Young cervical cancer survivor underscores the importance of the HPV vaccine

January 26, 2021
Halea Wylie stands in a field of grass with her fiancee and their three children
Halea Wylie, pictured with her fiance Brandon and their three children, is now a fierce advocate for the HPV vaccine and regular cancer screenings. Photo courtesy of Amanda Morgan Photography

2020 was destined to be a big year for Halea Wylie. She and her fiance, Brandon, bought a 3,000-square-foot house in their little town of Blacksburg, South Carolina, and made it their summer mission to remodel it into something that felt like home. After that, they had plans to get engaged and married and to continue enjoying life with their three young children.

What wasn’t included in Wylie’s plans was a diagnosis of stage 4 cervical cancer.

A month after purchasing her new home in June, Wylie, 27, began having severe back pain. Thinking she might have hurt it during the remodeling process, she went to an urgent care clinic, where she was referred to a chiropractor.

The following month, she developed new pain in her hip and shoulder, she couldn’t move her arm, and a small lump had appeared on her collar bone.

After two more urgent care visits, an orthopedic appointment, multiple physical therapy sessions and two trips to local hospitals in Upstate South Carolina, a CT scan in October finally revealed a mass containing cells that are strongly linked with human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, which meant Wylie likely had an HPV-associated cancer. She also had two fractures in her hip, three fractures in her shoulder and a separate fracture in both her spine and neck.

Despite the severity of the symptoms she’d been having, the possibility of having cancer was not on her radar.

“I thought the lump was maybe a growth or tumor of some sort, and I thought that maybe I’d need surgery, but I still expected to be in and out of the hospital that day,” said Wylie. “When they walked in and told me they needed to admit me, I was not expecting it.”

Because of visitation restrictions due to COVID-19, Wylie had to process the news alone as the hospital’s doctors told her the cancer had progressed beyond the point of a cure and that not much could be done. She began radiation to help to treat her fractures and manage her pain.

“Finding out by myself was one of the hardest parts of what I went through,” said Wylie. “A couple of days went by, and I just decided that I wasn’t going to give up on this. I called around to all kinds of cancer centers trying to figure out where I wanted to start.”

A change in prognosis

Wylie’s research first led her to MUSC Hollings Cancer Center, where oncologist Jerlinda Ross, M.D., evaluated her and had her prior biopsies and imaging reviewed at MUSC.

Before those results came back, Wylie also made a trip to a cancer center in Texas, which took its own biopsy. That biopsy came back negative for any type of cancer — completely contradicting the findings from Wylie’s local hospital — and it was recommended that she follow up with her local doctor to confirm the result with another scan.

“I think my trip to Texas was just God buying me some time, because by the time I got back, Dr. Ross called me back with the answer I needed,” said Wylie.

Jerlinda Ross 
After reviewing Wylie's initial scans and biopsies from other hospitals, Dr. Jerlinda Ross was able to pinpoint a diagnosis and create a treatment plan. Photo by Emma Vought

Ross determined that Wylie had squamous cell carcinoma on the inside of her cervix despite not having a large, visible mass on the outer part of the cervix, which is usually the case with advanced stage 4 cervical cancer. Squamous cell carcinoma is one of the main types of cervical cancer and begins in the thin, flat (squamous) cells lining the outer part of the cervix, which projects into the vagina.

The discovery gave Wylie more than just the answer she’d been seeking for nearly six months — it gave her the potential for a cure.

“The other hospitals I visited had taken a biopsy of the outside of the cervix without taking a scrape of the inside. Dr. Ross found out what no one else had even been looking for,” said Wylie. “She took the time to really look into it and to have all of her people look into it, and I’m thankful for her.”

Wylie began chemotherapy at Hollings right before Christmas and will continue the treatments for the next few weeks. Then, she’ll have another scan to determine the treatment’s efficacy.

As she eagerly awaits the results of her treatment, Wylie has been working to establish healthier habits at home by changing her diet and trying to eat only natural foods. She’s looking forward to finishing her treatment so she can begin planning her wedding. She and Brandon were engaged in November.

Preventing cervical cancer

More than 14,000 women in the U.S. are projected to be diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2021. The disease used to be the leading cause of cancer deaths for American women, but thanks to an uptick in regular screenings and the HPV vaccine, cervical cancer cases and deaths have reduced dramatically in the last few decades, as changes in the cervix can either be prevented or detected before a cancer develops.

Of all the cases of cervical cancer diagnosed in the U.S., more than 90% are caused by HPV infections — an infection that most women who are sexually active will encounter or acquire at some point in their lives.

Because of her journey, Wylie is now a fierce advocate for the HPV vaccine, which can help to protect against cervical cancers as well as five other types of cancers in both males and females.

“The vaccine is one thing I never got. I didn’t think it was one of those vaccines that was really needed because it wasn’t pushed that hard back when it first came out. Now, doctors really stress the need for it, and some parents might not understand why, but it’s very important.”
— Halea Wylie

“The vaccine is one thing I never got,” said Wylie. “I didn’t think it was one of those vaccines that was really needed because it wasn’t pushed that hard back when it first came out. Now, doctors really stress the need for it, and some parents might not understand why, but it’s very important.”

Wylie also encourages women to get their annual pap smears to screen for cervical cancer, as precancerous cells were found during an exam she had in 2017. At the time, she received cryotherapy, which cured the abnormal cells, and she continued getting screened every few months to ensure that the cells hadn’t recurred. Findings from her most recent screening in December 2019 came back normal.

Wylie believes the fact that precancerous cells had previously been found in her cervix provided a clue that was essential to detecting her cancer.

“I think screenings are important. If I had never gotten that screening, then maybe we would’ve never found the cancer since it was hiding on the inside of my cervix,” said Wylie. “I never knew about all the different types and everything you have to get checked for.”

For those who already have a diagnosis of cancer, she recommends always getting a second — and even a third — opinion, as the results can be dramatically different and can entirely change the course of treatment. She encourages patients never to give up — a motto that has provided her with strength and endurance as she awaits the results of her chemotherapy.

“The mantra I have kept this whole time is ‘faith over fear.’ When I found out about the cancer, I immediately made that my mindset,” Wylie explained. “I never let my cancer diagnosis get me down. I never cried about it. There’s a meaning behind everything — I just haven’t gotten to my meaning yet.”

About the Author

Kelsey Hudnall
MUSC Hollings Cancer Center

Keywords: Cancer, Fitness and Wellness