‘I barely had symptoms but my tumour was 6cm – don’t ignore smear test invites’01/22/2023
In September last year, Sky Sports presenter Jo Wilson, 37, told OK! she had stage 3b cervical cancer. She said, “I said to the doctor, ‘Am I going to die?’ ’You’re not going to die,’ he reassured me. ‘It’s very treatable and it’s very curable.’”
Jo is not alone. Every year, 3,200 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer. Around six in 10 survive for five years or more, and chances of survival are higher the earlier you’re diagnosed.
Recently, the screening process has changed. Although the smear test procedure has remained the same, the sample is first tested for the human papillomavirus (HPV), and if positive, then examined for abnormal cells.
Women are screened every three years from 25 to 49 and then every five years between the ages of 50 and 64. Yet around 30% of women don’t respond to their screening invite.
To mark Cervical Cancer Awareness Month this January, three women share their stories…
‘I hardly had symptoms, but my tumour was 6cm’
Mum-of-three Donna Bradbury, 39, a primary school teacher from Lincoln, was diagnosed with cervical cancer at the height of the pandemic…
“What scares me most about my cervical cancer diagnosis is that I had hardly any symptoms. But when doctors discovered my tumour it was already around 6cm in size.
Even more worrying was the fact I was a few months from my next scheduled smear test, and every test I’d had in the past had been clear. But at the end of May 2020, I’d started getting a few signs something wasn’t quite right. I had a lot of discharge, and the GP thought it was bacterial vaginosis. They gave me some antibiotics.
Then two weeks later, I started passing blood clots when I was on the toilet. I messaged the doctor again – it was during the pandemic so appointments were virtual – and they invited me to have swabs and an ultrasound, both of which came back clear.
About a week later, I started bleeding while having sex with my husband Martin, 39. The GP referred me to hospital, but at this stage no one had mentioned cancer. As a result I went to the colposcopy appointment in August 2020 by myself.
Initially, the doctor said she thought they’d find it was extra tissue that was causing the bleeding. But then, during the procedure, the mood in the room suddenly changed. “Are you by yourself?” she said. And I said, ”Yes, should I be worried?” She told me there and then I had cervical cancer. She said she could see the tumour.
I was close to tears. I think my first words were, “Do I have long to live?” Afterwards, I walked home from the hospital, which was about a mile away. I was in shock. The first thing I did was message my friend who’d been diagnosed with breast cancer four months before. “You’re not the only one,” I said. “I’ve joined the cancer club.” She called me straight back and I cried and cried.
Luckily when I got home my three boys – Robert, Jacob and Oliver, then aged 13, nine and two – were in the garden. My husband said, “Are you OK?” and I broke down and said, “It’s cancer”. A short time after, my biopsy results confirmed it was stage 2b, which means that it was confined to the cervix but was close to the tissue wall and I went back in for more scans.
I went back in for a few days at the start of the new term at school – everyone including the head and the parents were amazing – and then my treatment started in October at Lincoln County Hospital. It was gruelling. I had five chemotherapy sessions, 28 radiotherapy sessions and then brachytherapy, which is internal radiation therapy. They put metal rods inside you to target the exact spot where the cancer is.
Fortunately, the treatment worked. But it was a difficult time. My family live an hour away and we were in a different tier system during the pandemic so we couldn’t really see each other – although in an odd way that kept it more normal for the boys because people weren’t constantly visiting.
In March 2021 I got the all clear, and I now have scans every year. When they’re due, I get what I call ‘scanxiety’. It’s a weird place to be in, because I’m in remission but I’m always thinking it’s going to come back.
I’ve gone into early menopause due to the radiation damage to the ovaries and that’s been hard. I feel shattered and have awful brain fog, so much so that I’ve started taking HRT. The radiotherapy has left me feeling raw on the inside – at one point I got radiation cystitis and it was like having shards of glass inside.
My whole mood now is really about moving forward with life. I’m grateful to be here and although I do have bad days, I remember there are people no longer here who’d give anything to have my bad day. I started an account on Instagram, @my_cervical_cancer_journey, and it’s my mission to spread awareness.”
‘I was worried I wouldn’t see my boy start school’
Danni, 29, from Essex, discovered she had cervical cancer after her first ever smear test…
“I gave birth to my little boy in April 2018, aged 24. Later that year, in September, I turned 25 and in October I had my first ever smear test. In November I got a call telling me I needed to go for a colposcopy as the results had come back showing there were changes in the cells of my cervix.
When the letter arrived, it said I had severe dyskaryosis, which is the medical term for cell changes. I didn’t really understand what it meant and phoned the hospital in a panic.
I went in for the procedure and a biopsy, and on 7 December, the results came back saying I had stage 1A1 cancer, which means the cancer is located in the neck of the womb.
I was petrified – I was retching and felt sick and didn’t know what to do with myself. My boy’s first Christmas was coming up and I was thinking, “Will this be my last?” It overshadowed everything, it was horrible. I remember standing in the shower and thinking, “My brain’s OK but I just want to get out of this body!”
My then partner was really supportive and tried to reassure me things weren’t that bad. But I have bad anxiety so nothing anyone could say to me would make a difference. It didn’t help there is still a stigma around cervical cancer – as a disease, I feel support isn’t as visible as it is for breast cancer.
The hospital followed up with a scan and what’s called a cone biopsy in January, just to make sure all the cancerous cells had been removed during the first colposcopy. After that, I continued to have three-monthly checks and then six-monthly checks to make sure the HPV cells had not come back.
The first one was clear, but then every time I went back the HPV cells had returned. It was a really stressful time. I kept thinking the HPV would persist and I’d develop cancer again. The procedure to remove the cells is uncomfortable but you put up with it because you know it’s saving your life.
It’s like having a time bomb inside you. I kept thinking, “There’s only so much they can remove.” I was worried I’d have to have a hysterectomy and wouldn’t be able to have any more children. Now I have a shortened cervix, so if I do get pregnant again, I’d have to have a stitch put in.
I was the first year in school to have the HPV vaccine, so I do feel unlucky that this has happened to me.
Emotionally, I was hit further when my nan died of cervical cancer two years ago. Her partner had died and she said she felt ill, but everyone put it down to depression.
Eventually a blood test showed she had raised inflammatory markers and they discovered the cancer. But she decided she didn’t want to have any treatment. It was devastating for me and my mum when we lost her.
The whole experience has made me more determined to look after myself. I was concerned that low immunity can trigger cell changes and make it harder for the body to get rid of HPV. I changed my diet so I eat more green vegetables.
This September, it was wonderful to see my boy start primary school, especially looking back at that Christmas period when I didn’t know if I’d ever see him go to school. That was such a dark time, but now I’m feeling much rosier about the future.
I’d urge everyone to get their smear test as I’m proof that you can get it young and that you can’t be complacent, even if you have had the vaccine.”
‘If I’d waited for my smear test, I might not be here’
Mum-of-one Charlotte Falconer, 30, from Preston, who works in hospitality, talks about her diagnosis aged 23…
“It was such a shock when I discovered I had stage 3b cervical cancer. If I hadn’t acted on my instincts that something was wrong, I wouldn’t be here today, as regular NHS screening for the disease doesn’t start until you are 25 and I was only 23 at the time.
In February 2016, I’d been experiencing lower back pain, and bleeding after intercourse. At the time I was using the copper coil so I put it down to that. But the day after I had it removed, I passed a large clot in the bath. It was almost like a miscarriage so I knew it couldn’t be a period.
I went to the GP and they fast-tracked me to Fulwood Hall Hospital in Preston for a biopsy. A week later they told me I had cancer, which had spread to a lymph node, and was growing up my pelvic wall. It was terrifying. I didn’t know much about the disease but I knew it could be life-threatening.
Knowing that the treatment would make me infertile, I went to Liverpool Women’s Hospital before it started to see if I could freeze my eggs as I was still so young, but they told me it would be too much of a risk to remove the eggs because of the positioning of the tumour.
In a way, that’s become harder to cope with as the years have passed. At the time you think, “I want to live,” but the reality of going into early menopause has been difficult to deal with. I’ve struggled to find the right form of HRT and it’s weird dealing with something that is supposed to happen to you when you’re 50 at 30!
I’ve been left with other side effects, too. I had a mix of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and brachytherapy at The Christie hospital in Manchester. The latter is so brutal – I was bed bound for 19 hours, with a catheter, while they targeted the tumour with radiation. Everything is still very raw and red inside.
At the time, my then partner and my family were incredibly supportive – but I felt for my poor mum as my twin sister was pregnant at the time. Afterwards, I struggled to regain my strength and they helped out when it came to looking after my son Louis, then aged four.
Now I’m officially in remission and if I have any severe symptoms or feel I need to see them, the doctors will see me. I still have bowel issues and intercourse can be painful because of the treatment.
Although I’m single at the moment, whenever I meet someone new, I feel nervous opening up to them and having to explain what’s happened to me. I feel like I shouldn’t have to be doing that at my age.
I find speaking to other women who have been through it too makes me feel less alone and like there’s light at the end of the tunnel. As much as friends and family are very loving and try to understand, it is hard when you’ve not been through it yourself.
My big goal now is to try to help other women because cervical cancer is preventable – if you get cell changes it can be cured even before it reaches the cancer stage. It was very rare for someone my age to have such an aggressive form of the cancer and it could have been terminal. If I hadn’t picked it up and I’d waited until my smear was due, I’d most likely not be here.
I try to stay as positive as possible. If I have a down day, I have to realise I’m lucky to be alive. I enjoy every day as it comes, and in my spare time I love taking the dog for a walk, painting and most of all, spending time with Louis, who’s just started secondary school.
Cancer may have taken my fertility at an incredibly young age, but I still have my beautiful boy.”
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