Patti Murillo-Casa's story
"Saving Women's Lives, One Talk at a Time."
Patti Murillo-Casa, 62, was shocked to hear in 2008 that the vaginal bleeding she had been experiencing between periods was due to stage 2B cervical cancer, and even more surprised to learn it was linked to a virus. Thanks to the expertise of the gynecologic cancer team at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, Patti remains cancer-free. That's good news for the many community groups she speaks to about the importance of cervical cancer screening and early treatment.
When her symptoms began, she attributed them to the stress she was feeling as she prepared to retire from her 20-year career as a New York City police officer in Manhattan (including the communities around NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia). Her gynecologist was retiring and moving out of the country, and she had not had a gynecology visit in three years. "I had put the visit on the back burner," she recalled. "But when the bleeding got worse, I couldn't put it off anymore."
She eventually found a new gynecologist, who did a biopsy that turned out to be inconclusive. The doctor recommended she see a gynecologic oncologist. Her mother had been a patient at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia so she requested a doctor there, securing an appointment with Jason Wright, MD, Chief of the Division of Gynecologic Oncology. After additional testing, Patti learned she had cervical cancer that had spread just beyond the cervix to nearby tissues. She also learned that it was related to a cancer-causing strain of the human papillomavirus (HPV). She was 48.
"I did not really know what cervical cancer was or anything about HPV, and I felt so lost," explained Patti, who lives in the Bronx with her husband of 22 years, Freddie. "But Dr. Wright told me that he would travel this journey with me." Her treatment included 35 radiation therapy sessions (five days a week for seven weeks), seven cycles of chemotherapy, and two sessions of brachytherapy (radiation-emitting treatment placed right next to cancerous tissue). At times, the treatments were so debilitating that Freddie — whom Patti calls her biggest supporter — had to help her get dressed. "I wanted to give up. it was so hard for me," she noted.
But she endured, completing all of the treatments and accomplishing the ultimate goal: no evidence of cancer. And she was able to do it without needing a hysterectomy. "I know I was one of the lucky ones," said Patti. She now sees Dr. Wright once a year for follow-up, a visit she schedules for every January — Cervical Cancer Awareness Month.
But Patti's journey didn't end there. "Once cancer comes and takes space in your life, you're never the same person," she asserted. She chose to speak to community groups and television news reporters about the importance of periodic Pap testing for cervical cancer (which does not have to be every year for every woman) and to remove the stigma of HPV — a widely common virus that has infected the majority of sexually active individuals at some point in their lives. (Not all strains of HPV cause cancer; some cause benign genital warts.) "I want women to know they should never feel ashamed of being diagnosed with any cancer below the belt," she added.
She is the New York Ambassador for Cervivor, a nonprofit organization that brings cervical cancer survivors together and helps to spread awareness, education, and support. She is fluent in Spanish and is especially interested in sharing these important messages with Latinas, who are disproportionately affected by cervical cancer due to inadequate knowledge and less screening.
"For all women, but especially for Latinas, we tend to put ourselves to the side. But we need to change our mindset and make ourselves a priority," Patti concluded. "A woman who doesn't die from cervical cancer is a woman who remains part of a family — a mother, a wife, a sister. I have found my purpose, and I feel it's one of the reasons I got this second shot at life."