As a post-menopausal mother of three grown-up children, I always attended my smear tests. Some years ago some abnormalities were found for which I had to have colposcopy, but I was assured that all was well and so I returned to the regular screening programme. In between I had one or two screenings where the results were inconclusive because they didn't get a good enough sample and I needed to go back for another screening. They just seemed to be unable to get to my cervix, which can happen with age, and a section had been removed with colposcopy. Other than that everything had always been fine and I had no problems with regularly attending my screening. It was just part of my normal health routine.
However, at the age of 64 I started to have persistent vaginal discharge, which was clear and odourless. I eventually went to the doctor, who did an urgent smear and he asked the lab to process it quickly, so that soon after my appointment I received a letter saying that I had severe abnormalities and had to see the gynaecologist at the hospital. It was then that they told me I had cervical cancer and that I needed a full hysterectomy. I had come alone to the appointment as I'm widowed, and to be told this diagnosis was just shocking - a complete body blow. If there is one time in life you need a husband it's when you get news like this. I was really shaken after receiving the news in a very blunt way, but a really nice nurse took me away and gave me a cup of tea and was just kind, which was exactly what I needed at this point.
A couple of hours after my hospital appointment the doctor's secretary called me to say that he had decided that I should have an MRI scan, to have a closer look at where the cancer was sited. The result of the MRI scan revealed that I had stage 2b cervical cancer and that, as it had already spread to lymph nodes, a full hysterectomy would not be satisfactory. I was referred to a superb gynaelogical oncologist at Brighton Cancer Centre, who prescribed 28 sessions of radiotherapy, with five sessions of chemotherapy, to be followed by brachytherapy as a final treatment.
I started treatment just before Christmas in 2011. I had to attend radiotherapy for five days a week for five weeks, although not on Christmas Day. Once every week during that time I also had chemotherapy on Wednesdays. When these sessions ended, I was admitted to the Royal Marsden Hospital in London for three rounds of brachytherapy – an intensive form of radiotherapy targeted at the site of the tumour. The hospital in Brighton was an hour's car ride from my home, which meant that either a friend or my daughter had to drive me as most times I was too unwell to drive myself there and back. Radiotherapy was ok at the beginning, but as it progressed I became very tired, and ill each week with the chemotherapy.
All in all the treatment worked well for me, and I'm cancer-free now, although still monitored annually. I do still suffer from some side effects. Before having received 28 sessions of radiotherapy I had actually been warned that I was likely to have irreparable bowel damage. I thought that I could live with that, and was prepared to do anything to try and conquer the cancer that had been so suddenly diagnosed.
During treatment I found that I started to have a very loose bowel, but the chemotherapy I was receiving every Wednesday tended to make me constipated – so half the week I was constipated, and half the week I had diarrhoea. Difficult! However, when the chemo stopped I was given plenty of Loperamide capsules – the generic name for the over-the-counter medication known as Imodium. It was essential to take several a day to try and live a normal life.
When I attended Let's Meet I took part in a very helpful workshop on bowel damage, I was very encouraged by another lady who said that, although you might get diarrhoea in the morning, maybe this would happen only four or five times – and then you would be more or less normal for the rest of the day. I realised this was true for me, too. I found I could take less Loperamide, and within a few months was down to taking one every other day. The main problem was not getting much warning for a sudden bowel movement, which caused a few embarrassing accidents.
One piece of advice given at the bowel workshop was to consult a dietician, which I did through my GP. I hadn't done so earlier as I thought I was pretty knowledgeable about diet, but I found her to be extremely helpful. We discussed the very short warning I now got for bowel movements, to which she said that there were two warning stages in the bowel – one higher up in the bowel and one near the end – and that I must have received damage to the upper one. She advised me to cut down drastically on high-fibre foods – for example, not to eat a whole apple but to peel and core it first – and proposed a very healthy and tasty regime that I have followed ever since.
Perhaps because of the diet, or because three years have now passed since I finished treatment, my bowels are nearly back to normal. I have gradually reduced taking Loperamide from several times a week to maybe twice or even once a week or when something special is taking place the following day. I eat a normal healthy mainly wholefood diet, although I still avoid apple peel and the skins of jacket potatoes, for example, and prefer Weetabix to muesli or other high-fibre breakfast cereal. I am very surprised that it seems to have healed so well, and would like to offer encouragement to other sufferers – it really does seem to improve over time.
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