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Local woman shares her story of cervical cancer

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HENDERSON COUNTY—If you were to ask local business owner Ashley Humble what her suggestion for women’s health would be, she would tell you to always listen to your body and do not Google your symptoms. 
After trying for two years, Humble and her husband Beau, found out they were pregnant with their third child in July 2020. “We were elated. Everything in our lives was going great. I was one of the top sales agents in insurance at my job, Beau was managing the Athens Chamber of Commerce board, the Administrator for a local nursing home and doing the best he could with the COVID-19 crisis. We had two beautiful daughters already. Life was great or as great as it could be in 2020,” says Humble. 
Humble’s elation quickly turned to worry when after multiple days of vomiting up to 20 times a day and a hospitalization, she was diagnosed with Hyperemesis Gravidarum. “I was unable to work and placed on bedrest. During my first trimester, I was in and out of the hospital several times for dehydration, weight loss, low iron and cardiac problems,” Humble said. At around 15 weeks, the Hyperemesis improved, although it never fully resolved until after she gave birth. “That pregnancy was unlike any other I had experienced. I was constantly ill, had heart complications, was on a heart monitor, developed anemia, in bed almost 24/7 and generally just felt bad all of the time,” said Humble. Humble said what kept her going was the thought of holding her third baby girl in her arms. Knowing life would soon return to normal once she was born, she says she had no idea the trials they were about to face. 
After an uneventful birth in March, she and her husband were soon back home and adjusting to life as a family of five. When Humble’s post-pregnancy bleeding was still extremely heavy several weeks after delivery, she chalked it up to being four years older than the last time she had given birth and moved on.  
Once she was cleared for normal activity, Humble says she was on Cloud 9. However, something in her body still wasn’t right and she made an appointment with her primary care physician. After running labs, he suggested Humble see a Rheumatologist. “My inflammation markers were elevated, causing my hands and lower back to be very stiff and my joints to ache. At this point, I couldn’t twist off baby bottle lids and even needed my husband’s assistance to tie my shoes,” explains Humble. 
The Rheumatologist looked over Humble’s labs and diagnosed her with an auto-immune disorder and arthritis. There wasn’t much he could do, he said, just to continue taking over the counter anti-inflammatory medication to help manage symptoms. Humble says she left that day feeling defeated. “Another day, another diagnosis. Would this ever get better or would it just get worse? But hey, at least it’s not cancer, right?” stated Humble.
Her physical exhaustion and joint pain progressively got worse, so the decision was made as a family for Humble to stay at home and raise her youngest daughter. “As a licensed insurance agent, I am blessed that I have the option to work completely from home. My husband had already started Humble Insurance, LLC, the year prior and we decided that I would take on the task of expanding the business and running it full time while raising our newest little one. We knew this would allow me time to rest when needed and would be best for my physical and mental health as well,” Humble said. She resigned from her job as a captive agent with a local insurance agency, packed up her office and started her new journey working from home. Humble says that, “God really knew what he was doing in orchestrating that move for me, because another diagnosis was looming right around the corner.”
In early June, a couple of weeks before Humble’s 33rd birthday, she noticed she was having irregular bleeding, especially after intercourse. She says, “As a woman, it’s drilled into your head that you should see a doctor for any type of irregular bleeding.” At first, she thought her menstrual cycles were thrown off from having just given birth or maybe this had to do with her autoimmune disorder? She says she experienced bouts of irregular bleeding in the past from ruptured ovarian cysts but this wasn’t painful. It was just... happening. The last Pap smear Humble had was in 2020 and the current medical guidelines state that in young and healthy women, this test is only needed every three years. With the last test producing normal results, she says her brain was certain her irregular bleeding was no true cause for concern. “My God and my gut told me otherwise though and I picked up the phone to make an appointment with my primary care physician,” says Humble. In a semi-state of worry and panic, the receptionist informed her that the soonest she could be seen would be the middle of the following month. 29 days later, Humble says she anxiously walked into her doctor’s office for the Pap smear that would change her entire world. 
After explaining her symptoms to her physician, the test was administered and Humble was told that the results would be in sometime the following week. “I bled during and after the test but was comforted in knowing my smear in 2020 was clear, I was young and healthy and after everything I had been through in the past year there was no way this was cancer. What are the odds?” Humble thought.  
The following Wednesday Humble received a phone call from her physician. Once she answered, she says her heart sank. It wasn’t the nurse, it was the doctor. 
“You have atypical glandular cells showing on your pap smear results. They can be aggressive. I need you to see a gynecologist for further testing. This is rare and isn’t something I have seen a lot in my practice,” Humble’s doctor said. She recalls so much more being said but it was all a blur. After discussing specialist options and exchanging goodbyes, Humble says she immediately phoned her husband. “No answer. I texted him. No response. After what seemed like an eternity but was only about 15 minutes, he called me back. I told him he needed to come home right away so we could discuss my test results,” Humble recalls. 
Humble says that having atypical glandular cells by itself isn’t an official cancer diagnosis but it was certainly scary. She remembers sitting on the bed with her husband Beau and crying. “He held me, stroked my face and wiped my tears, reassuring me that no matter what we were facing, he was going to stay by my side and fight with me every step of the way,” Humble said. 
We left for a long-awaited family vacation to the beach which I bled profusely during the entire trip. It required multiple stops to rest and clean up. Humble balked at an appointment two weeks out. The frustration was mounting in not having immediate answers, bleeding constantly and knowing something was potentially spreading in her body which was wearing on her. “After scheduling the appointment, I decided I had to make the best out of this vacation. I didn’t know when I’d be able to experience this magical time with my children again and wanted to truly soak in every second of joy with them. I’m so glad I did,” Humble said. 
After returning from Galveston Humble’s first visit to the specialist was only a consultation, to establish her as a new patient. During that visit, an ultrasound was ordered which showed she had a thickened endometrial lining. Because of this, the doctor ordered a colposcopy. 
“When the receptionist told me my colposcopy procedure wouldn’t be until the end of the month, I almost started to cry. She must not understand... I had cancer symptoms. I was terrified. I had a husband and three kids to take care of,” Humble thought. She says she learned one of many lessons that day, having cancer symptoms or cancer does not always move you to the front of the line. This is not a medical drama on television and things just don’t work that way in real life. 
After a week, she called the office to see if they had any cancellations or if there was any way they could move up her colposcopy appointment. Humble says they were able to work her in the following week. She felt relieved. She says she could finally get answers and be told she didn’t have cancer, that it was just some abnormal cells and there was nothing to worry about.
During a colposcopy, a vinegar-based solution is used to wash the cervix. This solution reveals any abnormal looking parts on the surface of the cervix, so the physician can then take snippets of those areas off for testing. “I had three surface snippets removed, plus two deeper biopsies taken from my endometrial lining. This doctor once again reassured me, saying “you are young and healthy. I will honestly be shocked if this is cancer. Try not to worry,” Humble says. 
Humble said it took ten long days for her test results to come in. Every day she grew more and more anxious. Lesson number two: Stay off of Google. As tempting as it is, it will only tell you that all your organs are going to fall out and you are about to suffer and drop dead. 
The gynecologist’s office called Aug. 12, stating that Humble’s test results were in and they wanted to see her the next day to discuss the results. 
Humble was able to bring her husband, despite COVID precautions not allowing any visitors into the clinic. After hanging up, she opened her Patient Portal to see if, by chance, the test results had been posted. They had been. “As I read the words on my phone screen I wanted to yell, I wanted to scream, I wanted to cry. Have you ever had so many emotions coursing through your body all at once that you couldn’t pick just one? For me, that is how my cancer diagnosis felt,” explains Humble. ‘Endocervical Adenocarcinoma’ was found in all three surface level biopsies but not in the endometrial lining biopsies, Humble says. She doesn’t remember the rest of the day. At some point she phoned her husband, her mother and best friends but she doesn’t have any recollection of making those calls. 
The following afternoon, Humble and her husband walked hand in hand into the clinic. “I could tell he was nervous. He was talking a lot, fidgeting and slightly disgruntled. Any husband who is about to hear the words “your wife has cancer” would feel the same way. He is a fixer and he knew he couldn’t fix this,” Humble says. The doctor walked in and confirmed the diagnosis Humble had already read, stating “You are the 1%. I had to go back and read in my medical journals about this specific cancer. It just doesn’t happen in women your age. We usually only see this in post-menopausal women.” 
Humble said the doctor told her the next step would be an excisional cone biopsy and scheduling an appointment with an oncologist. During this procedure, the patient is anesthetized and a cone shaped portion is removed from the woman’s cervix. This reveals how invasive the cancer is and how far it has spread. Humble says she had this surgery less than a week after she received her colposcopy test results. Things were moving quicker now and she was happy and sad at the same time. Happy that it was being taken seriously, yet sad that she was suddenly thrust into the world of being a cancer patient. Humble says that, “We prayed and decided to share my diagnosis on social media. I wanted to spread awareness about cervical cancer and advocate for women’s health. What followed was an overwhelming amount of prayers, love and support.” She says she is thankful for each of those people for helping her get through this incredibly difficult time. 
Humble says the cone biopsy surgery was tough because it wasn’t an easy recovery. There were no complications but she was not allowed to lift her newborn daughter for several weeks. Humble’s mother, drove back and forth from the Dallas/Fort Worth area to their home in Athens nearly every day to care for Humble and her grandbaby. One friend started a meal train for Humble and her husband and people from all over showered the family with meals and sweet treats for her girls, making sure Humble could rest and that her family was still taken care of. 
After three weeks, the results from the cone biopsy came in. The sample had to be sent to three separate pathologists and they could not agree on what type of cancer Humble officially had, nor how close the margins were. “After finding that out, I knew I needed to seek specialized treatment. I was blessed that the amazing M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston agreed to take on my case,” says Humble. The third lesson learned, you must be your own advocate. Take your symptoms seriously. My cancer is rare indeed and I knew I needed to fight for myself in order to see the best of the best. 
“So many things started happening after we shared our story and scheduled my first appointment at M.D. Anderson,” Humble stated. She continued, “My childhood best friend started a GoFundMe for my medical expenses and another best friend created a t-shirt fundraiser. People are truly amazing when you’re going through struggles. Never underestimate your community.” She says learning to accept help wasn’t easy for her but it’s something she’s learned she has to do once you’re diagnosed with cancer.
Humble says her first appointment at M.D. Anderson was eye opening. She and her husband learned that with this type of cancer, it is aggressive and can cause ‘skip lesions.’ Endocervical Adenocarcinoma cells can skip over healthy tissue and implant higher up into the reproductive system, making eradicating it with biopsies or tissue removal procedures alone impossible. “Because of this, I will need a hysterectomy at 33-years-old,” said Humble. 
Humble says the doctors at M.D. Anderson want to do their own biopsy, due to the close margins on the cone biopsy. She is hopeful to avoid chemotherapy and radiation treatments following the Loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP) which uses a wire loop heated by electric current to remove cells and tissue biopsy. “We have many friends battling cancer much worse than mine and watching them suffer the effects of those treatments breaks my heart and also makes me grateful at the same time,” Humble explains. 
“Having cancer at any age, feels devastating,” Humble said. “It is truly a whirlwind of emotion. Some days I even forget I have cancer, until a painful reminder pops up in the form of my hair thinning from stress, breakthrough bleeding, remembering why I’m so fatigued all the time or having an appointment reminder text come through on my phone. Other days it is all I can think about and it steals hours and days of my time. Despite these factors, I wake up every day thankful. Thankful that my cancer was caught relatively early because I listened to my body, thankful to play with my beautiful daughters and thankful to share a sweet kiss with my supportive husband of almost 10 years. I am especially thankful knowing God holds tomorrow and that he has never left my side on this journey,” said Humble. 
Humble shares this message for women: “As women we are conditioned to take care of everyone else around us before our own needs. Please remember, you must put on your own oxygen mask first before you can help others.” 
Cervical cancer risk factors include a history of HPV, smoking and having a weakened immune system, among other things. Less than 200,000 cases are diagnosed per year. Sometimes there are zero symptoms. She urges women to get their Pap smears and for men to encourage the women in their life to take care of themselves. Most importantly, Humble says to, “Always listen to your body, don’t Google, fight for yourself and fight for your life.”