I don’t mind admitting it, I don’t think I even know what my cervix was as a teenager. I’m sure it was covered in those cringey old fashioned catholic sex education videos we saw, but it didn’t exactly stick in my mind.
Cervix’s and Fallopian thingies were the least of my worries as a teen.
I can’t say either that in my late teens and early twenties, I had even had an awareness of Cervical Cancer. Bearing in mind this was the 90s and I was more concerned with getting out on a Saturday night than anything so life threatening as Cancer. Yes you heard of people who died of it, usually older people but I was lucky that none of my family had to face the diagnosis.
Smear tests really only came up on my radar after having my son in 2001 – I’m not even sure there was a cervical screening programme at the time and nobody ever mention HPV to me in any guise.
I must admit I was a bit lax about getting my smear after my daughter was born in 2007, she was probably two by the time I got around to it and I never heard anything so assumed the results were clear.
Over the few years after that I got the odd strange pain but doctors put it down to IBS and told me to lose weight and eat better. I was on the pill and had some breakthrough bleeding but that was to be expected I was told. I gave up on it after a while as the constant bleeding was enough to drive anyone around the bend.
I went to my GP again in October 2014 after a particularly bad pain which left me breathless. Again, the age old IBS excuse was trotted out. A good friend told me about a similar pain caused by an ovarian cyst so the doctor reluctantly agreed to a CT scan just to rule it out.
A smear was organised, as well as some blood tests. None of us want to lie up on that nurse’s couch, legs akimbo as they slip that torture device in and crank the wheel. Next comes the little brush that scrapes the cells from the cervix to be sent off for testing, I think the sound of the scraping is worse than the sensation.
Only 5 minutes of discomfort they say. Except it wasn’t.
The nurse looked worried, couldn’t get past the blood and there followed lots of whispering and a referral for a colposcopy with a vague mention of a growth of sorts. They assured me nothing was wrong and that it was likely to be a polyp but they just wanted to be sure as they couldn’t get a proper sample.
I went off to work, bleeding and in pain.
One of my main skills is overthinking, so I did that with abundance in the three weeks that followed before my colposcopy appointment. Having never been before, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The doctor invited me up on yet another couch and told me I would be able to see everything on the TV as he did his exam. Legs akimbo again and they got to work.
There was silence, a complete and utter deafening silence. The TV remained blank and the stinging and discomfort that followed was nothing short of agony.
In my confusion I don’t recall exactly what he said apart from one sentence ‘we will get this off to pathology and get you into St James’s hospital as quickly as possible for treatment’.
I walked out in a daze, unable to speak. My parents came towards me on the corridor and I burst into tears, hysterically and breathlessly telling them he thought I had Cancer. The shock on their faces was evident and I think they felt I had picked him up wrong.
All I could do was wait.
Exactly a week later I was called back to see him. As we sat together he talked about carcinoma, cells and lesions. I have never been so confused in my life – nobody was using the word Cancer, so surely it wasn’t cancer was it? As we walked out the door I asked the nurse straight out ‘is it cancer’ and she said ‘yes’.
I cannot describe the feeling of hearing that. Shock, sadness, anger, fear, panic, confusion, helplessness. Bundle all of those together and you don’t even come close.
I was referred to St James’ the following day and the rollercoaster began. I’m not a fan of rollercoasters – the twists and turns, the sudden drops and highs and the feeling that you can’t get off whenever you like. Add some darkness to that scary ride and you have some idea of what I faced over the coming weeks and months.
I was 39 years of age and I had Cancer. I had two young children and I had Cancer. I was a single working parent and I had Cancer.
My brain was like a washing machine with the word Cancer spinning around constantly. I Googled it obsessively as I waited for my first proper appointment. Don’t tell me not to Google, don’t tell anyone not to Google. Let them do what they need to do and be there for them when they fall apart.
The weeks ahead consisted of examinations, scans and anaesthetics and this wasn’t the start of it. I remember being devastated that I would end up going home with a catheter for six weeks. The horror of it.
I fixated on that rather than the Cancer, couldn’t bear to think of loping around with a bag of wee strapped to my leg. How undignified.
That roller-coaster took quite a few sharp turns in the run up to Christmas 2014 until I finally found out on Christmas Eve that I needed major surgery as the Cancer was invasive. They weren’t sure if I would need further treatment after that.
My radical hysterectomy with pelvic lymphadenectomy and bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy surgery was scheduled for February, approximately seven weeks away. It’s an impressive mouthful isn’t it? I prefer to just say radical hysterectomy with the tubes and ovaries and lymph nodes for good measure.
I celebrated Christmas as best I could that year, not letting on to my children what I was facing. My ex and I disagreed about whether they should be told at all. He won. They were never told, until recently where I had no choice to tell my son. I won’t even tell you his reaction.
When I look back on the photos of my smiling face for my son’s confirmation a week before surgery, I wondered how I managed to look so happy while this Cancer was growing inside of me. But that’s what a mother does isn’t it?
One of my overriding thoughts was of dying during the surgery. I remember a good friend telling me I was wasting my time worrying about it – if I died I wouldn’t know about it so what’s the point, it wasn’t something I was in control of. Oddly, that did help.
I sat in my hospital bed the night before surgery with no idea what to expect. Doctors came in and out, poked and prodded and talked vaguely of a bloody transfusion for low iron.
The next morning I donned my sexy fishnet knickers and gown that showed my butt and hopped up on to that bed for the trundle down to surgery.
I was told I may wake up in ICU, it would depend on how surgery went. When I got to the ‘holding area’ there were lots of occupied beds with men and women waiting on various surgeries – I remember holding an older woman’s hand as she fretted about her own lumpectomy that was happening only minutes from then.
I woke up on the normal ward, no beeping machines or wires. A good start surely? The surgery went well except, as is common during keyhole surgery, they punctured my bladder and I needed stents in my kidneys for three months as well as the catheter for six weeks.
I have never experienced weakness like I did for a long time after that surgery. I could only walk a few steps, linking the arm of the OT as I carried my catheter bag in the other hand. Sometimes he carried it for me, gentleman that he was.
Isn’t it every single woman’s dream, to find a nice man to carry her bag of wee?
I had to learn to give myself blood thinning injections every day for six weeks in my legs, that wasn’t exactly the kind of fun I was looking for. My thighs were generous but within days they were a myriad of purple and yellow bruises and there were some days I just didn’t think I could face stabbing myself with that needle.
Off I went home to stay with my parents for however long I needed to. We sat down together and worked out this long list of medication and vowed every day to walk a few steps further. Imagine being elated that you could make it to your front gate, a few feet away.
There were setbacks, blocked catheters and an allergy to some medication which really floored me. Sometimes I lay in that bed wondering if I would ever get my life back. But I couldn’t let depression pull me down.
A call came from the Oncologist two weeks later, the Cancer was gone. I had kicked its ass and it was outta there, no further treatment required. Three monthly check ups for a year, six monthly for five years. I could handle that.
It took me a full year to feel anything like normal again, a new normal. The girl who had cancer.
The past four years have been life changing. Cancer never goes away. It pops up to say ‘hi’ every time you have a pain or a niggle – it invades your thoughts when you feel unwell and leaves you breathless before every single checkup. A few months after surgery at my check up, a rough and unkind doctor felt a lump in my breast and rushed me down the corridor trailing after him to the breast clinic for an immediate examination. I mean come on; surely I had dealt with enough trauma to last a lifetime without a breast cancer scare to add to the mix. Thankfully all was well, I was never so glad to hear I just had ‘lumpy breasts’.
The Cervical Screening scandal has rocked the women of Ireland, but please please don’t let it put you off having your smear tests. Don’t use it as an excuse to avoid that letter, make the appointment today. You have to do everything you can to catch those Cancer cells before they develop. Before you require major surgery or chemo or radiation, before you die.
Cancer is the gift that just keeps giving, the kind of gift that nobody wants.