LIVONIA, Mich. – It was the summer of 2015, and Sandy LaLonde, of Livonia, was having some unexplained bleeding and back pain.
She saw her family doctor, but was too nervous to get the Pap smear she recommended.
"Like many of us do, I just waited and put it off," LaLonde said. "In 2015, I wasn't even due for my exam yet so I figured I had a little bit more time."
But in the months that followed, her symptoms did not improve.
"The symptoms did not go away. They kept getting worse," LaLonde said. "In January of 2017, I made it a point to make that appointment. I knew, I just knew deep down, there was something wrong."
On Feb. 10, her doctor's office called.
"They're not calling you with good news at 6 on a Friday, and that's when I got the news," LaLonde said. "She said, 'We have some bad news. Your high-risk HPV test came back positive.' And I just remember saying, 'I don't even know, what is that? What does that mean?'"
The doctor explained they were pretty sure that LaLonde had cervical cancer.
LaLonde soon learned that most cervical cancers are caused by the human papillomavirus, known as HPV. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. Up to 80 percent of sexually active people will be infected with a type of HPV in their lifetime.
In most cases, the immune system is able to fight off the infection, but in some men and women, HPV causes cancer.
"How am I sitting there at 33 and not knowing?" LaLonde said. "I did not know the link between HPV and cervical cancer."
LaLonde endured eight rounds of chemotherapy, 25 rounds of external radiation and four rounds of internal radiation.
In a twist of fate, her father, Curt LaLonde, was diagnosed with melanoma. They supported each other through their treatments.
"My dad was with me at almost every chemo," Sandy LaLonde said.
"I've been extremely proud of her. Sandy's kept her attitude positive," Curt LaLonde said. "She's been a leader for me. How can I get down, how can I complain when I watched Sandy go through her treatments she went through?"
Sandy LaLonde is now cancer-free, but she's forever changed, mentally and physically.
"I went through menopause at the age of 34. I'’m not able to have children," LaLonde said. "I think mentally is the hardest change. It never leaves your mind. Every day, there's not a day that goes by that you don't wake up and think about it and just the constant fear of is it going to come back."
LaLonde is now determined to make sure other women have the information she did not. And she's not alone in her fight.
"I was really happy and lucky that I found a group called Cervivor," LaLonde said. "It's a nonprofit organization that focuses on advocacy and awareness and prevention of this disease."
LaLonde attended "Cervivor School" in Florida, and learned how to share her message with others.
"From day one, once I realized that this cancer, you can easily test for it and it can be prevented, I felt like an immense amount of personal responsibility with making sure this doesn't happen to somebody else," LaLonde said.
In the earliest stages, cervical cancer may not cause any symptoms. That’s why screening tests are important.
LaLonde wants women to know they need regular Pap tests, at least every three years starting at age 21. Women over age 30 should have an HPV test and a Pap test.
"But also, what I've learned from my experience is, those are just guidelines, so don't rely on them. If something seems wrong, it could be wrong," LaLonde said.
She also wants parents to educate themselves about the HPV vaccine, which can prevent HPV and the related cancers in girls and boys.
"I know there's a lot of mixed opinions on the vaccine, but I fully support it, and I think if you were to talk to my parents, they would 100 percent agree that if that was a vaccine that was available when I was of the age, there wouldn't even be a question," LaLonde said.
As LaLonde has shared her story with friends and on social media, she's been stunned to learn how many others don't understand the risks.
"Being able to make an impact or hoping to make an impact is really the only thing I have to give from this experience," LaLonde said. "Maybe had I watched a news segment like this that said how important these exams were and talked about the impact that this type of cancer could have on your life, that probably could've made a difference to me."
To learn more about cervical cancer, click here.
To find out more about the HPV vaccine, click here.