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F** cancer, go climbing!

By Inga Patarcic

“So, what’s wrong with my results?” I ask my Frauenarzt (gynecologist).

“Oh, well… You don’t really have cancer at the moment! But, we need to do some extra tests to be sure,” he responded with a strong German accent. Stripped of any emotions, I felt a rush of heat. Though that June morning was exceptionally sunny, but not particularly warm. The smell of disinfectant in the room became exceptionally strong – in contrast to the sweet scent of early summer coming from the outside.

“Wait, wait, wait! Whaaaat?” I noticed traces of disbelief in my voice.

“Is this guy just telling me that I have cancer?” I could not decode the meaning of the information that he just delivered. What kind of approach is this? A**hole… Slow down, Inga… Breath. Think critically – like a scientist. Come’on, you are a PhD Student, aren’t you. Breath. Ask questions.

“What precisely does it mean PAP-3D? What are the consequences? What should I do next?” Without satisfying answers, I decided to change my doctor.

 “I am here to help you,” my new Frauenartzt said. He stopped typing on the keyboard to pierce me with a long gaze above his reading glasses. What does that look mean, I think to myself.

“We will repeat the PAP smear test again, OK?”


CIN stands for cervical intraepithelial neoplasia – a precancerous condition in which abnormal cells grow on the surface of the cervix. CIN may develop into cervical cancer if not found and treated. The cervix is the opening between the vagina and the uterus;  “intraepithelial” means the surface (epithelial tissue) of the cervix and “neoplasia” refers to the growth of new cells. CIN is classified according to how much epithelial tissue is affected with CIN3 being the most severe form of it with two-thirds of the epithelium  affected. Women usually have no symptoms and abnormal cells are found only after a routine Pap smear test.

Why on Earth did I get the HPV? Why didn’t I protect myself well? Did my partners use condoms without any exception all the time? What if I, because of laziness, get cancer, and eventually die of it?

My interior clenched in anticipation of the future.

In most cases CIN occurs after infection with human papillomavirus (HPV) through sexual contact, but most women with CIN do not get cancer. Approximatley 80% of people acquire the virus in their life and their immune system usually gets rid of it. Mine, which was under constant stress due to my PhD, did not protect itself. I had an on-going infection with the high-risk HPV-16 type that together with HPV-18 accounts for 70% of cervical cancer cases. The infection lasted more than one year and I had a high risk of developing a higher grade of CIN and all the way to cervical cancer.

“What if I am an exception and I actually develop cervical cancer?”

It usually takes several years for cancer to develop, but a small percentage of CIN cases progress to cervical cancer, typically cervical squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). Determined not to lose any additional time, I insist on getting rid of the bad cells ASAP.

“Just give me the next possible appointment for colposcopy!” I leave my apartment to cry my soul out.

“Congrats girl! You just won the third operation in the time course of your PhD,” I stopped at the bridge and looked at the river below.

“What should I do now? Should I be worried?” I really wished not to think about the HPV anymore. I  already knew I did everything I could have at that moment. There was nothing else to do except wait for the operation. Except… one thing that always helps me to go through basically every situation in life – climbing.

“Hey, Wolf, can I come to Frankenjura?”

 

 When things get tough, I go climbing. Because, if I am focused on climbing, I don’t think about things – how simple is that? Things can be differently defined: breakups, work, health, etc. In this specific case, things are my CIN3-HSIL diagnosis.

My project in Frankenjura, at that time (CIN3-HSIL diagnosis), was Sautanz – the first IX- in Germany. Sautanz (named after a bottle of wine) was free climbed by Kurt Albert in 1983, on-sighted by a bold Brit – Jerry Moffat and a local hero Wolfgang Gullich free-soloed it.

Frankenjura is by far one of the most famous climbing arenas in the World, though not so exotic for Berliners. I usually take a bus that brings me there in about four hours. It is famous for the Action Directe route – the first 9a in the World. Frankenjura spans several thousands routes scattered in the radius of approx. 100km between Bamberg, Bayreuth and Nurmberg. This is a hilly part of Germany with great climbing sectors 30min drive from each other. Or at least, I choose such sectors for climbing.

 Sautanz found its way through a slightly overhanging wall drilled by two-finger pockets. The wall itself seems unnatural; like it paid a toll in World War II. Pockets and pockets – I pinched them, crimped, or took them as an undercling… Moves are athletic, better fitting to taller climbers and somewhat polished. One could expect polishness after forty years of the existence of the route, right? Technically challenging routes like this do not forgive mistakes.

And I was making plenty of mistakes, just as I did in my life…

“Couldn’t I protect myself better? Why did I get infected?” I was constantly failing to free-climb Sautanz.

 I was failing to free-climb the route for three long days. Wolfgang  – a local climber notoriously famous for a peculiar taste in people – had the patience to go to the Gossweinstein Wand every day after lunch. Nomad himself, Wolf accepts and supports people without home like me or Said Behlaj. But… I was such a failure.

Fourth day, when I was helplessly swinging in my harness between the 4th and 5th bolt, everything came together – “Even if I make mistakes, I can still be successful”.

“I am stronger than this. I make mistakes and I accept them. I might need to push harder when I make mistakes, but I will climb this route.”

 So, I did it. In my next try. I made mistakes, but I free-climbed Sautanz.

Motivated by my success in Sautanz and determined to get my body healthy again, I bought a bus ticket to Berlin. I was .

 

 —

 

I had a laser treatment (colposcopy) to clear the pre-cancerous cells. Done under local anaesthetic, the procedure felt like going to the dentist. Actually better – without pain. Plus, it lasts shorter; only a few minutes. In addition, I received three doses of the HPV vaccine: Gardasil-9. 

Two weeks post OP, I left Berlin  aimed for a less stressful period of my life. The first thing I did – I went to the UK to meet the team behind Climbers Against Cancer. I am their Ambassador now.

 I continue being determined to ignore my HPV story. I focus on something else: work, climbing, friends. I do not believe that being worried would anyhow help me to heal. But, I  go to regular 3-month checkups and so far everything is just fine :-

 

 

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