MOUNT AYR — Cassie Hudson, 27 years old and pregnant with her second child, went to her obstetrician for her first pregnancy appointment and, instead, got these words that turned her life upside down for the next six years: “Something doesn’t look right.”
After a cone biopsy confirmed the presence of cervical cancer, Cassie and her husband Matthew were faced with a choice: begin treatment for the cancer now and risk complications for an already-high-risk pregnancy or wait nine months and hope it didn’t spread.
Cassie’s mantra from this first decision all the way through her treatment was, “I’m not going to let cancer take this from me.”
They decided to wait.
Don’t skip your checkup
“If what I went through can convince one woman to go to her appointment ...” Cassie said. “That was my first women’s appointment in five years. It could have been 100% prevented or caught sooner if I had just been responsible.”
After her first child, Samuel, was born, Cassie went to her follow-up OB appointments. She even scheduled her yearly gynecology appointments in the next few years. She just never went to them.
“It’s what? Two minutes of being uncomfortable compared to the five, six years,” Cassie said. “Don’t skip the appointment.”
Cassie and her doctors credit her pregnancy with Paisley for saving her life. She believes she would have kept putting off going to her yearly exams until it was too late. Once cervical cancer reaches the uterus, it is often too far along to stop.
Cassie said she had never had a questionable pap smear before Samuel was born.
“All of them were normal, until it wasn’t,” she said.
Cassie also recommends the human papilloma virus vaccine that was first available in 2006, when Cassie was in her early 20s. The Centers for Disease Control said that HPV is responsible for nearly 100% of cervical cancer.
The vaccine could have prevented her cancer or made it much less devastating.
Two days after Paisley was born, the Hudsons met the man who Cassie calls her “number 2 man.”
Dr. Carl Christi of Mercy Cancer Center came to her hospital room and told them it was time to make a plan.
A week later, they were back in Des Moines for more testing. At that point the cancerous cells seemed to be confined to the cervix, so Cassie, Matthew and the doctors decided the best course of action was to remove the cells and stay vigilant with an appointment every four weeks to see if there were more.
Each time she had a surgery, four major ones and countless minor procedures, the doctors would think they had gotten it all.
For the next five years, Cassie said those monthly appointments and biopsies always found something new.
“I think we walked out [of an appointment] once in five years without bad news,” Cassie said.
Matthew said the waiting between the appointments and the official results were the hardest times throughout the whole ordeal.
“They say they would call you in 10 to 14 days,” Matthew said. “Sometimes it was a day; sometimes it was 16.”
A good cry
Cassie said each time she got bad news, she would let herself have one good cry and then it was time to “pick up and move on.” She said she didn’t want to let her cancer take a toll on her children’s lives.
Paisley was too young to know what was going on, and the Hudsons decided not to tell Samuel until Cassie had a surgery that required her to stay in the hospital for several days.
Along the way, Cassie chose her children over her pain time and time again. Although she had just had surgery, she swore she would not let it keep her from taking Paisley to her first day of preschool. And she didn’t — stomach pillow and all, she walked Paisley to the door.
One thing that Cassie was adamant about was not letting her children see her give up. They had seen her train and been a part of her races.
“They would remember that one race that Mommy didn’t finish,” she said.
Races, and running, were Cassie’s therapy and coping mechanism throughout her cancer.
“It was my lifeline,” she said. “When I would get bad news, I would go run and cry.”
She ran her first half marathon at age 22 and refused to let cancer make her give it up. She trained for half-marathons and a triathlon — one to two hours of running a day, when she could — throughout her battle with cancer, once postponing a surgery so she could compete.
“Dr. Christi was not happy about that,” she said.
Cassie wasn’t able to compete in the triathlon she had been training for because it was only five weeks after one of her surgeries, so Matthew made her her own triathlon with swimming in Summit Lake, 18 miles of biking and a 4-mile run ending in Creston.
He secretly contacted her friends and arranged for them to be along the route to cheer her on. There were friends with signs at least every three miles on the bike route.
Matthew set up a finish line and a barbeque afterwards. Samuel even ran the last 100 meters with her.
Friends along the triathlon route were only a part of the support Cassie received from her family, friends, and the small community of Mount Ayr throughout her treatment.
Her mother Debbie Sickels took her to many appointments. Her sister Jessica Foltz, a nurse at Mercy, was tough enough to get her out of bed and walking after surgery so she could go home.
Matthew’s parents, Barb and Mike Hudson, watched the children, made numerous trips to Mount Ayr from Creston to do seemingly small, but in reality very important, things like take the kids to school, and brought them up to see Cassie in the hospital after surgery because they knew that would be what she needed.
Cassie runs an in-home daycare and the parents supported her through the process, finding alternate providers and coming to sit with her even while she couldn’t watch their children.
Matthew’s construction team took up the slack when he needed to be home with her after surgery and all of the days when she insisted he was home by 5 p.m. so she would have time to run.
The football team used money from a fundraiser to send Cassie a gas card, which they all signed.
Matthew took care of Cassie from the very first OB appointment where they received the bad news, to learning more about “lady parts” than he ever expected, helping her shave her legs on the couch, making sure she didn’t overdo it after surgeries when she was supposed to be limited to carrying 5 pounds or less, driving to pick her up every night after her runs and supporting her during competitions. At one half-marathon in Des Moines, he rode a bike all around the course so he could see her five times during the race.
A few times, Christi suggested that Cassie undergo radiation or chemotherapy, but he didn’t insist on it. Cassie said she did not want to do anything that would make her feel sicker than she already did. She thought they could come up with something better that would work for her. She and the doctors decided to continue the plan of removing each spot as it was discovered.
Eventually Cassie started talking about having a hysterectomy. The doctors were hesitant because she was so young. A hysterectomy would mean menopause, and Cassie was barely 30.
After an ordeal where the scarring from repeated biopsies and procedures caused Cassie so much pain that she passed out, Christi agreed to do a nearly total hysterectomy.
Matthew said Christi took him aside and explained that medicine has come a long way and there could be a few months of difficult times, but they would figure out the right combination of medicine and vitamins to keep Cassie healthy.
Matthew said this was very reassuring in the face of the stories told by older relatives about how he should “get a bedroom made out in his shop.”
After the last surgery, Cassie’s doctors once again believed they had removed all of the cancer. This time they were right.
February 13, Cassie got the all-clear from her gynecologist. It was the first year after she had graduated to a regular yearly appointment instead of monthly oncology visits.
She will need to continue to stay watchful; she won’t be considered 100% clear until she has been cancer-free for five years. Cervical cancer is often a “when it comes back” kind of cancer, not an “if it comes back,” Cassie said.
Relay for Life
Cassie said she had never been a part of Relay for Life before she had cancer. Now she walks in it every year and was honored to do the survivor walk a couple of years ago.
She said it’s a whole new reality when you’ve been diagnosed with cancer. You become part of a “sacred community.”