Lack of insurance and infrequent Pap smears led to a scary diagnosis
“April 12, 2001. My life changed forever,” says Tamika Felder Campbell, 41, of the day she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. “In hindsight, it’s the day I became a survivor.”
Prior to that date, Felder Campbell, a South Carolina native, thought she was living her best life ever. “I was a young woman living in D.C. Career-wise I was doing exactly what I wanted. I was having a ball. I was living—what I thought—was life to the fullest.”
At 25, Felder Campbell took a part-time job in her field, covering the 2000 presidential election. The pay was, she says, “crap” and the job came without health benefits. “But I loved every single second of it.”
Then, coming home from New Hampshire primaries, Felder Campbell found a knot under her arm. It turned out to be a boil, which had nothing to do with her diagnosis, but if not for that boil, she wouldn’t have gone to the emergency facility. The doctor asked her about her last physical, and then referred Felder Campbell to his wife.
“I’m a fabulous woman,” she says. “But if you’re overweight, they treat you differently. I had a bad experience once where the doctor was more concerned with my weight than the Pap smear. And let’s face it, Pap smears aren’t fun.” She grudgingly went through with the appointment.
When Felder Campbell returned two weeks later for her results, she thought she’d hear more about needing to lose weight. Instead, the doctor said, “‘Let’s talk about your Pap test.’ She told me I had what looked to be cancer,” says says. “They wanted to do treatment immediately, which scared the hell out of me.”
A week before her 26th birthday, Felder Campbell had a radical hysterectomy. Radiation (five days a week for three months) and chemo (1 day a week for three months) followed.
She didn’t process fully what had happened until a year later. “When you’re first diagnosed, you’re in a fog. You’re just making decisions, not really comprehending what you’re going through,” she says. But after that year, Felder Campbell realized she was scared to live. Though she’d always wanted to be a world traveler, before cancer she never had enough money saved and didn’t want to take the time off work.
And dating was a disaster. “All my friends were getting married, having children,” she says. “Dating is crazy when you’re young and diagnosed with cancer. Add on a reproductive cancer linked to an STD. I thought I wouldn’t find a man who would want me because I can’t have children.” She found herself settling in relationships because she didn’t know her worth after her womb was removed.
Then it hit her: No one gets out of life alive. “I want to be able to look back on my life with a big smile,” she says. She started traveling and became a cancer advocate. No one was talking about cervical cancer, so she started Tamika and Friends (now called Cervivor) to help other survivors.
She also found a great guy. “I’m in a relationship with someone who loves the crust of me. He loves all the imperfections,” she says of her husband.
Along with the standard life lessons (“Tomorrow truly is not promised,” “You don’t have time for shoulda, woulda, coulda,” “It’s OK if you don’t do it exactly the way you thought you would; just do it”), she’s still preaching her particular gospel. “This is what I call my 11th commandment: Never ever, ever miss your Pap test.”