It was fall 2016, and Erin Andrews felt great. At 38 years old, she exercised, ate well, and had a successful TV career as a sports reporter and the host of Dancing with the Stars. So when she had her annual checkup at the gynecologist, she expected to receive a clean bill of health. Instead, she was told she had cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer affects up to 12,000 women each year. It is both preventable and treatable, and yet 4,000 of the women diagnosed ultimately succumb to the illness yearly. To encourage women to be regularly tested for cervical cancer, Andrews has teamed up with medical technology company Hologic for the We Can Change This Stat initiative. She can’t stress the importance of regular screening enough; it’s what caught her own cancer in its early—and, most importantly, non-deadly—stages.
“Even if you feel like you’re healthy and you’re busy, it’s so important to go to the doctor,” Andrews tells InStyle. “I made time to do it every single year, and no one in my family had ever dealt with cervical cancer before. I didn’t have any symptoms whatsoever, and I was getting ready for football season. I just went in for a normal exam and thought everything would be good to go. Then, I got a message from my gyno saying that things were not good.”
Andrews’s initial reaction to learning that her Pap test revealed abnormal cells was “freakout central,” as she calls it. Still, she knew that she had to get focused. There were many big decisions ahead of her, including choosing a treatment option.
“I wasn’t even engaged to my husband yet, but I got him and my parents on the phone and we all tried to figure out what our next steps would be,” says Andrews. “There were quite a few tears, and I just thought, ‘How can this be happening? I was totally fine a year ago—this has to be wrong.’”
After receiving her diagnosis, Andrews and her now-husband Jarret Stoll met with an oncologist to discuss her options. Luckily, she caught the cancer early enough to begin with a less aggressive approach. Alternatively, a woman who is diagnosed at a later stage may have no choice but to undergo radiation, chemotherapy, or a hysterectomy, according to women’s health expert and OB/GYN Dr. Jessica Shepherd. The best treatment route can also be determined by the results of both Pap and HPV tests.
“In 90 percent of cervical cancer cases, the leading cause is sexually-transmitted human papilloma virus, or HPV,” explains Shepherd. “Getting the HPV vaccine can decrease the risk of transmission, but women should get the Pap test starting at age 21. Then at age 30, we want women to be empowered to ask for the additional HPV test. It doesn’t require a separate test—there’s one swab that tests for both things. When we know the cause of the cervical cancer, then we can educate and treat women accordingly.”
After deciding that surgery to remove the cancer was her best option, the doctor had another important—and brutally honest—suggestion for the couple. “He said, ‘Look, I'm going to do this surgery but I'm also going to tell you both that now is the time to have your embryos frozen, because if this doesn't work, we’re going to need to talk about other options,’” Andrews recalls. “[Jarret and I] were kind of talking about those things, but we’re both very career-driven and weren’t planning to have a family right away. After that first appointment, we sat at The Ivy across from the hospital and ordered a bottle of Pinot Grigio. I was bawling, and wondering if I’d be able to have kids. I said, ‘What if we have to get a surrogate and I’m not pregnant for our baby shower?’ and he said, ‘Then we’ll go to Napa with all of our friends and just drink.’ I was very lucky that he looked at it that way, but there was still the thought of, ‘What if?’ We had to have some very real conversations.”
VIDEO: Erin Andrews Reveals She Is A Cervical Cancer Survivor
After Andrews’s first procedure didn’t work, she prepared to undergo a second surgery. This time around, she was even more nervous. “I was trying to act like it wasn't going to be stressful, but I was panicked,” she says, explaining that a twist of fate ultimately helped her keep calm. “The night before my surgery, my pregnant girlfriend went into labor. She was at the same hospital as me, and on my way [to the operating room], I went in and kissed her baby’s head for good luck.”
The bonding continued, post-op. “I visited their room and it was hysterical because I was in a diaper from my surgery, my girlfriend was in a diaper from just having a baby, and her kid was in a diaper,” says Andrews. “We took a photo, and it's the funniest picture ever.”
Andrews’s support system provided much-needed humor throughout her health battle. “My friends sent a few of bouquets to my house with notes that said, ‘Enough about your vagina, can we talk about something else?’” she says.
But outside of her inner circle, Andrews didn’t want anyone to know what she was going through. She purposefully planned doctors’ visits around her work schedule in order to keep her cancer diagnosis private. “I was in the middle of football season at that point, and I wasn't about to miss a game,” she says. “Being on my feet for about seven hours at a time was very hard, physically. But what was even harder was that, because I work with a bunch of men, I didn’t want to act like I was sick. I didn’t want it to seem like I was in pain or that I couldn’t do my job well. Mentally, it was draining.”
Emotional recovery is just as important as physical recovery—and while Andrews kept moving full speed ahead during treatment, medical professionals recommend that a woman with cervical cancer gives her body a break.
“After a woman goes through a procedure for cervical cancer, she usually takes a week or two to relax,” says Dr. Shepherd. “Erin didn’t necessarily do that in her case, but she definitely understood that she had to find ways to decrease stress so that it wouldn’t contribute negatively to her recovery.” In addition to meditation, Andrews “tried to imagine a white light” over herself and began wearing an amethyst around her wrist (the stone is often said to provide healing energy).
Andrews got the official news that she was cancer-free while in her dressing room for Dancing with the Stars. “My oncologist was really good about getting back to me, but I hadn’t heard from him all weekend,” she says. “I though, ‘Oh God, of course this is going to happen when I'm trying to get into a pair of spanks and some sequin number on a Monday.' Everyone on my team knew that I was waiting, and when I saw the number calling, I put it on speakerphone. One of the girls started taking down notes, because she knew I wasn’t paying attention. The doctor said, ‘You’re good to go, and I’ll see you in six months for a checkup,’ and it was a ton of relief.”
Knowing that her cancer battle was over gave Andrews peace of mind, but she still worries about the possibility of an eventual relapse. “To be honest, I’m always very scared about it,” she says. “There's so much anxiety when I go for my checkups. I literally feel like I'm going to pass out in the waiting room.”
Unsurprisingly, that’s a common fear. But doctors and patients can work together to stay cancer-free. “Any cancer diagnosis—especially one like cervical cancer, which we know is treatable—still requires follow up,” says Shepherd. “It’s not like Erin's just running around in the clear. She still has to be very invested in her follow-up visits and make sure that further screening is done.”
Now, Andrews is committed to spreading awareness about preventing cervical cancer, which claims the lives of two women every hour. “This is treatable and preventable, and women should not be dying of it,” says Andrews.
She’s determined to bring more attention to cervical cancer awareness by driving the conversation. “I've never felt more comfortable saying the word ‘vagina,'” says Andrews. “We’re always talking about breast cancer and prostate cancer. Now, it’s time to be comfortable talking about this, too.”