Sisterhood: The Weapon Against Cervical Cancer

From the moment she was diagnosed, April Bay reached out to the strong women in her life for support to help her fight her fight. They came bearing weapons of love and support.

She sits in a circle of women at a recent support group. Her ears are open, her eyes are focused but April Bay knows that her strongest support comes from family. Her older sister, Teresa Farmer sits next to her—close enough to hold a hand or wrap an arm around her sagging shoulders.

That’s the way it’s been since day one.

Bay lives in Greenwood and Farmer lives in Noblesville, but when the call came, Farmer dropped everything and away she went—to be with her sister. It was August of 2018 and Bay, 52, had been experiencing some back pain. When the pain got worse she made an appointment with her primary physician. At first they thought she might have diverticulitis, an intestinal inflammation triggered by certain foods. As a precaution, her doctor ordered a CT scan. The screening showed a mass on her uterus.

She was immediately scheduled for more testing, including a biopsy. The tests showed that the mass extended outside her uterus. She had cervical cancer.

This month during Cervical Cancer Awareness Month healthcare providers highlight issues related to the disease that impacts the lives of nearly 13,000 women across the United States. In recent years, two areas of interest have been promoted to reduce the risk of cervical cancer – vaccination and testing. HPV vaccines help prevent infection from both HPV types that can lead to cervical cancer. The CDC recommends all boys and girls get the HPV vaccine at age 11 or 12. The vaccine produces a stronger immune response when taken in the teen years. A Pap test can generally detect changes in the cervix caused by HPV. But HPV is not the only cause of cervical cancer. A weakened immune system and certain lifestyle choices such as smoking can also create an increased risk of cervical cancer.

Bay kept up on her regular pelvic exams and had recently had a vaginal ultrasound and Pap test when she was experiencing some cramping. The tests came back normal.

“My advice to women is to know your body. Your body does give you signs that something can be wrong,” said Bay. “I was up to date on my Pap test and mammogram, but cancer doesn’t discriminate.”

So when she learned she has cervical cancer, it came as a complete shock.

“At first we thought she’d have a hysterectomy and life would go on,” said her sister. The family has no history of cancer. By Labor Day Weekend, Bay was hospitalized with increased calcium levels – a result of a benign parathyroid tumor. She was released after the initial hospital stay but was readmitted two weeks later. More nodules were discovered on her lungs. Under the care of IU Health hematologist/oncologist Dr. S. Hamid Sayar, Bay began chemotherapy—a routine that continues every three weeks. So far the treatments are working. The nodules are shrinking significantly and the back pain has subsided said Bay.

As she spends long days at IU Health Simon Cancer Center Bay’s family circles up like a fortress. Along with her sister—five years older—she has a brother Greg, two years older. Her parents Earl and Martha DeRiter also attend her infusions and doctor appointments along with her son, Chris Bay. She also has two grandchildren that she says she idolizes.

“Every day we congregated waiting for the doctors to come in,” said Farmer. “We didn’t want April to be by herself. We wanted a group to hear everything.” Like a big sister, Farmer has gracefully stepped into the role of organizer and along the way they have all found humor to help them cope. Farmer tells the story of how she once called an Uber to transport her parents from their Greenwood home to IU Health Simon Cancer Center. Her mother later announced that they got a ride from “Udder” to take them to the hospital.

Martha DeRiter relates how her two girls once fought so much as youngsters that the family converted the dining room into a second bedroom to separate them. As they got older the girls played softball together and can remember sneaking in the house after they had been out past curfew.

After college, Farmer moved away from home and lived in Georgia for a number of years. She’s glad to be back in Indiana now. “I sometimes wonder if it’s my calling to be a caregiver,” she said. The sisters enjoy many family activities together – joining their parents for beach vacations in Florida, attending Colts games, exploring local wine trails, and playing at the casinos. They celebrated Bay’s 50th birthday with a trip to Las Vegas.

When Bay’s hair began to fall out, the family drank wine and planned a hair-cutting party.

“She’s my rock. She never complains,” said Farmer. “I have my tasks – to get her water, make sure she’s comfortable, and let the nurses know if she needs something.” Along with their mom, Farmer has been by her sister’s side every appointment, every infusion.

“It’s like April has made our family closer,” said Farmer. “We’ve always been a family who cares and now we show it even more,” said DeRiter.

For Bay, it’s her family who has been her rock: “I keep moving forward because of their support. They keep me looking to the future.”

— By T.J. Banes, Journalist, IU Health.
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