Every year, around 3,000 new cases of cervical cancer are reported in the UK. Despite approximately 99.8 per cent of cases being preventable, there are still many misconceptions surrounding cervical cancer. World Cancer Day on 4 February aims to raise global awareness about the disease, potential symptoms and preventative measures.
I come from the back end of Hertfordshire but had been living it up in the Big Smoke (read, eating toast twice a day) for almost half a decade when everything went skew-whiff. It was 4 November 2014; a date that looks very pleasing when you see it written down but was in fact the day I had my legs in the air (not in a fun way) and heard the words “I’d be very surprised if this wasn’t cervical cancer”. It was. Remember, remember the fourth of November, bad news, tears and snot.
Fast forward to today, and I’m celebrating five years (and one month) all clear. Well, I didn’t actually celebrate it, I was in the vets with my cat and his ongoing urinary problems, but you know what I mean. I spent the last five years in an unsavoury vaginal vacuum, waiting for something bad to happen again, but the relief of reaching this milestone is indescribable.
I was very unlucky to get cervical cancer at 24, as the number of cases diagnosed under the age of 25 are very low, but I was extremely fortunate that it was caught at all.
Unlike the other four gynaecological cancers (womb, ovarian, vulval and vaginal), in the UK there is a preventative-screening programme for cervical cancer [which is available free on the NHS to anyone with a cervix from the age of 25 to 64]. There is also a vaccine against HPV, a virus which causes over 99 per cent of cervical cancers. The vaccine is now given to all boys and girls aged 12-13 but that wasn’t the case when I was a teenager. I was both too old for the vaccine and too young to be invited for a screening test. So I had neither.
In fact prior to my diagnosis, I’d only heard vague mutterings on the mum-and-older-friends-grapevine about going for your “smear test” but that was along with complaints of how sore their boobs were when they had them squashed during a mammogram. I certainly didn’t know anything about the cervix itself (other than from cheesy films where the doctor shouts, “THE CERVIX IS 10 CENTIMETRES DILATED, YOU GOTTA START PUSHING, JACKIE!!!”). My sex education had consisted of being told that girls will get periods and boys will have wet dreams.
My period started when I was 11, so I was used to seeing (put your tomato soup down) blood coming out of my vagina. When I began to bleed in between periods, I didn’t think much of it. Then when I bled heavily after having sex with my (awful) boyfriend at the time, I quite literally sat up and paid attention. These are the only two symptoms that I had and I wasn’t in any pain. Abnormal vaginal bleeding in between periods, after sex, or after the menopause, are key signs of cervical cancer. If you experience any of these symptoms, most of the time it will be something a lot less serious, but get it checked out, just in case.
Just before Christmas 2014, I had an operation called a radical trachelectomy (it still takes me about three attempts to spell it right), which removed my whole cervix, surrounding tissue, pelvic lymph nodes and the upper third of my vagina. It sounds invasive, and yes, it was. For weeks I couldn’t do housework or shopping. A few things surprised me about my time in hospital: I really enjoyed having a catheter, I felt very vulnerable not being able to even put my own knickers on and I missed my eyebrow pencil so very, very much.
Unsurprisingly, my life changed significantly once I knew I wouldn’t be dying on this occasion. I went from knowing next to nothing about gynae health to running Ask Eve, a free information service with The Eve Appeal’s nurse specialist. My days are spent talking about vaginas, and my evenings are spent joking about them (amongst other things), because a year after my operation, I finally plucked up the courage to give stand-up comedy a damn good go. I remember thinking, well if I’ve survived cancer, I can survive this.
It turns out that comedy is the scarier of the two, but I love it. I suppose starting stand-up was the ‘brave’ part of life after cancer, but the brave is very much balanced by the broken. It’s well known that many people suffer from poor mental health after they’ve experienced a trauma, or at least their experience takes a huge toll on them mentally.
Since being diagnosed with cancer, I’ve also been diagnosed with anxiety and depression. I’m a triple threat. I don’t know if this was brought on by having cancer at a young age, or it was always mapped out for me and would have happened regardless of my cervical status. It’s quite tiring trying to stop the scales from constantly tipping between the extremities of "seize the day", "what’s the point?" and "what if I find out I can’t seize the day?”
The awful boyfriend I referred to earlier, turned out to be cheating on me for a long time, including whilst I was in hospital. You might be reading this and thinking, "I bet she dumped him immediately!" but I actually stayed in that unhealthy relationship for a lot longer than I (think) I would have if I’d not just had life-saving surgery when I found out. The problem was that I was nervous to be alone, and worried about someone new not being able to cope with the ‘new’ me. The post-cancer Karen. It took a while to realise it didn’t have to be one or the other, I could actually survive and believe it or not, thrive on my own.
I now feel like it’s my job (and I guess it technically is) to encourage people to go for their cervical screening. But I can’t do that without acknowledging my privilege in all of this. I’m sharing my story and desperately promoting cervical cancer awareness as a cis, straight, white, educated woman, without a disability, who has a relatively positive relationship with her body. I didn’t have to face any of the additional barriers enforced by society or the screening system when it came to accessing healthcare and getting my cancer diagnosis.
There’s a lot that needs to be done in terms of addressing why people don’t attend their screening appointments, but for those who are just putting it off, have moved it to the bottom of their crammed ‘to do’ list, think ‘oh I’ll be fine’, or they feel embarrassed to get naked from the waist down, or that the test isn’t relevant to them, I will say this: If you have a cervix, you are at risk of getting cervical cancer. Yes, the chances are you will be absolutely fine, but what if you’re missing out on the chance to save your life?