Elkhart teacher on a mission to educate women about cervical cancer prevention

02.22.2023

Everything happens for a reason in Danielle Kijak’s world. However, she didn’t know why she got cervical cancer at age 31.
 
“Why me?” Danielle said about her diagnosis in June 2020. “I’m too young to die.”
 
Danielle knew her most recent Pap test had come back abnormal, but she wasn’t overly concerned. All her other screenings were fine. She had no symptoms. Her life was full.
 
Family, friends and fandom for sitcoms, sports and sharing life with others filled Danielle with joy. She loved her teaching position at West Side Middle School in Elkhart.
 
Danielle’s life flashed before her eyes when she heard the results from a procedure to check her cervix for signs of cancer, called a colposcopy. It was like an out-of-body experience to learn she had Stage 1B cervical cancer.
 
“It didn’t feel real,” Danielle said. “You always hear about cancer – family members getting it, famous people getting it. You never think it’s going to happen to you.”
 
Danielle had little time to grapple with the news. She had tests to take and decisions to make about how to treat the cancer and get on with life.

Early detection opens up more options for treatment

First decision Danielle made – stay close to home for treatment at Goshen Center for Cancer Care. That’s where she met her team of cancer experts, including Gynecologic Oncologist Dr. Pamela Stone.
 
Next came a discussion between Dr. Stone and Danielle about treatment options. An MRI and PET scan showed no signs of cancer outside of Danielle’s reproductive system. That meant surgery to remove the cervix could be the best choice for Danielle to get rid of the cancer and move on with life.
 
Surgery came with its own set of unknowns, however. If the cancer had spread from the cervix into the uterus, Danielle would need a full hysterectomy. She wouldn’t know what the doctors found – and how much they had to remove – until after a five-hour open surgery.
 
Fortunately for Danielle, her early-stage cancer was isolated only in her cervix. Her other reproductive organs remained intact after surgery, and she needed no further treatment.
 
Danielle needed a month to recover from surgery, then engulfed herself in family, friends and work again. The gym became her therapy as she put her life back on track.
 
As she restored her body, Danielle also reflected on how to live life after cancer.
 
“You can use what happens to you as an excuse or rise above it,” she said. “I prefer to rise above it.”
 
For Danielle, this was no time to be shy. She wanted to tell her story loud and clear, in hopes of helping others prevent cancer and live healthy lives.

Learn from others, share openly, offer support

The teacher in Danielle comes out when she talks about her cancer journey. She believes there’s not enough education on cervical cancer and prevention.
 
“No one wants to talk about cervical cancer,” she said. “We hear about breast cancer, lung cancer, even brain cancer. But you don’t hear much about cervical cancer.”
 
Danielle uses social media as her platform to raise awareness about the disease and the importance of cancer screenings. She knows early stage detection and treatment offer the best chance to prevent recurrence and live a full life.
 
When it comes to prevention, Danielle is an advocate for the HPV vaccine. Human papillomavirus is closely linked with cervical cancer. However, the vaccine wasn’t available when Danielle was a teenager.
 
No one knows if Danielle contracted the virus or if genetics raised her risk for the disease. Her family history of cancer traces back at least two generations, including a grandmother and aunt who died from ovarian cancer.
 
Danielle has made sure her 11-year-old daughter’s adoptive family knows about her genetic connection to cancer. She believes the more people know, the better prepared they will be to make important decisions about their family’s health and well-being.

Comfort, celebration, community come from circles of support

Danielle has her weak moments. Scar tissue from the surgery causes problems. The weight she gained in her 30s doesn’t come off as easily as it did in her 20s. Every six months, Danielle goes into the cancer center for tests to make sure she’s still free of the disease.
 
Fortunately, Danielle has parents who are always by her side, helping her through the rough times and celebrating the milestones. One look from Danielle’s golden lab, Sophie, brings a smile, laughter and love. Her social media fans also give her strength and support, no matter what she posts.
 
“Everyone mentions how strong I am, but I think I really don’t have a choice,” she said. “Being open and honest about everything has helped.”
 
That’s why Danielle takes every opportunity to share her story. When she has an anniversary, checkup or appointment, she posts a message, reminding her followers to get all their yearly screenings. It’s her way of helping people she loves live healthy lives.
 
“I’m blessed God gave me a loud voice,” she said. “I use it to help others like me.”