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Susan was diagnosed in February 2021 with stage 2a cervical cancer. She shares the symptoms she experiences leading up to the diagnosis and the importance of positivity during treatement and recovery.
I didn’t know that bleeding could be a sign of cervical cancer. So it didn’t cross my mind to get it checked out. For years before my diagnosis, I had experienced irregular bleeding, but I assumed it was connected to the menopause because of my age. So, I ignored it.
Around 2016 I realised the bleeding was happening after intercourse. However, it wasn’t until it got noticeably heavier that I reluctantly called the doctor in January 2021 – just as a precaution. I was asked to come in to the surgery straight away for an examination and a smear, which just happened to be due that month. I thought I was just lucky to have been able to get an appointment so quickly. I wasn’t aware of the urgency of getting my symptoms checked out.
During the examination, the GP told me she could see something, but added that it could just be a polyp. I was fit and healthy and had never missed any of my smear tests so I wasn’t overly concerned when she told me she was referring me to the hospital for further tests.
My appointment came through less than a week later. I arranged the afternoon off work, and my partner drove me to the hospital. I had to go in alone as Covid restrictions were in place at the time. As the consultant examined me, I chatted happily about my new job and we talked about the terrible snow we were having. When the examination was over, she sat me down in her office and asked if anyone had accompanied me to the hospital. My partner was waiting outside in the car and was asked to come in. At this point I was also introduced to a MacMillan nurse who came into the room. My partner’s face was ashen when he walked in. He must have suspected something was wrong. For me, the penny still hasn’t dropped. All my smear tests had been negative so how could anything be wrong?
I had cervical cancer. The consultant had seen straight away that the lump in my cervix was cancer. I was in disbelief. How could I? I felt fine. I had only had some bleeding. I wasn’t ill. I had only nipped out from work for a quick check up, fully intending to return to my normal routine in the afternoon.
But my normality stopped at that moment. My partner started to cry. I turned to him and told him I was going to be ok. How could I not be? It was surreal; to be told you had a life-threatening illness out of the blue? I don’t think I ever grasped the enormity of it all.
I guess no-one knows how they will react when they receive news like that. I went into survivor mode. I wasn’t going to allow this to happen to me.
The doctors told me what my treatment plan would be and the chances of survival. It was hard to hear the statistics and the cold reality of having cancer - but I guess I got pretty good odds. The consultant told me I would have “ the stuffing knocked out me” but I was prepared to fight and get my life back.
Unfortunately, there are no guarantees with cancer. Even with a good plan no-one knows if they will get the all-clear. But from the off I believed in the doctors. As far as I was concerned they had a cure and I was going to be ok. And besides, both my parents had had cancer and they had survived, so I wanted to believe I would too.
Telling my parents and my two children was the hardest thing I have ever had to do. I waited a few weeks after my diagnosis until I had more information from the doctors to give them. It was so hard trying to act normally during that time.
I had to break the news to them over the phone because of Covid restrictions. I hadn’t been able to see my family for months because of the pandemic and now I wasn’t even able to give them a hug and tell them that I loved them. I remember trying to stay calm and positive, explaining the treatment that was available and the positive survival rates. Thankfully, that helped them deal with the shock. I hated having to say those words out loud as it was making it all more real. I was telling my family I might die when I still couldn’t really believe it myself. It felt like I was telling them the most awful lie.
Continued Covid restrictions meant I couldn’t see my family throughout my whole treatment and that was really hard for all of us. Thankfully, my partner was able to be my full-time carer. I don’t know how I would have coped without him.
By mid-July I was back at work and a month later I was given the all clear, just seven months after being diagnosed.
Despite having cancer during Covid, my treatment was quick and the care I received from the NHS was amazing. I am eternally grateful to the NHS staff for giving me my life back, especially as I was told if I had left it another six months it could have been a very different story.
Side effects, including nausea, pain, fatigue and incontinence that I had suffered during treatment started to ease as each week went by and I began to feel more like my old self again.
What I wasn’t prepared for were the delayed side effects that often happen weeks, months or even years after treatment. These included severe menopause symptoms, arthritis in my joints and bladder and bowel issues which required further scans, x-rays and tests.
It’s hard to remain positive in times like these and that’s why it’s important to actively seek out support that works for you.
Practising mindfulness and gratitude might sound crazy but it really helped me through this difficult time. Appreciating there were so many things to be grateful for in life, instead of being angry and asking “Why Me?” helped me stay calm and focussed.
I didn’t want to speak to friends or family about being ill. I wanted to be positive around them and do normal things, not be the person with cancer.
I also didn’t want to seek support from the Maggie’s Centre. Instead, I preferred to chat with the other patients who happened to be around me when I was receiving treatment. You develop a strange sense of humour when times are tough, and laughing and joking with them was a wonderful tonic that brought a bit of normality back into my life.
Instead of looking up random sites on Google, Jo’s Trust offered specific information about my cancer type that I knew I could trust. I was so grateful for the information I received from the virtual Let’s Meet they organised during Covid and to be able to hear from women who were going through the same experience I was.
I also found support from online communities, in particular a community set up by motivational speaker, Tony Robbins, which was so positive and inspiring for me.
It’s now been a year and a half since I got my all clear and I still worry that every ache and pain could be the cancer back again. That’s my reality. But my care team understands this is normal and is there for me every time.
Going through cancer has made me aware of what’s important in life. I have surrounded myself with the people I love, and I appreciate all the time I get to spend with them now. Every morning I wake up I am grateful to be here to enjoy another day, no matter what, because not everyone gets the happy ending they deserve.