. I spoke to a benefits adviser and she told me I’d lost my life savings and had to pay it back — plus interest. Life was going to be so hard for me and my children. I knew there was nothing else I could do.
I think I made the right decision: to not fight the battle but to learn how to deal with the outcome. But it meant years of feeling that the priority in life was to survive and not to lose hope. Since I am open about the details of my recovery now, I feel that something good has come out of it.
I wanted to tell people about my cancer because I think it’s my duty to make people understand how vital research is and to stop people having to go through what I went through, or what someone else went through. But I didn’t want to tell them all. I felt awkward at first but, five years on, people in the learning groups are so supportive. I feel like I’ve owed it to the survivors who have had their privacy smashed to pieces to offer some advice and support.
I am so grateful for those who have helped me. I do not think it will get any easier for anyone. But I hope the research and information you get as a survivor can save others.
I love women. I don’t think there is anything more beautiful than a woman’s face. I also know that, after this disease has taken your life, it can take your best attributes, too. So, my message to women reading this: consider every decision you make carefully. Take care of yourself and stand up for yourself. I’m feeling good now.
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