Columbus native Stephanie Baker has been on a decade-long journey with a disease she never expected to have.
The roots of her battle with cervical cancer stretch to her teenage years, and at age 29 she still has a while before doctors will declare her cancer-free.
At age 18, she started receiving Gardasil shots to prevent human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted disease — certain types of which can cause cervical cancer. After getting her third shot in April 2006, Baker tested positive at age 19 for HPV that July. This was a shock because Baker said she had not been sexually active. The family has been in contact with Gardasil to understand how this could have happened.
As a result, she started having Pap smears every six months to check for abnormal cells. Baker also underwent a couple colposcopies — procedures to closely examine the cervix, vagina and vulva for signs of disease. The first was in 2007; her three-month recheck showed precancerous cells.
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Baker continued a schedule of six-month rechecks of Pap smears to monitor the level of precancerous cells. A recheck in 2012 showed more precancerous cells than the previous checkup. That prompted Baker to have a loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP) in April 2013 to remove the precancerous cells.
When she met with the doctor six weeks after the procedure, she was told the pathology report indicated the cells that were removed were cancerous, but had all been removed, and she was to have another checkup in October.
But all was not well. Before the checkup, she was experiencing problems.
“I had massive bleeding and I was exhausted. Even getting up to go from the couch to the bathroom was really difficult for me. I wasn’t hungry and I didn’t feel right,” Baker said.
Baker returned for a checkup in October 2013 only to learn she still showed signs of cancerous cells. Additional testing was performed, and it was like her body had gone crazy, she said. She had Stage 2 cervical cancer. The cells had migrated and were now in her uterus.
Baker was in disbelief because her family had no history of cervical cancer.
“I was shocked,” she said. “I was scared and didn’t understand. I had already gone through the LEEP and it came back.”
Worried the cancer would spread a lot faster, Baker met with an oncologist within 24 hours and began treatment the next week.
She was initially placed on oral chemotherapy and three weeks of radiation. In March 2014, she was declared cancer-free.
But four months later, a routine Pap test showed the cancer had returned. This time it returned as the more aggressive Stage 3B. A subsequent PET scan showed the malignant cells had metastasized to her lymph nodes, Fallopian tubes and her left ovary.
“It was weird. It just went to the left side of my body and left the right side alone. The doctors were concerned it could affect my heart,” Baker said.
The illness took a toll on her physically and emotionally.
As part of her treatment, Baker met with a psychologist and psychiatrist who gave her the opportunity to get her Yorkie, named Mocha, registered as a service dog to help alleviate her anxiety and depression.
Baker underwent another round of more aggressive weekly intravenous chemotherapy in August 2014.
“I had started a new job and my 90 days weren’t in, so I was terrified they could let me go,” she said. “So we customized my schedule and I was allowed to work from home.”
Once she finished chemotherapy, Baker underwent eight weeks of radiation therapy that ended shortly before Halloween.
“After that, I’d gotten close to my lifetime radiation limit,” said Baker, a 2005 Columbus North resident who resides in Carmel but spends a lot of time in Columbus with her family.
“I did a quick 30-minute to an hour-long (intravenous) chemotherapy three days a week and a longer session on Fridays.”
When she completed therapy in February 2015, a PET scan showed she was officially in remission. But by the end of February, another tumor had formed, forcing the doctors to remove it as well as the adjoining Fallopian tube and the left ovary.
In February of this year, Baker began experiencing heavy bleeding. A fast-growing tumor, which started the size of a walnut and grew to that of a softball, had formed in the tissue where the removed ovary had been. Fortunately, the tumor was benign and doctors speculated its formation was triggered by stress.
Baker was laid off from her Indianapolis-based job as a customer support specialist because of cutbacks. So she started staying with her parents in Columbus.
Worries remained, however.
“I had surgery in June 2016 and had another rapid-growing benign tumor removed,” Baker said. “This one was on my right ovary, which was still intact.”
Waiting for all-clear signal
Today, Baker goes for three-month checkups and said she has another 18 months before she finds out if she has no evidence of disease.
“They will consider me cancer-free after five years,” she said.
Baker’s mother, Debbie Baker, said when she first learned of her daughter’s diagnosis, she felt a mixture of disbelief and anger.
“You wanted to trade places and couldn’t,” she said. “There are so many things as a parent that you can handle that you don’t want your children to ever go through. As much as we are all scared of cancer anyway, it would have been so much easier if it had been me than her.”
The greatest lesson Stephanie Baker said this journey has taught her is the importance of listening to your body. If something isn’t right, it’s important to get checked by a physician.
Baker’s cancer journey has taught her another valuable lesson: finding out who one’s true friends are. Baker lost some who she thought were there for her, but she’s gained many who are truly there to support her, she said.
“I decided if you can’t handle me when I’m down, you don’t need to be around me when I’m doing great,” Stephanie Baker said. “It’s the win-some, lose-some mentality.
For other young women out there who may be facing the same journey as Baker, she said it’s important to make friends with people who are going through the journey as well.
“Go to support groups and talk to someone,” she said. “Trust your doctors and listen to your body. Don’t be afraid to voice your own opinion and if you don’t want to do something, you don’t have to.”
TYPE OF CANCER: Cervical
DIAGNOSED: October 2013
IN REMISSION: Since February 2015
RESIDES: Carmel, but spends a lot of time in Columbus with her family
HIGH SCHOOL: Columbus North, 2005 graduate
OCCUPATION: Family case manager for the Department of Child Services in Marion County
FAMILY: Parents, Steve and Debbie Baker; brother, Matthew
NOTABLE: Has two dogs, one of which is a certified emotional support animal.
ADVICE: “Go to support groups and talk to someone. Trust your doctors and listen to your body.”
The Republic’s annual special section on cancer awareness, Colors for a Cure, can be found inside today’s edition.
It is called Colors for a Cure because certain colors are used symbolically to highlight specific types of cancer: pink for breast, orange for leukemia and light blue for prostate, for example.
Today’s special section is published on pink newsprint, with pink the color that represents Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October.
The section includes stories of people who are battling cancer or have survived it — informing Republic readers about different types of cancer, and providing them with valuable information in addition to hope and inspiration.