As Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust launches a new awareness campaign, Shelley Marsden speaks to one woman who hasn’t let cervical cancer ruin her life – or her chances of having a family.
‘Put Yourself In The Picture’ is a new campaign from UK charity Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, which is urging women to attend cervical screenings during Cervical Cancer Prevention Week (19 – 25 January).
Cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women under 35, and cervical screening saves an estimated 5,000 lives a year, yet one in five women who are eligible for screening do not take up their invitation, and for young women aged 25-29 this rises to 1 in 3.
Cervical cancer is largely preventable thanks to the NHS cervical screening and HPVvaccination programme. Three yearly screening prevents up to 75% of cervical cancers from developing in the UK.
Kirsty-Leigh Porter, who plays Leela Lomax in Hollyoaks, is one of those supporting the campaign. Her sister Natasha’s diagnosis of cervical cancer has made it a matter that is close to her heart.
“It’s easy to dismiss cervical screening as not important when you are busy and have other things to do, yet it saves thousands of lives each year. I’d love to see all women in the UK who are eligible for screening, accept their invitation.”
One young lady who knows all about the importance of cervical screening is Sarah Donaghey. The sales administrator from Leeds, now 28, was diagnosed with cervical cancer at 25, and had to undergo a radical hysterectomy, but was given the all-clear two years ago.
Apart from suffering general tiredness, she is back at work and enjoying normal life again. “It’s amazing”, she says. “I’ve had check-ups and some follow-up MRI scans due to some pain I’ve been having, but everything’s generally good.”
But it wasn’t always like that. Sarah used to regularly get panic attacks in the middle of the night, and says if it wasn’t for the support of her family and friends, she wouldn’t have done it: “I’ve had amazing support. My sister won’t let me get down – if it was up to me, I’d probably have sat at home and sobbed, and drunk a lot more wine than I should have!”
It started when, aged 25, Sarah went for a standard smear test, which came back clear. She thought nothing of it. Three months later, she started experiencing some bleeding, mostly after sex. She had come off contraceptive injections and then gone back on them again when she started seeing a new boyfriend. She put it down to that, as did the nurse she told.
She recalls: “When it was time for my next injection three months later, I was still bleeding. My doctor put it down to bacterial vaginosis, and I was given antibiotics for a couple of weeks.
“But in December I went back for my third injection and I was still bleeding , so I again asked them about it. This time I was referred to the hospital gynaecologist. That’s when everything came crashing down.”
The hospital took a sample to test, and Sarah was given an appointment for a fortnight’s time. But just a week later she was told that she had to come in straight away. She was accompanied by boyfriend Stewart, and was told the devastating news that “cancerous cells” had been found. Her high risk cancer was of the kind that doesn’t show up in smears.
Sarah remembers little: “I wasn’t there, it wasn’t happening to me. I was in a total daze”. The doctor that day took more samples, called a ‘loop’ treatment, which were sent away for testing to see what the next step was.
It was something the 25-year-old would never have imagined. She recalls: “We arrived for my next at appointment and I was told the safest thing to do was to give me a ‘radical hysterectomy’. Finding out I had cancer was a shock, but so was the news that I could never carry my own child.”
That was Christmas 2011. The type of cervical cancer Sarah had was so rare and aggressive that surgeons had to act quickly, and she was operated on, on February 1 2012. She was off work for three months and it took her a long time recovering emotionally too.
Sarah dreams of a family and is doing everything in her power to make it happen. She still has her own ovaries and last year, she and Stewart have tried IVF – with her mum Linda, now 50, as a surrogate. Unfortunately, the cycle failed. But Sarah hasn’t given up hope, and now another close family member has stepped in to help.
“Because I still have embryos in storage, my 24 year old sister Katie has agreed to try and be a surrogate for me next year”, says Sarah. “She’s got three children already and knows how much I want them, so she’s really happy to try. These last couple of years have been so hard for us, but I still think we can have a family.”
Three years ago, all Sarah new about cervical cancer was reality TV star Jade Goody’s high-profile battle, which she lost in March 2009. Now, Sarah is an expert, reading everything she can about the disease.
She has some advice for women reading this article: “Please make sure you go for your smears it takes 5 minutes and it is not as uncomfortable as you may think, it can literally save your life. The other symptoms I had, which I found out later were frequently needing to go for a wee, tiredness, bruising easily and towards the end, pain in my pelvic area.
“You know your body and what it’s used to doing. If something doesn’t feel right, be persistent even if doctors tell you you’re ok, or it’s something else you’re not convinced about. Keep pushing and if you’re not happy, get another opinion. The worst you can do is annoy your GP, and what’s that compared to saving your life! I should probably have my own room at my doctor’s, I go there that often!”
The Put Yourself In The Picture campaign aims to educate women on why they need to attend cervical screening. To get involved, just upload a ‘selfie’ into a personalised digital picture frame on the Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust website (www.jostrust.org.uk) or Facebook page (https://en-gb.facebook.com/joscervicalcancertrust), share it with friends and family and pledge to attend cervical screening.
For the full article, see this week’s Irish World (issue 25 Jan 2014).