Sagrario Ortega, from Spain, was diagnosed with human papillomavirus (HPV)-related mouth cancer in 2014.
Here, she movingly describes the effect of the diagnosis and its treatment, and her drive to maintain her positivity and courage. And yet the hardest part was to come when her cancer came back four years later.
She talks about the incredible support she received from the healthcare team and her family and friends, as well as the importance of taking care of oneself and living day-by-day. Finally, she tells us why she thinks policymakers should “do what is necessary” to make HPV vaccination available to all.
My name is Sagrario Ortega and I was born in Barcelona, Catalunya, in 1965. I'm married, and I have no children. I have one brother and two sisters, and my 91-year-old parents are in good health. In this sense, I feel fortunate. I am sheltered by love and by my family.
I was a copy editor and I used to work in a small publishing company in Barcelona. I really loved my job even though the conditions were never enjoyable.
I am a nature and animal enthusiast. I like travel, reading, trekking, cinema, gastronomy and, increasingly, simple, intimate things. I enjoy the company of the people who love me.
My story begins in 2014. For many months, I suffered from a sore throat. However, the doctor could not work out what was happening to me. In my opinion, he did not pay the problem the attention it required.
In the end, I went to another otolaryngologist, who quickly referred me to Bellvitge Hospital. The diagnosis came back right away: Oral squamous cell carcinoma caused by HPV.
Even now, it is difficult to put it into words.
We all believe we are immune to misfortune, that something like cancer will never happen to us. And then when it happens, it's difficult to believe. It’s so hard to accept it.
In my case, I sensed that something bad was happening to me, but until the diagnosis arrives, you hope that something so horrible is not happening to you.
At that time, 2014–15, I faced the disease with positivity and courage, but also with realism, always knowing what cancer means and its consequences. After a very hard course of treatment the tumour disappeared and my life returned to ‘normal’ for two years.
But the worst was yet to come.
In 2018, the nightmare returned. I learned of the diagnosis in the most unexpected way, when I picked up the report of a routine test in a clinic.
I was alone, surprised, unready – well, nobody is prepared for something like that. I didn't believe what I was reading. Two single words, difficult even to write now: Pulmonary metastasis.
I wanted to die. I went into shock. Without a doubt, it was the worst moment of my life.
And yet, even when you already believe that you could not endure any more, you continue the fight to survive, because there is no other choice. Always with optimism, courage and confidence in medicine.
When you receive news like that, life is never the same again. There is no ‘normal’ life anymore. Everything changes forever. Over time, you learn to accept the disease, to cope with the treatments, to relativise minor problems.
And you learn to value the really important things. To value time and all the good things you have in your life. Your temporal perspective changes completely, and you have to learn to live day-by-day. Probably the hardest thing to cope with is the uncertainty.
In this sense, I also feel lucky to have access to public and high-quality medical assistance in my country. I will always be immensely grateful to all the health personnel of the Duran i Reynals Hospital, who through all these years have treated and cared for me with such affection and dedication.
I don't like to give advice to anyone because everyone is different. However, for me it has been very important:
Unfortunately, many types of cancer still have no cure nowadays. However, if a vaccine like the HPV vaccine can eradicate at least this type of cancer, I wish that policymakers would do what is necessary so that, soon, a day comes when no one has to go through what I am going through. Research is needed to further advance new, and less invasive, treatments for cancer.
Health is the most important thing we have. Life is wonderful. Enjoy it!