If You’re a Bird, I’m a Bird: A Cervical Cancer Story
Cheryl Nelson-McCartney was a carefree, fun-loving woman — always getting into shenanigans with her best friend Lisa Berridge. They were early adopters of karaoke parties and like many women, were obsessed with the movie The Notebook. Repeating the line “if you’re a bird, I’m a bird” became a running inside joke between the two, elaborately re-enacted in silly ways.
“She definitely had a star quality about her… people always noticed her. She just always made everything fun. I always had the best times, every time I was with her. It didn’t matter what we were doing.”
Their lives were suddenly turned upside down in 2006. Lisa was waiting for Cheryl in the waiting room of her doctor’s office, while she discussed some test results with her doctor. When Cheryl emerged, she was wide-eyed with shock — she had been diagnosed with cervical cancer.
“She was called into the doctor’s office to get the diagnosis. I was there for her in the waiting room, and I remember she called me after she had the diagnosis. I remember her — eyes were wide open — being like, “I have cancer.” And we both were like, ‘what?!’
Lisa vaguely knew that Cheryl had difficulty getting Pap tests in the past, and that she was terrified of internal exams. Cheryl had tried several times over many years to get the test done, particularly starting in 2002 when she complained to her mom of some discomfort. But her Paps were never successful, due to a condition that made it difficult for her muscles to relax.
“She had had multiple attempts at getting Paps done, [but] she would always say she freaked out.”
Around 2005, Cheryl’s mom took her to their local doctor in St. Catherine’s. Although it was difficult to get a good sample, the results came back clear.
“She had one done, and they were able to get some kind of swab — I don’t think they went up enough, I don’t think they got the right area — but they basically said ‘it’s good.’”
A year later though, Cheryl still couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong, and went to get another Pap. This time, she devised a strategy for relaxing using medication, that would finally allow the doctor to do the test properly. It worked — but what the doctor saw was a clearly visible tumour.
“She would make comments that something wasn’t right or she felt like something was wrong.”
“She had another one done [while] she was basically knocked out (with Lorazepam), and then they were able to see the tumor.”
Cheryl was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2006 and started treatment right away. But even with a grim diagnosis, her attitude — at least to Lisa — was always one of positivity. She never spoke to Lisa about her cancer being anything but temporary, and she fully expected herself to recover.
“She was really a strong person. There was no not beating it. It was always ‘I’m going to get better, and when I’m better, I’m going to do this and that.’ She was kind of a dreamer — but you want to hope that you can overcome it, that you can beat cancer.”
“She said, ‘They say I’m not going to live — but what do they know!’ I remember when she had to tell her work, and fill out the papers [to say] she wasn’t coming back. Even then, she was kind of like ‘I’m filling it out, but I’ll be back.’”
At first the radiation treatment seemed to work, and things got better. By 2007, Cheryl felt good and began to plan her wedding. She and her fiancée Al wanted to get married in California, but decided to do a smaller wedding in her parents’ garden because Cheryl was unable to travel. The plan was to have a larger wedding later. Cheryl and Al got married in September.
“She got the clean bill of health, and we all celebrated.
And then it happened again.”
By October 2007, the cancer had returned, and Cheryl needed to start treatment again. Ever the optimist, Cheryl began to blog about her daily life with the goal of reminding herself of good times with friends and family. In it, she wrote chirpily about food, party planning, and her cat. She enrolled herself in a clinical study, but this only led to more internal issues on top of the cancer. As the months passed, Cheryl’s blog posts got shorter and less frequent.
“It went from one day of her being super healthy — feeling good, and wanting to eat boxes of chocolate and Halloween candy.”
“[Then] it was like she was having a bad week, but that bad week lasted months. Everything just kept piling up.”
Although they never talked about it, it became clear to Lisa that Cheryl’s cancer was terminal. As her health further declined, she became weaker and eventually non-responsive. When her birthday rolled around, friends and family gathered around her hospital bed to throw a birthday party for her.
“There was about four days where she just didn’t talk anymore. She was just kind of sleeping. We were all like it’s your birthday… so we brought wine, we brought balloons, and even though she’s not awake and she’s just laying there, we all just talked like we normally would. [We] drank wine, we sang Happy Birthday.”
“I think we all kind of knew it was going to happen. I left because I was like, I can’t be here for this… I went home, and I was probably home for maybe two hours and then they called and said, ‘she’s gone.’”
Cheryl Nelson-McCartney died on her birthday in August 2008.
“She solidified that day as hers. She just wanted everyone to believe she would keep living. And in a way, she hasn’t stopped.”
Reflecting back, Lisa says they didn’t know much about what HPV was then, and that she only learned that cervical cancer could be caused by a virus because of Cheryl.
“We were all kind of learning about it at the same time. I never heard of HPV before then. And then I became obsessed — What is this? What do you mean everyone can get it? What can I do not to get it? It was kind of a learning experience for all of us.”
Lisa’s hope is that that Cheryl’s story will help other people recognize that screening for cervical cancer and being educated about it and HPV is really important — and that it could potentially happen to anyone.
“There definitely needs to be more awareness behind HPV. I feel like there’s never enough awareness, and it can’t hurt anyone to know that there’s a lot of options out there — and they can have control over their own bodies.”
Although Paps are generally the most common method of screening for cervical cancer, HPV testing could be a helpful alternative method of screening for people like Cheryl, who had trouble getting the Pap done.
“Pap tests are not a nice experience, they’re not comfortable. I don’t know a single woman that looks forward to going and getting a Pap test because it’s awful, it’s invasive, it sucks. I think that’s why the Eve Kit for me is so important — I wish that it existed 12 years ago, because it would have been perfect for Cheryl.”
It’s been over 10 years since Cheryl passed, but Lisa still thinks fondly about her friend often. When asked what Cheryl would be doing if she was alive today, Lisa laughs:
“She loved food. Everything was always about food. I always talk about it — if she could have been on Instagram, she would have been all over Instagram with cats and food, all the time!”
And if she could send a message to Cheryl now:
“If you’re a bird, I’m a bird.
I miss you.”
Thank you so much to the Lisa Berridge for sharing Cheryl’s story, and to the talented Andryea from Mimp magazine for collaborating with us.
If you would like to learn more about HPV and cervical cancer — you can read more on Eve Kit’s health info page at www.evekit.com/healthinfo.
*Some quotes were lightly edited for reading
Izabella Kaczmarek. MPH candidate.
Izabella is responsible for education and community coordination at Eve Medical, a social venture that is extending women’s health screening beyond the clinic into the privacy and comfort of women’s homes. Motivated by the 500,000 cases of cervical cancer that occur worldwide each year, Eve Medical developed and launched Canada’s first Eve Kit, the do-it-yourself at-home HPV screening service. On the side, Izabella is completing her Master of Public Health at the University of Waterloo with particular interests in addressing inequalities within the Canadian health system.
Jessica Ching. Co-Founder and CEO of Eve Medical.
Following her passion to integrate design and healthcare, Jessica co-founded Eve Medical after graduating from OCAD University. Since then, she and her team have worked to create and provide solutions that increase access to HPV and STI screening.