Cervical cancer patient embraces life after navigating treatment

Patsy McSweeney did not expect her primary care visit at the end of 2019 to lead to a cancer diagnosis. At the time, she was enjoying life with her family in Maine, where they had lived for more than 15 years, and was fully immersed in her decades-long career in law.

Just past menopause, at 54, Patsy had noticed some light vaginal bleeding and spotting, but did not think this was a cause for concern.

“As women, we are so used to spotting, from when we first get our periods,” Patsy says. “So, when I had some bleeding, and it was just spot bleeding, it didn’t alarm me.”

Her physician recommended an ultrasound, and before Patsy even got home, she got a call that she needed to go in for a biopsy.

At first, Patsy was told she had uterine cancer. Her physician, who had been treated at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute herself years earlier, encouraged her to go to Dana-Farber. There, Patsy found out she in fact had cervical cancer and that it had spread to one of her ovaries.

After a full hysterectomy, including her cervix, Patsy began an aggressive treatment plan under the care of a team of oncologists, including Ursula Matulonis, MD, Brock-Wilson Family Chair at Dana-Farber and Chief of the Division of Gynecologic Oncology within the Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers. During her daily treatments, Patsy rented an apartment near Dana-Farber and began full pelvic radiation Monday through Friday, internal brachytherapy, and on top of that, chemotherapy once a week. After completing the initial treatment, she had more rounds of a different cocktail of chemotherapy.

This was difficult enough on its own—but it was also taking place in early 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was emerging in full force.

“Being treated for cancer during the pandemic was surreal,” Patsy describes. “Boston was a ghost town except for medical staff. Nobody could come in with me for my treatments. You just didn’t have any grounding, without your partner or a friend, or your mother.”

Throughout this, though, Patsy found support in the Dana-Farber community.

“The nurses were amazing,” Patsy recalls. “Even though they were under stress and managing the risks to themselves and their families during the onset of the pandemic, I felt like they really stepped up, realizing that the people getting treatment were often feeling lonely, scared, and isolated without a loved one by their side. The nurses and staff filled that role with such compassion and kindness; I’m forever grateful. Of course, my brilliant team of doctors were so patient and empathetic with me as well. I was never dismissed from a conversation and they always made me feel like I was the most important patient to them.”

Patsy also found that she had access to a wide range of resources at Dana-Farber that helped her navigate her experience with cancer. Beyond the Institute’s nutrition and counseling services, Patsy was grateful for Dana-Farber’s Sexual Health Program, led by Sharon Bober, PhD.

“There’s that feeling of ‘I’m different now, sex is not going to be the same.’ That’s a piece of cervical cancer that I don’t think people talk about too much,” Patsy reflects. “Being able to speak with an expert about it is a big deal for patients with any kind of gynecological cancer, and especially after extensive radiation. I was even referred to a gynecological physical therapist near me to help with recovery. Those services were really important to me.”

Over a year and a half after treatment and cancer free, Patsy is back in Maine and looking ahead.

“I want to understand the experience I had with cancer a little bit more, and to kind of recalibrate,” Patsy says. “I want to live and explore. I want to embrace what I have in my life.”

With this in mind, Patsy is planning an extended break from her job as a corporate lawyer to travel, explore new things, and spend time with her mom, kids, partner—a recently retired firefighter—and family. The first stops on her list are visiting Finland and Columbia, where her sisters’ husbands hail from and live part time. After that, Patsy hopes to explore more of Europe, and eventually make her way to Vietnam and Cambodia, among other destinations.   

Patsy is also inspired to give back by helping patients currently navigating cancer. After her diagnosis, she found that people came into her life who were also experiencing cancer, in one way or another, and those friendships made a difference to her. Patsy continues to deeply value this coalition of friends who helped her go through the process of having the disease, and she hopes to provide the same support to others, including other women who are post-menopause and who may ignore spotting like she did.

“I see it as a bit of a mission to support people going through cancer and the emotional rollercoaster of it all,” Patsy says. “If someone who gets to the other end of this experience could then support and help others going through it, there would be a lot less isolation and loneliness and fear for cancer patients.”

Patsy continues to feel exceedingly grateful that she took her primary care physician’s advice and pursued treatment at Dana-Farber.

“Dana-Farber is an international force in research and discovering and developing treatments and cures,” she says. “My lead oncologists research, teach, and lead national and international efforts to eradicate cancer. This, while aggressively caring for patients with compassion.”

Support patients like Patsy by joining The Dana-Farber Campaign, our ambitious, multi-year fundraising effort to prevent, treat, and defy cancer. The Dana-Farber Campaign will accelerate the Institute’s strategic priorities by supporting revolutionary science, extraordinary care, and exceptional expertise. As a community, we have the power to create a more hopeful, cancer-free future—in Boston and around the world. Together, we can defy cancer at every turn. Learn more about The Dana-Farber Campaign at DefyCancer.org.