New mom, lawyer reveals vulnerable moments she's experiencing as a cervical cancer survivor

May 27, 2022
in an exam room, a doctor stands and looks at a computer screen while a patient stands slightly behind her also looking at the screen
Dr. Whitney Graybill reviews results with Sara Couch. Photo by Clif Rhodes

Editor’s Note: This is the first-person account of Sara Couch’s cancer journey presented at the recent Linda Floyd Forum hosted by MUSC Hollings Cancer Center. Couch is an attorney at Motley Rice, one of the sponsors of the event.


My name is Sara, and I’m happy to be able to join you today. For the past nine years, I have been fortunate to practice law at Motley Rice and call Mt. Pleasant home with my husband, a physician at Roper, MUSC and Trident. And almost 20 months ago, I had the joy of delivering my first child at MUSC’s Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital.

My pregnancy was uneventful. I ate lots of fruits and vegetables, exercised daily, walking miles along the beach just days before giving birth.

As I’m sure many of you can relate, being a new mom is full of sleepless nights, barely finding time to shower every few days. So, when I started to have low back pain, I didn’t think too much about it. And when I felt intermittent cramps, I figured it was normal postpartum. After all, what new mom doesn’t have a low backache?

But, over time, these aches and cramps began to increase – so much that I found myself waking up in the early hours of the morning, throbbing and unable to sleep. A trip to urgent care for a suspected urinary tract infection wasn’t helpful. I left with an antibiotic and advice to get some sleep. Easier said than done while working long days in trial and a now 7-month-old nursing baby at home.

Thankfully, a couple of weeks after the trip to urgent care, I had a previously scheduled well-woman visit with an OB-GYN at MUSC. I explained to her my low back pain. But also that at the time, I was caring for a 7-month-old and working late nights at trial – presumably my symptoms would resolve once things calmed down at work and the baby slept more. To be honest, I felt self-conscious about reporting these symptoms.

Nevertheless, my doctor asked when my last Pap smear was – a routine test that I knew was important. Because of this, I never missed a Pap smear from age 19 to 32. And without fail, my tests came back normal. No concern. The only year I skipped a year was when I was pregnant at age 33. Now, at 34, my doctor advised I be tested “just to be thorough.”

I left her office that day relieved, assuming that everything would resolve, and without much thought.

On May 4, 2021, I was sitting in a colleague’s office discussing a trial when my phone rang. Number unrecognized. It was MUSC calling to tell me they had put a rush on my Pap smear results, and I needed to come in right away – it was cervical cancer, and I was scheduled for a biopsy within the hour. Not only that – I had appointments to see an oncologist and radiologist in the next two days.


It’s a word that still causes me to catch my breath. I was terrified at my deepest core, to the point I felt I could not breathe. I recall vividly thinking I would do anything – anything – to survive and raise my baby.

a young woman sits on a doorstep with a toddler girl standing next to her 
Sara Couch with her daughter. Photo by Caitlyn Motycka

What you may not realize about cancer is the first few weeks of diagnosis, there are so many unknowns. You’re waiting for scans, for staging, you’re getting treatment options and recommendations. You’re calling your mom to tell her that she needs to come now because it’s Serious. And you’re wondering how you will tell your Mom that she might lose another child after losing my twin brother tragically two years earlier.

You’re hearing things like “five-year survival rate” and a 50% prognosis/chance and trying to comprehend what that means. Almost overnight, you’re thrown into a world of statistics, means and averages – while also staring at your daughter’s blue eyes and marveling at her giggles and the fragility of it all.

I think that when we are struck with the most tragic, the most brutal, the most difficult – that is when we have the opportunity to see the most beautiful, feel the most hope. It can truly feel audacious to feel hopeful when the doctors have said it’s 50-50 you’ll live to see your baby start kindergarten, but there it is. When I struggled to feel hope, MUSC and Hollings offered it to me.

I remember vividly a conversation I had with Dr. (Whitney) Graybill in those first few days. I waited for a moment when my parents had stepped out; my husband was watching the baby, and it was just us. My scan results had come in, confirming stage IIIC1, and Dr. Graybill called me on her way home from what was undoubtedly a long day in the hospital. And I remember asking her the question I had been too scared to ask anyone yet – would I see my daughter’s first birthday? Would I be alive in a year?

And you can imagine the relief when she resoundingly and firmly replied, “Yes – you will be alive in a year.”

And I am now standing in front of you one year and one week to the day from that call with Dr. Graybill. I am thrilled to report that treatments are going well, and that my entire care team remains optimistic I’ll be standing here in another four.

And I am profoundly, personally and deeply grateful for the care that Hollings offers just minutes from my home. With the continued support of my work family, I have been able to balance work and treatments. Yes, like many patients, I had to take a leave of absence as we fought the tumor. I’ll spare you the details, but the chemotherapy, radiation and brachytherapy were brutal. But now – I'm 10 months post-chemo and currently on immunotherapy. I am able to balance work and being a mom and fighting cancer in large part due to the continued support of my work family at Motley Rice and excellent care available at MUSC.

And on the days when the anxiety creeps in, or I’m waiting on my scan results, I lean on my doctors and their experience and wisdom – and they are so wonderful to respond quickly. As they assure me, I have every reason to remain hopeful.

I know that I am receiving truly cutting-edge care, with the newest immunotherapies, and I am so grateful that I can drop off my now 19-month-old daughter off at preschool, drive to Hollings and be done in time to pick her up at the end of the day.

I wish that no other woman or young mother would ever get a call that turns their world upside down. But numbers don’t lie. I am so thankful for everyone that has come before me and contributed to me being here today.

I would not be here today without an army. It has been profoundly humbling, and I am at a loss to truly describe how much the doctors and nurses at MUSC matter to me and to so many other women – as does the work, education, and financial support contributed at events like today. Unequivocally, it matters.