When Lauren Lopez turned 30, instead of celebrating a new decade, she was facing an uncertain future. Lopez had just been diagnosed with incurable stage four recurrent metastatic cervical cancer and doctors gave her only six months to a year to live.
It was shocking news. Instead of despairing, the young woman decided to embrace hope. Now, two years later she finds something, every day, that makes her smile or laugh.
“In the moment, it was devastating. I slept on it and I woke up the next day with mental clarity like no other," the 32-year-old yoga teacher in Westford, Massachusetts, told TODAY. "If I only have so much time left, I am going to choose to be happy. Coming from a place of gratitude, I don’t think you can feel anything but happy and joyful.”
"We caught it early"
Lopez’s experience with cervical cancer started during an annual gynecologist exam when she was 24 in 2012, when her doctor performed a routine Pap test. The results showed abnormal cells which were cancerous. But her doctor assured her she had nothing to fear. She underwent two cone knife biopsies and believed that the procedure had removed the cancer.
“They told me, ‘You don’t need to worry. The prognosis is amazing and we caught it early,’” Lopez said.
While she had heard about other sexually transmitted diseases, she knew very little about HPV, or human papillomavirus, the infection which had caused her cancer.
“Nobody talked about HPV,” Lopez said. “I did not have any of the vaccines. The vaccines weren’t really being talked about.”
About 79 million Americans, mostly in their teens and early 20s, have some strain of HPV, although not all cause cancer. HPV is the main cause of cervical cancer, but screening and the HPV vaccine have cut the rate of new cases and of deaths significantly.
Lopez wishes she had known more about HPV before she developed cervical cancer.
“Cervical cancer is one of the few cancers that does not have a genetic component from what I understand. It is kind of an equal opportunity cancer,” she said. “It is really important to get your screenings regularly. And to ask your doctor about the vaccine.”
When she was first diagnosed, she was embarking on life after college and worried about the future.
“It was really really scary,” she said. “I was out of college. I was newly dating my now-husband.”
After the biopsy, though, she expected a return to a normal life and good health. Then three years later, doctors discovered another cancerous mass and in 2015, she underwent hysterectomy to remove it. Again, the outlook was good.
“Even with my hysterectomy, it was still kind of presented that you are going to be all set,” she said.
Choosing hope and happiness.
In 2017, she learned that the cancer had returned. This time the doctors couldn’t cure it and offered palliative treatments.
As she grapples with an incurable disease, Lopez chooses to be hopeful. Every day she finds something to be grateful for.
“It tricks my brain into celebrating the small moments,” she explained. “It started with something that is simple and it spiraled and blossomed.”
She meditates, practices and teaches yoga regularly, and volunteers at the hospital.
“Teaching brings me such joy,” she said. “Being in service to others is really my big joy.”
She and her husband visited Greece recently for two weeks. Lopez is sharing her story because she wants people to know that living with cancer isn't only sadness and nausea.
“Even when they give you a terminal diagnosis … it is OK to make plans and dream," she said. "You can be happy during cancer.”