Laurence Carter lost his wife to cervical cancer three years ago. Now he is walking 3,500 miles to raise awareness about the disease that took her life.
She studied agricultural economics at Aberystwyth University in West Wales, where she spent a year working on a sheep farm before moving to Malawi. There, she began a globe-trotting romance with Carter, and when he got a job on St. Helena, a tropical island in the South Atlantic Ocean where Napoleon was exiled, Melitta decided to join him. He proposed in a restaurant on the island in January 1989, and she said yes.
Their first child, Emily, was born on St. Helena. The family moved to Botswana before settling in Swaziland, where their son, Nic, was born. Through the years, the Carters met many Americans working for the Peace Corps or USAID, and they thought it might be interesting to “see what they’re like in their own country,” as Melitta put it. So when Carter got a job offer in 1993 from the International Finance Corp., the private sector arm of the World Bank, they packed their bags again.
After years of wanderlust, Bethesda became home. They moved into a house in Wildwood Manor, and daughter Georgie arrived in 1996. “Sometimes in life you’re really lucky,” Carter says. “We were really lucky to live on this street where there were four families all with kids about the same age. …It was a paradise for the kids and the parents, as well.”
Melitta didn’t work, but she had a frenetic schedule. She founded a book club. She took courses on photography. She volunteered at the National Zoo, where she educated visitors about issues threatening the Amazon. A passionate advocate for the environment, she started a neighborhood cleanup on Earth Day, a tradition that lives on to this day.
“She would call every plant and type of bird by its Greek or Latin name,” says Marta Moersen, a neighborhood friend. “I can still hear her beautiful voice in her proper British accent naming some of my favorite flowers.”
Melitta always prioritized her family. “She was the person I spent all my time with,” says Georgie, now 22, who attends graduate school in England. “We would go to the mall together, I would go to Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s with her. She was an amazing cook. She had this little recipe book that she started when she was 12. It’s called People Enjoy Melitta’s Finer Flavour.” Macaroni and cheese was the kids’ favorite. Melitta’s version included chopped onions and bacon, along with her special ingredient: mustard powder. She baked elaborate birthday cakes, including a Powerpuff Girls creation that had upside-down ice cream cones for castle towers.
“We didn’t really have disagreements or arguments, ever,” Georgie says. “I guess you could say she was kind of like my best friend.”
Which is perhaps why, when Melitta told her one evening in October 2012 that her gynecologist had diagnosed her with cervical cancer—the severity of which was unknown at the time—Georgie, then 16, wasn’t too worried. Her mother seemed invincible.
“I had a physics test the next day I was really stressed about, so I was in my room studying,” Georgie recalls. “She sat me down on the bed and told me what was going on. I don’t think it registered. She said she was having a hysterectomy because they found a few cancer cells in her lymph nodes, and they’re going to take them out and it will be fine. So I didn’t really think it was that big of a deal at the time. I went back to studying for my physics test.”
Cervical cancer is at once a particularly preventable and particularly deadly disease. It occurs most frequently in women between the ages of 35 and 44, and as recently as the 1940s it was a major cause of death among women of childbearing age in the United States, according to the National Institutes of Health. However, with the introduction in the 1950s of the Pap smear, incidences declined drastically. Between 1955 and 1992, U.S. cervical cancer deaths fell by more than 60 percent.
“That’s how you cure this—by preventing it,” says Dr. Paul Thambi, Melitta’s Bethesda-based oncologist.
The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Seventy-nine million Americans have HPV, but in most cases it goes away on its own and does not lead to any health problems. When it doesn’t go away, it can cause several kinds of cancers, including in the cervix.
Fortunately, there’s an HPV vaccine that can be administered to boys and girls before they’re sexually active (the CDC recommends kids get it at age 11 or 12). It’s been widely used in Australia, where HPV rates have fallen by 90 percent over the past decade.
Experts say a two-pronged approach—increasing HPV vaccinations and ensuring that women get regular Pap smears—is the formula for reducing the nearly 300,000 annual deaths worldwide from cervical cancer. “Most cervical cancer is very treatable because it’s usually caught at an early stage,” Thambi says. “Before it becomes cervical cancer you can see what are called dysplastic cells, and that can be treated locally without having to remove the entire cervix. The issue becomes when it’s metastatic, when it’s spread to other organs like the liver and the lungs. Then it’s not curable.”
When Melitta’s cancer was discovered, following a Pap smear she’d been late in scheduling, the hope was that an emergency hysterectomy performed days later would solve the problem. But she found out in July 2013 that the cancer had spread, and called her husband—who was in East Timor on business—to tell him. Bad news, she said. They’d discovered a nodule in her lungs. It had metastasized.
Carter put down the phone and cried—for his wife, for their children, and for himself. “There are a few moments in your life you never forget,” he says. “That was one.”
Doctors gave Melitta 12 to 18 months to live. “The first six or seven months, the situation wasn’t very good,” Carter says. “The chemo was very tough for her to get through. At the same time, they were doing the radiation. The secondary effects were bad on other parts of her body. The following summer she was back in the hospital, but in between her quality of life wasn’t too bad.”
Melitta got involved with Hope Connections for Cancer Support in Bethesda, where she did yoga, took art classes, and participated in support groups. She started communicating more often with her younger sister, Tanya Alevropoulos, who lives in England.