Monday, 24 October 2016

The letter that saved my life

Two months ago, I was diagnosed with cervical cancer.

One month ago, I went through life-changing major surgery.

A few days ago, I was told that the cancer is all gone and I need no further treatment.

Let me start from the beginning.

On Friday 15th July, a letter landed on my doormat which would change my life forever. As soon as I picked it up, my heart sank. I knew from the postmark that it contained the results for my recent smear test, and I knew from the thickness that it wasn’t my usual ‘your smear test results are normal’ letter. I opened it to read the news that my smear test had shown an abnormal result and I was being referred to the colposcopy clinic.

I waited a nail-biting eleven days for that first appointment. I saw a lovely consultant who reassured me that it was very unlikely to be cervical cancer as my last three smear tests had been normal and my recent smear test had been bang on time. However, he did say that the abnormality found in my sample was a rarer glandular type which would require treatment. He went ahead and took away the abnormal cells then and there. I was told that my sample would be marked as urgent due to the nature of the abnormality and that I’d have the results within two weeks to confirm what exactly was in the sample and if there were clear margins.

When I didn’t hear anything after one week, I dared to hope that everything was fine. Surely if they’d found something terrible, they’d have called me back within a few days? Two weeks passed, and I still hadn’t heard anything. I chased and was told my sample was still with the histologist and I’d receive an update as soon as possible. Three weeks passed, and now I was starting to panic. The unexplained delay and vague responses to my telephone calls were now starting to point towards something more sinister. More phone calls to the hospital revealed that my sample had been sent off for further testing – there were definitely high grade pre-cancerous cells present and they were trying to identify a few rogue cells. An appointment was made for me with the consultant on Wednesday 24th August to discuss my results.

It’s an understatement to say that I was a nervous wreck on the day of the appointment. Deep down, in spite of everyone else’s reassurances, I knew this wasn’t going to be a breezy ‘all clear’. We sat down in the consultant’s office and were told that it wasn’t good news – there was a cancerous lesion in my sample and the ‘gold standard’ treatment for this type and stage of cancer (adenocarcinoma 1b1) was a radical hysterectomy.

This isn’t the time or the place to describe how I felt after hearing these words. After hearing bad news about their health, or about anything else, people tend to say ‘I never thought it would happen to me.’ I suffer with health anxiety so, ironically, I always thought it could happen to me. Even so, I can never describe how it felt to hear a consultant confirming all my worst fears and nightmares and to have certain hopes and dreams so cruelly snatched away in an instant.

My husband and I had some difficult decisions to make about the surgery options offered to us which I’m not going to detail here. Those post-diagnosis conversations, thoughts and decisions were even harder than hearing about the cancer diagnosis itself and I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to open up about the anguish and torment I’ve been through, or the agony we went through as a couple during that time.

We’d booked a holiday to Florida over a year ago and were due to fly on Thursday 1st September, just over a week after my diagnosis. The consultant didn’t see any reason for us not to go away – I felt perfectly well and didn’t have any symptoms, and they couldn’t undertake the surgery for a couple of weeks as I’d still be inflamed from my last lot of treatment. So, on the consultant’s advice, we went away and tried to escape from it all. Although we obviously had the diagnosis and impending surgery hanging over us, we went away to our favourite place in the world and had the best time possible. 

Leaving Florida after a lovely two weeks was even more difficult than usual as the reality of what I had to face after we got back became more and more stark. I had a week and a half to prepare, then I went into hospital on Sunday 25th September ready for my surgery the following day.

I’m leaving out the details about the surgery… I’d never had major surgery before and hadn’t even had a general anaesthetic since I was 6 years old so I had no idea what to expect before or after the operation. Let’s just say I never want to have an operation again!

It’s now been four weeks since my operation and I’m feeling much stronger physically. As I revealed at the beginning of this post, I’m hugely thankful to report that all the cancer has been removed and I won’t need any further treatment as the chances of re-occurrence are very low. However, it goes without saying that the psychological scars will take much longer to heal and will have a long-lasting impact due to the life-changing nature of the surgery. .

I’ve religiously gone for my smear tests since I became eligible when I was 21 and always make my appointment as soon as I get the calling letter. My smear tests when I was 21, 24 and 27 were normal, and my most recent smear test took place exactly three years after the last one. However, this still happened to me. I sometimes feel angry that I’m in this position in spite of research proving that testing every three years will prevent the development of cervical cancer in the vast majority of cases… why did I have to be one of the rare ones? However, instead of being angry, I’m trying to focus my energy into being grateful that I went for my smear test when I did.

Please, please, PLEASE, if you’ve been putting it off or have been ‘too busy’, please go for your smear test. I don’t even want to think about what would have happened to me if I’d let mine slip for a few months, let alone a few years.

Also, if you have any suspicious symptoms which you’re worried about, I strongly urge you to go to your doctor and insist that they take you seriously. I had a symptom four years ago which was a warning sign for cervical cancer and my GP at the time was completely disinterested and dismissive. I had to fight, fight and fight some more for further tests, but my GP was adamant that I couldn’t have a smear test because I wasn’t due one. My consultant has assured me that this symptom was unrelated to my diagnosis as I had a normal smear test a year later and the symptom eventually subsided, but that GP should still have listened to my concerns and referred me to the experts. If you’re worried, don’t take no for an answer. You know your own body, and your health is the most precious thing in the world.

I’ve left a lot out of this blog post because this has undoubtedly been the most difficult, frightening and heartbreaking three months of my life, with more distressing times to come. I don’t feel able to talk about it all yet, privately let alone publicly, and perhaps I never will. However, I hope this post will be of some help to others in a similar situation and will also help to raise awareness about the importance of cervical screening (and any other screening you might be eligible for). Smear tests might not be the most pleasant thing in the world, but I can assure you that they’re more pleasant than a cancer diagnosis and everything that goes with it.

I can safely say, without a doubt, that my smear test saved my life.

P.S. Thank you to all those people who have supported me during the last three months - I can't thank you all enough.