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Laura shared her experience of being diagnosed with cervical cancer following some unusual symptoms when she was 31.
In an attempt to make my third decade a fun one, I had created a list entitled: ’30 things to in my 30s’. I now recognize the irony of this, but nonetheless, item 5 was to enter the London Marathon. I applied and, in August 2013, discovered that I had secured a place for April 2014 supporting the British Heart Foundation. This may seem irrelevant, but it turned out to be possibly the best decision I made…
The marathon came around and I was doing well. My friends were in the crowd supporting me and sending my Mum and Dad various updates. At around the 21-mile mark, I gave a friend in the crowd a ‘high five’ and knew that I was nearly there. When you have run 21 miles, 5 more doesn’t seem too bad a thought. Suddenly, I remember my head starting to spin a little and then that was it.
I woke up laying on a cold pavement, covered in cling film sipping a disgusting concoction of water, salt and sugar. I looked at my watch and it had auto-paused at 22.74 miles… So close.
I was both embarrassed and devastated. In my efforts to raise a lot of money for charity, I’d made no secret of the fact that I was running the marathon and firmly believed I was ready. Even when high fiving at 21 miles I had no reason to think I wouldn’t finish… and this is where it really begins…
Four days before the marathon, I’d taken myself to the GP. During the final stages of training, I’d first spotted a few faint drops of red in my urine after long runs. After researching, I found that this can be a fairly common side effect for long distance runners and it was likely that it was an irritation or perhaps a few burst bloods vessels. Despite not being overly worried, I’d seen the adverts and knew the dangers of finding blood so I thought it was safe to check. The doctor explained that it was probably a urine infection and I was given a dose of antibiotics to clear it up. However, like some sort of strange, foreboding endorsement, my symptoms had started to increase after the marathon. My paranoia, my frustration at not completing the marathon, and Google, had convinced my brain that I was ill and I just needed professional confirmation! So I sought it…
Funnily enough, I’d always been scared of cancer. My maternal grandparents died from it, a school friend lost his battle during our university years and other members of my family have had close brushes. I was always the person who was asking the doctor to check a bump, ‘is this mole normal?’, ‘should I have this rash’? I had always expected a physical symptom that I would spot and regularly examined myself from head to toe to make sure there was no new quirk that looked untoward. Maybe my paranoia helped in the long run.
I bled heavily when I was examined and was told it was likely to be a womb infection and given antibiotics. However, the bleeding continued after I finished the course of antibiotics, so I was referred to a gynaecologist. I’d been reminded that my smear tests had always been clear. I had an internal and external ultrasound and told that things looked healthy, but I had a small polyp which could be removed.
Yet when the next appointment, for a colposcopy, arrived, it was a whole six weeks away. Being a teacher, September treatment was far from ideal. I decided to get myself a private appointment with a gynaecologist. In the back of my mind I wasn’t 100% sure that it was a polyp but more than anything, I wanted it over with - whatever it was.
In another twist of irony, around this time my Mum had had a hysterectomy. She knew I was worried but I was pleased to ring her and tell her she needn’t worry about me - just focus on her recovery as I just had a polyp…. But it still didn’t feel right. I hadn’t actually had any symptoms in the last few days and I had none during the internal ultrasound so maybe she was right?
The appointment was in July. I explained to the specialist about the marathon, the urine infection that wasn’t, the womb infection that wasn’t, the ultrasound, the polyp… She said she would examine me and if she saw it was a polyp, she’d get rid there and then. I was so pleased, finally someone with my sense of urgency. She internally examined me and immediately said ‘this isn’t a polyp’; to be blunt, the amount of blood made that obvious to me too. I then listened to the news that there were two possibilities,
Whatever it was, she was in a rush and made a phone call there and then to do a biopsy then next morning.
The worst thing wasn’t the biopsy, it was the waiting for results. I really struggled for the next few days. Then it hit me hard on Tuesday 22nd July- my Dad’s 62nd birthday. I received a phone call inviting me in to discuss the results at the end of the week but my impatience and fear was eating at me. I was shaking and felt in a permanent state of worry and anxiety. I pushed and pushed the poor nurse on the other end of the phone and she finally found a gap in the Consultant’s schedule on the Wednesday, the next day.
Ironically, that made me worse, the nurse knew the appointment was needed. That afternoon at work I just broke. The end of term, goodbye speeches, I couldn’t do it. I rang Mum… I knew I wouldn’t be going into work the next day so asked if she and Dad would come down the next day. This might not be anything to worry about, but it might be. And if it was, I needed them with me. It was clear that they had already sensed my worry from the messages I’d already sent. When I called, despite it being my Dad’s birthday, they had already packed and were in the car on the way.
5.15PM, 23rd July 2014, ‘You have stage 1b cervical cancer.’
It is true, that word is accompanied by a punch in the stomach; a sudden loss of breath; a temporary paralysis of movement, clarity and reason. An MRI scan in the coming weeks would determine the exact size and spread but the consultant was 99% sure of my diagnosis and treatment. The surgery my 60-year-old Mum had had only weeks before.
Over the coming days my Dad and I rang around trying to bring the MRI forward, with success, and he, along with friends, did shift work. They stayed with me, controlling the flood of tears and panic until the results came. Patient and stubborn – yes; calm, no! I felt like I was in a parallel world. I couldn’t make plans, I couldn’t watch television or be distracted. Everything was on hold.
A decade-long week later, the Macmillan nurse confirmed that the tumour was about 3/4 cm long, there was no evidence of spread so I would be having surgery on 18th August 2014, and I wouldn’t need radio or chemotherapy. This was cruel surgery for a 31-year-old but the best news we could have hoped for. We couldn’t help but have tears of happiness at that point and be thankful to the gynaecologist who had raised the alarm and arranged my biopsy.
The day of my horrible surgery was also the day I became cancer free. I had a surgery and my tumour was removed.
On reflection, I was incredibly lucky. A cancer battle that was fought and won within 5 months. The physical recovery was another 6 months and the mental recovery has been even longer, but I know I am fortunate. One week after my surgery, the histology results confirmed that there had been no spread to my lymph nodes and so there would be no more treatment.
Collapsing at the London Marathon was the trigger for further health investigations but since then, sporting challenges have been my motivation! Some illnesses can’t be avoided but exercise has become my way to stay as fit and healthy as possible in mind and body. As part of my recuperation, I decided to take up running as a permanent hobby. I was determined to prove that I had beaten cancer and was fitter than ever, and it was an outlet for the other challenges I faced in my recovery; nobody can deny the mental impact of a serious illness. In 2016, I set myself one sporting challenge a month for sponsorship – half marathons, trail runs etc. and I even went back and completed the London Marathon. My Mum and Dad waved a banner at the finish line reading, ‘Go Laura, you kicked cancer – you can kick this!’ Many happy tears were shed!
In 2017, I then took up triathlon and sport has continued to be the escape I’ve loved since, providing me with good health and motivation to live life! In 2019, my boyfriend and I chose to celebrate my 5-year point by taking on the Artemis Great Kindrocht Quadrathlon to raise money for Jo’s Trust. This would be our biggest challenge to date but prove how far I had come. We trained for six months for the event: a mile swim across Loch Tay, a 15 mile run up and down 7 munroes, a 7 mile kayak down and across the loch and then a 38 mile cycle all the way round it! We completed it and were cheered across the line to many happy tears once again, having raised £1500 for Jo’s. From a marathon collapse in 2014, through cancer, to a quadrathlon 5 years later! Last summer, the icing on my sporting cake was the completion of Ride London 100 miles and the Swim Serpentine to achieve the London Classics medal.
My story is proof that you can’t plan and predict everything. But what I have learnt is that cancer doesn’t have to be the end. Some of life’s cruelest cards are out of our control but we can control how we deal with them. I am not embarrassed to say I was a crying mess for the majority of that time but since then, on a daily basis, I remind myself that I am lucky. Cancer was not the end for me so it is my responsibility to make sure I relish every second from now on, from my new beginning.