First off, apologies to those who are getting a little fed up of hearing about my cancer story – it has got quite a bit of coverage, but to be honest, if every time I tweet or post or talk about my experience, just one woman is prompted to get tested, that gives some kind of meaning or purpose to what happened to me. I’m very grateful to get that opportunity, and it is Cervical Cancer Awareness Week, after all!!
This week two years ago, the Cervical Cancer Awareness campaign prompted me to finally pull the CervicalCheck letter from where it had been hanging on the fridge for a few weeks, and make the appointment. As usual, the test was uncomfortable and unpleasant, but quick and painless. I had absolutely no reason to think that anything was wrong – I was feeling fine and had no symptoms of any kind.
Some weeks later, I got a call from the GP who did the test to say that I had pre-cancerous cells and was being referred to the colposcopy clinic at St. Finbarr’s Hospital, Cork. The what??? I had never heard the word ‘colposcopy’ before – and I’m an English teacher with a pretty good vocabulary! Cue frantic Googling (obviously) and much panic.
Smear tests fade into insignificance compared to colposcopy, which involves examining the cervix with a fibre-optic camera. I also had a biopsy (the dreaded word) on that visit, and then there was more waiting. It turned out that my abnormal cells were CIN 3, the most serious stage of pre-cancer, and I had to have them removed using a LLETZ procedure. I’m not going to describe that here, but feel free to Google! Suffice it to say, it might be one of the torture measures currently being considered by Donald Trump. (I jest… honestly!)
So far, so not too scary. However, this was only the start of it – the histology on those cells revealed that, hiding in there behind them, was actual invasive cervical cancer. I was lucky though – and here’s the crucial point – it was very, very early. Stage 1A1, in fact – as early as it could be. I was assured by the wonderful medical people in my life that I wasn’t going to die, which was of course my main concern…
I had a hysterectomy that September, and luckily for me, didn’t need any further treatment at that time, due to the early detection of my cancer. Recovery was no walk in the park, and almost a year and a half later, I still know I had surgery, but how much worse could it be if I hadn’t had that smear test?? How far advanced would my cancer be before it was discovered?? It doesn’t bear thinking about.
At that fateful visit to the gynaecological oncologist, he said to me “I’m not worried about you – I’m worried about all the women out there who never get tested,” and those words have stuck in my mind. If you’re one of them, please make that appointment. If you have had a smear before, but not in the last three years, please make that appointment.
I’m okay right now, but I don’t think I’ll ever have peace of mind about my health again. I find it hard to think about the future and find myself adding the words “If I stay healthy” to any plans I make. If you make that appointment, and go for that test, you’ll have given some kind of purpose and meaning to what happened to me.
No discomfort, no embarrassment, no pain even, is worse than than getting cancer.
NB: Any men reading this (give yourselves a pat on the back if you’ve got this far!), please talk to the women in your life about it.