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Navigating cervical cancer during a pandemic

Jul 01, 2021

Nix and her daughter

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hampton resident Michelle Nix was not thinking about cervical cancer. The 51-year-old certified nursing assistant was busy working for a home health care agency and considered herself to be in good health. However, troubling physical symptoms appeared in June 2020.

“I was not sexually active for years by choice and I had no health issues whatsoever,” said Nix. “I felt great, I was working out all the time and I did not smoke or drink. Then, I went to sleep one night and woke up the next day bleeding.”

Nix was post-menopausal at the time, and although the experience was unusual for her, she was not overly concerned. However, after two weeks of bleeding episodes, she decided to see a doctor. Due to the pandemic, obtaining an appointment was a challenge, and Nix did not have health insurance. She eventually scheduled a pap smear at her local Planned Parenthood.

Nix says the exam was extremely painful and the results were abnormal. She was referred for a colposcopy, a procedure that closely examines the cervix for signs of disease. Malignant lesions were detected.

“If I had not started bleeding, I would have never gone to get checked,” said Nix. “Since I was not sexually active and I had passed menopause, I did not think to keep up on my pap smears.”

She says at the time her bleeding symptoms began, it had been at least six years since her last gynecologic exam. She believes many older women make the mistake of delaying or neglecting routine medical appointments for the same reasons she did.

Planned Parenthood referred Nix to the gynecologic oncology team at VCU Massey Cancer Center for further care. Nix’s physician, Stephanie Sullivan, M.D., diagnosed her with stage 3 cervical cancer. Nix immediately began a six-week regimen of chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

Nix's daughter Nix's daughter, Emmeline, colors while Michelle receives treatment.
She also made the decision to participate in a clinical trial. As part of the phase 1 trial, Nix received infusions of an immunotherapeutic drug called pembrolizumab, sold under the brand name Keytruda®. The purpose of the trial was to evaluate the efficacy and safety of the drug with concurrent chemoradiotherapy in participants with locally advanced cervical cancer.

“Dr. Sullivan recommended the immunotherapy trial, and she was very thorough in explaining everything that would be involved,” said Nix. “I agreed right away because I saw that as an insurance policy. The scariest thing for me is when treatments fail, so I just saw this trial as an additional means to kill any rogue cancer cells that might have remained after the chemo and radiation.”

While many cancer patients are apprehensive to participate in clinical trials, Nix said she did not hesitate. She wants to encourage other women to be receptive to any treatments that are offered to them.

“When I was first diagnosed, the treatments sounded so scary,” said Nix. “I was thinking about how can I get less treatments, but once I realized what a fight I had in store for me, my perspective completely shifted to the other side.”

She also praises her Massey care team for accommodating her lifestyle and making the overall treatment process easier as she traveled from Hampton to Richmond every day with her young granddaughter Emmeline, for whom she is the full-time caregiver.

“Emmeline had to accompany me to Massey. Even during the pandemic with visitor restrictions in place, they let me bring her into the clinic during my treatments,” said Nix. “The radiation staff even helped babysit her while I was receiving my care.”

At her most recent scan, Nix showed no evidence of disease. She will continue to receive scans every three months for two years. Nix credits the providers at Massey for helping her through this challenging time in her life.

“All of the doctors have been friendly and approachable, but also exuding the confidence to show they know what they are doing,” said Nix. “The treatment took a toll, but considering what I was dealing with, it took the least amount of toll it could have.”

For more information about clinical trials at Massey, visit masseycancercenter.org/clinical-trials.

Written by: Melissa Mitchell

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