I met Jennifer in 2011 when I moved to a rural town in Minnesota so that my husband could pastor a local church. It was clear upon meeting Jen that she was a joy to be around—full of life, vibrant, and beautiful. From the beginning she and I would often spend hours after Bible study or Sunday service talking about anything and everything. She was a dedicated wife and mother of three, and much of our conversation focused on our families.
As I got to know her better, she talked about her battle with cervical cancer the previous year and her worries of it recurring. At the time I didn’t know cervical cancer and HPV were related. I was a parent who vaccinated, and whenever someone brought up the HPV vaccine, I made statements similar to ones I’d heard from others, like, “Well it’s a new vaccine,” and “I’m going to teach my kids to wait until marriage,” and “It’s really only girls who need it right?” In retrospect I feel embarrassed that I accepted those statements. I hadn’t yet engaged the reality of cancer.
As our first year of friendship came to a close, Jen messaged me that she’d had a concerning check-up. She worried over every follow-up appointment; having a problem crop up during one of them was among her worst fears. I asked her if she wanted to come over, have tea, and talk. She came over, we talked, we laughed, we prayed, and we cried. I tried to comfort her but I didn’t know how, so I hugged her tightly before she left. It was the last time I saw her healthy.
The suspicious spots turned out to be a recurrence of her cancer. Over the course of the next year, Jen underwent extensive procedures trying to stem the tide of an aggressive form of cervical cancer. Between medications that kept her out of it and her compromised immune system, I wasn’t able to see her. Adding to that, I was pregnant and had my own health issues.
The last time I saw Jen alive was at her eldest child’s baptism.
The first time I saw my church family with my new baby was at Jen’s funeral. She was forty years old.
During that year, I learned about the HPV vaccine. I learned how HPV and cervical cancer were linked. I learned that the vaccine is safe, extensively tested, and recommended for both genders. I came to understand that having certain religious values didn’t preclude this life-saving vaccine. I also realized that if this vaccine had been available twenty or thirty years ago, my friend Jen wouldn’t have died of cervical cancer.
I only got one year with Jen. One of her final messages to me was through my husband, her pastor, who was at her bedside in her final days in hospice. She said, “Tell Shannon that I think we would have been really good friends.”
I have two boys now and without a doubt they will be vaccinated against HPV. The facts helped me see the safety and efficacy of the HPV vaccine. Losing a friend helped me see the value of the HPV vaccine. My hope is that by sharing this story, parents will vaccinate against this disease. We have few weapons against cancer. This vaccine is one of them.
Shannon Layfield is the mother of two lovely boys and the wife of a pastor in small town Minnesota. In her spare time she enjoys sci-fi, playing video games, and doing her nails.