By Tamika Felder | Published on September 21, 2023
When I was first diagnosed with cervical cancer at the age of 25—during the early days of my broadcast journalism career in the nation’s capital—I was scared and heartbroken.
I was afraid of facing chemotherapy, radiation and a radical hysterectomy—and for good reason. My course of treatment caused me to go from a vivacious twentysomething to feeling like I was brittle and broken.
While I was happy to be alive after going through intensive treatments and surviving cervical cancer, I was also deeply depressed about never being able to have my own child someday and the loss of everything I thought made me a woman—especially—my fertility.
Beyond this, I was struggling with the stifling stigma around cervical cancer, which is caused by certain high-risk strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV) that are commonly transmitted through intimate skin-to-skin contact. I had always been open about sex and intimacy, but this was different. I found it incredibly difficult to talk in a public way about my lady parts.
From then to now, I stand strong as the founder of Cervivor, Inc., a national nonprofit dedicated to eliminating cervical cancer and giving survivors a powerful platform; the author of books about resilience and reinvention; and a motivational speaker impacting audiences around the globe.
This is my journey of transformation—from feeling silenced to speaking out and, finally, stepping into my truth.
Starting the Cervivor movement
How and when did Cervivor start? It was an evolution from an earlier nonprofit, Tamika & Friends, that I founded in 2005 based on my personal experience with cervical cancer. Though I rebranded the entity as Cervivor, Inc. in 2011, the organization’s mission has always been the same: to change the narrative around cervical cancer and HPV—shattering the silence that had once enveloped my own pain.
I believe that true healing lies in unity, and Cervivor has grown into a beacon of strength for those navigating the labyrinth of cervical cancer. Through Cervivor, patients and survivors—along with their caregivers and loved ones—find solace in collective understanding. As I’ve said before, “Unless you have had radiation burning you from the inside out, you’re not going to understand what that’s like.”
Since that time, the Cervivor movement has taken giant strides in raising awareness about the significance of early detection through cervical cancer screenings, including the Pap smear and HPV test, as well as prevention thanks to the HPV vaccine. Only after my treatment did I find out how preventable cervical cancer is—and how widespread HPV is. (Consider this: During their lives, nearly 80% of people will be exposed to the virus.) Studies now show that countries with strong HPV vaccination programs have significantly lowered their cervical cancer diagnoses. For example, Australia—which was one of the first countries to introduce widespread HPV vaccination—has had a reduction of up to 50% in cervical cancer incidence among vaccinated women.
Over the years, hundreds of cervical cancer survivors have shared their “Cervivor Stories” on Cervivor.org, through social media and in-person talks. We have gone to Capitol Hill, where our Cervivor Ambassadors have helped to change legislation and raise critical funds, and I have personally participated in multiple Presidential Panels about women’s health issues.
Expanding the message
Even after working in the cancer space for years, it wasn’t until my 13th “cancerversary” that I finally felt like I was no longer in bondage to cancer—it didn’t have a hold on me. I realized that life’s most traumatic chapters aren’t meant to render us immobile; they’re meant to propel us forward. To put it simply, I decided I didn’t survive cancer to not live my life.
So, I wrote an article about 13 ways to live your life with purpose after surviving cervical cancer—things like, “Love the skin you’re in” and “Let go of what’s holding you back.” To say the response to the article was positive is an understatement. The experience prompted me to write my first book, “Seriously, What Are You Waiting For? 13 Actions To Ignite Your Life & Achieve The Ultimate Comeback.” I wanted it to be a testimonial to triumph over adversity with lots of actionable advice for readers, just as I hope my speaking engagements are for attendees today.
My fertility story has a happy ending, too: Through embryo donation—made possible by a fellow “Cervivor” who had a frozen embryo she gifted to me and my husband—and surrogacy, we welcomed baby Chayton (a.k.a., the “Cervivor Baby”) into our lives in November 2022.
If reading about my survival journey inspires you to share your own story, remember this: You’re not merely recounting events, you are illuminating a path through the darkest of moments, reminding others that they too can emerge from the shadows and live and thrive beyond cancer.