Former Miss Malaysia Genevieve Sambhi was just 35 when she received the devastating news: she had cervical cancer. But she's a survivor today thanks to early detection.
“I was young, I’d been with my husband since I was 20, I had 2 young kids, I don’t smoke, only drink in moderation, and I exercise regularly. If it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone.”
“My name is Genevieve Sambhi and I have been a model in Malaysia for close to 30 years.
When I was diagnosed with cervical cancer at the age of 35, I went through the hardest seven months of my life. I vowed that if I made it out alive, I would do my best to educate and raise awareness about this dreadful disease.
So here I am. Before I continue, does everyone even know where the cervix (the part of the body affected by cervical cancer) is? Honestly you would be surprised how many don’t. The typical response I get when I ask people is "so shy lah…don’t want to say!" Actually, it's part of the female reproductive system, or as someone once said to me, "something down there!"
I remember clearly the day my life came tumbling down. I was feeding my 4-year-old daughter Isabella and 15-month-old son Alexander. The phone rang - it was my father, who also happens to be a gynaecologist. Two days earlier, I had gone for my annual Pap smear. Now, my father was explaining that the results were abnormal and more tests were needed. I was in a state of shock as thoughts ran through my head. Do I have cancer? Am I going to die?
The following day, I got a cone biopsy (when a cone shape is cut away from your cervix) and just two days later, I checked into the University Hospital for minor surgery. It all seemed manageable, until I suffered a massive hemorrhage 10 days later, and was taken back to hospital by ambulance. Hours later, as I lay in the hospital recovering, I was dealt my next blow: The cancer was spreading and a hysterectomy was inevitable.
I tried bargaining with my doctor to let me have another child first. I felt angry. Why me? I was too young to lose my uterus and just could not accept it. A few days later I woke up with a sense of calm and I realized how lucky I actually was. I had two children, a husband, Paul, who loved me, and I needed to be here for them. I finally accepted the fact that I had cancer.
A week before my hysterectomy, I had a routine ultrasound done, and this is when they found the mass in my cervix. I remember the doctors and my dad whispering - it turned out that I would need a radical hysterectomy instead, meaning would take all the surrounding areas and lymph nodes as well the uterus. It’s a surgery often described by doctors as ‘the king of surgeries’.
I sat with my husband and cousin hours before my surgery, all of us in shock. I was so scared as I truly believed that I would not come out alive on the other side. The surgery was long and drawn out. When I opened my eyes six hours later, I was greeted by my daughter’s smiling face. "Hi mummy!" That is an image that will stay with me forever. What a relief - I made it!
The surgery was so painful, but knowing that I was ok, with my family by my side, made everything bearable. I went home after a week, but my next blow came just 10 days later when the results showed the cancer had spread and I would need chemotherapy and radiation treatments. I wasn’t sure how much more I could take.
The aggressiveness of the cancer shocked my doctors; this is a cancer that takes 5-10 years to reach the stage I was at after less than a year. I started chemotherapy and radiation a couple of weeks later and I have to say these were the hardest parts. The severe vomiting, diarrhoea and burning sensation on my skin (due to the radiation) was unbearable. What kept me strong was my wish to live a normal life with my kids again. I continued, when I could, to take them to school and look after them at home.
My daughter sat with me in the afternoons when I got tired and would tell me to “sleep mummy, I'm here now!” As I vomited, she would hold my hair and tell me everything was going to be all right. No four-year-old should see their mother like this, but she wanted to be with me.
"I come from a medical family -- my dad is a gynaecologist and my mother is a nurse -- and yet I knew nothing about cervical cancer.”
My brothers and friends visited me in hospital. The amount of people who rang my parents and sent food and love surprised me. My parents' contractor made me Chinese herbal soup, and a friend, who had heard that Japanese herbs were meant to be good during chemotherapy, sent them over from Japan!
My strength came from Isabella, Alexander, Paul and the rest of my family. I got through it. And then it was all over.
I vowed to do something. I come from a medical family and yet I knew nothing about cervical cancer. If I didn’t know, what were the odds other women would? No woman should have to experience what I went through.
I have been given a second chance, and I feel that it is my duty to inform others about cervical cancer and build awareness about Pap smears and vaccinations. I feel that if I had not gone for my Pap smear, my cancer would have gone undetected, and I would not be here today.
By spreading awareness, we can end the stigma associated with cervical cancer and educate all women, girls and even husbands, brothers, fathers and friends. When Isabella is old enough, she will be vaccinated so that I can make sure I’m doing everything in my power to protect her from this devastating disease.
HPV and Cervical Cancer
HPV causes 99% of all cervical cancer cases. Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer among Malaysian women. Everyday, six new cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed, and two women lose the fight against this disease.
This interior designer and marathon enthusiast never missed a Pap smear screening. Her only warning was bleeding between menstrual cycles before she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Today, her strength and positive thinking helps her on the journey as a survivor.