May's Story: Finding Joy After Cervical Cancer

January 25, 2023
Photo of patient May Leahy in a hospital room

May Leahy, pictured during a hospital stay holding a gift given to her by a member of her care team. (Courtesy of May Leahy)

May Leahy was diagnosed with stage 3 cervical cancer in 2018, just a few months shy of her 35th birthday. The tumultuous years that followed were the most difficult she has ever endured. She retells her cancer journey not without shedding a few a tears but makes a point to say, “I’m crying, not because I’m sad. I’m crying tears of joy and gratitude.”

May’s care team at the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center is led by gynecologic oncologist Caryn St. Clair, MD, who treated the cervical cancer with chemotherapy and radiotherapy. After the cancer recurred in 2019, May went through chemotherapy once again and developed a fistula for which colorectal surgery was involved. A year later, the cancer spread to May’s liver and the lesion was resected and treated with immunotherapy. She also underwent a type of non-surgical radiotherapy called stereotactic body radiotherapy (SBRT), which delivers precise and targeted radiation in fewer high-dose treatments than traditional radiation therapy.

Now more than five years since her diagnosis, May has been off treatment for more than two years, and remains free of disease.

May Leahy

Now five years since her cervical cancer diagnosis, May Leahy has been off treatment for more than two years, and remains free of disease. (Courtesy of May Leahy)

“We all go through trials and tribulations in life. Every human in the world experiences challenges, big or small. Being told I have cancer was the biggest shock of my life,” says May, a Brooklyn native. “I am so grateful to Dr. St. Clair. She moved so quickly with me. She didn’t sit on anything. I always felt like a priority.”

Dr. St. Clair remembers each step along May’s journey, which she says, “has not been an easy one.” Through it all, May has remained strong and determined.

“She has been an inspiration to the many team members involved in her care,” says Dr. St. Clair, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. “I am grateful to all of my colleagues who have helped treat May. She is a great patient and just a lovely human. I couldn’t be happier that she’s done so well after such a long road.”

In December during a routine exam, May was informed that she has now graduated to scheduling follow-up visits every six months rather than every three. To this, she replied with a resounding, “Amazing!”

“I had to tell myself from the very beginning that this isn't a death sentence,” says May. “I know every case is different but if I can share anything from my own experience with someone who has cervical cancer, I’d say that even in the darkest moments, you’ll get through this. Keep your mind strong and tell yourself from the very beginning, ‘I'm going to fight this.’ You’ll fall down many times and you’ll get back up, many times. Keep running through that dark tunnel, and you’ll see the sun at the end. It will come out.”