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My first cervical screening at 25 was quite a negative experience due to the nurse being the opposite of reassuring and giving me the wrong information. After that first test I simply didn't go back again. Years passed, I worked overseas, moved house a lot and just always seemed to be able to avoid thinking about another screening.
Finally at 35, in 2010 I went for a routine check up and my nurse mentioned that I was overdue a cervical screening. Because I felt so at ease with this nurse I agreed. My screening results came back with severe dyskariosis (severe cell changes), and further tests revealed I had cervical cancer. Being told you have cancer is devastating but I had (and have) such a wonderful medical team that really did explain everything in simple terms and offered me great support. The cancer was at an early stage so I was extremely fortunate to have to go through just three operations without chemotherapy or radiotherapy.
Going through treatment was hard but I actually struggled more to cope with my feelings and emotions after the surgery. I hadn't prepared myself for the long journey of tests, biopsies and the worry that the cancer would come back. As a strong independent woman, this was something I really struggled with and no one close to me could empathise or understand me.
I found Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust after googling ‘cervical cancer support’. Initially, during my diagnosis and treatment I didn't seek out support. After the operations I started to use their online forum and eventually posted how I was feeling. Almost immediately I had women sharing their experiences, advice and support for me, I couldn't believe it! This small recognition made me feel so much better.
The impact of a cancer diagnosis is far reaching both personally and professionally but I feel extremely lucky that I have a fantastic network of friends and colleagues and a loving and supporting family. It's incredibly tough for my parents and indeed my husband. In fact, I'd say this was probably the worst part of the whole experience as they felt so helpless. I had a wonderful job at the Barbican Centre in London and I was fully supported during my treatment. My boss was wonderful and the occupational health met with me regularly to ensure work worries didn’t hinder my recovery. I worked from home (in fact, I worked right up until I got wheeled into theatre…the wonders of the iPhone!) after the operations and had no pressure to return to work until I was 100%.
During the first five years after my diagnosis, I had colposcopy appointments every six months, which include screening and occasional biopsies to check that the cells are not changing. I have had some mild changes and there is a possibility that more surgery will be necessary in the future but I’m in excellent hands and had great support through Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, my family and friends.
It is 10 years since my diagnosis now. As of 2017, my check-ups and colposcopy follow-ups happen now just once a year. When I received that news, I then set up my first business. My confidence just grew, psychologically. Although I was well before, something inside me changed.
I also had the HPV vaccine. A colopsocopy consultant in Portugal told me she gave the vaccine to early stage cancer patients, so I became the first person to have this done at Kingston Hospital (privately) in the hope that this might help. It certainly couldn’t harm.
I am now onto my second business - I am a conference MC and moderator. I am healthy (touch wood) and happy. I still live with HPV, as well as the fact that I am probably always going to be going back to the hospital annually, but I'm grateful I'm still under such care.
I was incredibly lucky that they caught the cancer at an early stage and had I delayed the screening much longer it may have been a different story. It meant that I didn’t have to suffer prolonged and more invasive treatment. But to think that I could’ve quite easily prevented all of this is still extremely frustrating. For many women the thought of a cervical screening is worrying but for 5 minutes of discomfort or embarrassment it is worth it in order to prevent a diagnosis of cervical cancer.