Cervical cancer survivor shares advice with others, inspires daughter to work in health care

January 19, 2022
Dr. Jerlinda Ross (left) is pleased with how far Mikiko Dollard (right) has come during her battle with cervical cancer. Photos by Josh Birch

Seeing a child graduate from college is special, but for Mikiko Dollard, 48, her daughter’s upcoming graduation at The Citadel in May will be even more meaningful. Neither knew if Mikiko would be able to attend the graduation after she was diagnosed with stage 3b cervical cancer in 2020.

“I was always tired and felt some pressure building in my stomach. Weeks had gone by, and I was losing a lot of weight and just knew something wasn’t right,” Mikiko said.

At first, doctors near her home in the small town of Johnsonville, South Carolina, told her she had a urinary tract infection and low vitamin D levels. But she continued to push her primary care doctor to investigate further and eventually had a Pap smear and ultrasound performed. It was in July 2020 when Mikiko heard the words no one can fully prepare for – you have cancer.

Despite not having a family history of cancer, Mikiko, native-born Japanese, took the diagnosis in stride, determined to do whatever was needed to be there for her two daughters and husband of 23 years. To her daughter Mya, 22, a senior at The Citadel, the diagnosis came as a blow.

“This all took place in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Students at The Citadel were supposed to limit their travel off campus to help slow the spread,” Mya said. “I had to get special leave to go home and see her. At the time, I didn’t know if I would even go back to school because I was scared my mom was going to die. But my mom wanted me to finish school, so that is what I’m doing.”

In August 2020, Mikiko began a grueling six weeks of chemotherapy close to her home. “Chemotherapy was really difficult. By the time it was done, I had lost about 30 pounds and felt weak. I couldn’t do the things that I love, like cooking for my family.”

Following chemotherapy, Mikiko was scheduled to begin radiation at a facility in Columbia. However, her radiation plan quickly changed due to her existing fibroids and endometriosis, which would complicate her care plan. Doctors knew she would need the best specialist to treat her, which is why in the fall of 2020, she was referred to MUSC Hollings Cancer Center. “I was told the specialists at Hollings would be able to do precise internal radiation and provide better care. For me, it was a no-brainer.”

Dr. Jerlinda Ross 
Dr. Jerlinda Ross

It was at Hollings that Mikiko met her team of doctors – Jerlinda Ross, M.D., a gynecologic oncologist who would oversee her care, and Samuel Cooper, M.D., a radiation oncologist tasked with pinpointing her radiation treatment to provide the best possible outcome.

Ross said Hollings offers patients what no other facility in the state can – access to clinical trials and specialists who are well-versed in the latest developments in cancer care. “We have specialists who can treat complicated cases to provide the best possible care to the patient,” Ross said. “In her case, the fibroids distorted imaging of her cervix, which may have impacted where radiation was given or the dosage that was used. However, thanks to the expertise of Dr. Cooper, we were able to work through those challenges and deliver the appropriate dose of radiation where it was needed.”

Having her mom at Hollings was a blessing for Mya, who was just a few miles away at The Citadel. Both mom and daughter were impressed with the care at Hollings from the moment they arrived.

“The staff at Hollings mean a lot to us,” Mya said. “They made my mom feel part of the family and like she wasn’t even at a doctor appointment. My mom can ask questions and trust them completely. You can tell that they are genuine and really care about their patients.”

Ross believes that providing care goes beyond the cancer itself – it’s about creating a support system and a holistic approach that treats both the physical and mental health aspects of the patient. “I think that is what we strive for. We want the patient and their family to feel like we care about them at an individual level – because we do.”

Ross believes Mikiko’s story provides women of all backgrounds an important lesson – if you notice something isn’t right with your body, continue to follow up with your doctor until there are answers.

Inspiring the next generation of health care workers

More than a year since treatment ended, Mikiko still makes several visits a year to Hollings for routine checkups and scans to ensure her cancer hasn’t returned. She is back to doing what she loves, which includes cooking her favorite Asian dishes for her family.

Mikiko is thankful for her doctors at Hollings who provided a chance to live life after cancer. Based on her most recent scans, Mikiko remains free of any evidence of disease. “My doctors gave me options and involved me in the decision-making, which meant a lot to me,” Mikiko said. “I felt comfortable at Hollings and really trusted everyone who was caring for me. 

Mya Dollard (right) plans to become an oncology nurse following her mother's cervical cancer battle. 
Mya Dollard (right) plans to become an oncology nurse following her mother's cervical cancer battle.

Her cancer journey has been impactful – not just for herself but also for Mya, who is now determined to help other cancer patients as a nurse.

“I had always wanted to be a nurse, but my mom’s diagnosis really changed my focus to want to become an oncology nurse,” Mya said. “I saw the support and care that nurses at Hollings provided her, and I wanted to be that for someone in their life.”

Mya also wants to become an advocate for cancer prevention and encourage other men and women to get the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. HPV can cause several types of cancer, including cancers of the cervix, vagina, vulva, penis, anus and several types of head and neck cancers. The HPV vaccine is the best way to avoid developing those types of cancer.

Mya has already received her HPV vaccine. She hopes to encourage others to do the same as a future oncology nurse and a daughter of a cervical cancer survivor. “I’ve really become more aware of the importance of maintaining routine checkups while in nursing school,” she said. “I’m a big advocate for the HPV vaccination that can hopefully prevent others from going through what my mom did.”