In the summer of 2017, Jessica Gibson was experiencing uncomfortable back pain and spotting between periods. At first, she thought it was a kidney or a urinary tract infection. The doctor at the urgent care center suspected kidney stones and said they’d pass. But Gibson didn’t get better.
When she went to another doctor, she received an unexpected, frightening diagnosis: Stage 3 cervical cancer.
“I was never diagnosed with the human papillomavirus or had an abnormal pap smear,” the 36-year-old nurse in Omaha, Nebraska, told TODAY. “A year prior to being diagnosed, I had a pap smear done and it came back normal.”
Gibson was surprised by her diagnosis because she never knew that she had HPV, which causes cervical cancer. But she was most worried about her daughters.
“I am a single mom, so my first thoughts were like, ‘Oh my gosh I am going to die and they will no longer have a mom,’” she recalled.
But the doctors assured her that her outlook was good and she continued nursing school, earning her RN degree in May 2017. After finishing radiation and chemotherapy that fall, Gibson and her doctors were excited to learn she was cancer free.
But a year later, in October 2018, she started having problems with her throat. It felt like a chip scratched it and it just wouldn't heal. She eventually visited an ear, nose and throat doctor who believed acid reflux caused her pain. But after two different medications, her health kept worsening.
“My voice is hoarse. I can feel some lumps in my throat," she said. "I am starting to get short of breath.”
A CT scan showed cancer in her lymph nodes, in her neck, chest and lungs. Her disease had metastasized.
“This time it is terminal. They can’t cure it. They said I have one to two years. I can do treatment, but it is palliative,” she said.
Despite the bleak prognosis, Gibson remains upbeat. She works four days a week at her nursing job at a long-term care facility in Omaha. Being able to help others as she undergoes chemotherapy makes her happy.
“It helps me forget that I am sick,” she said. “I still continue to bring joy to my patients and that makes me feel good.”
What are cervical cancer symptoms?
More than 13,000 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer this year, according to the American Cancer Society. About 4,250 women will die. Gibson hopes her story encourages others to get vaccinated against HPV, which prevents the cancer from even developing, and to learn the symptoms of cervical cancer. According to the American Cancer Society include:
- An unusual discharge that might contain blood
- Heavier or longer periods
- Abnormal bleeding
- Pain during sex
“If it is caught early enough it is treatable,” Gibson said.
Meanwhile, working as a nurse has helped Gibson find faith and comfort with her devastating diagnosis.
“I am going to fight until I can’t fight any more,” she said. “I have come to peace with death. I did a lot of soul searching."