Shona Cawley - Cervical Cancer
In 2016, at age 34 I was diagnosed with stage 2b adenosquamous cervical cancer. The rarest of all, accounting for about 6% of all cervical cancers. My tumour was nearly 5cms in size and was described as locally advanced. I endured intense treatment, followed by drastic surgery that has all had lifelong ramifications and side effects that serve as daily reminders of what I have been through. And the grief that has followed has been a confusing and tough one to navigate.
I'd like to share with you, some things I wish I knew 4 years ago.
The most common symptom of cervical cancer is vaginal bleeding or spotting - this can be between periods, after sex or after menopause. Other symptoms also include:
- Unusual and persistent discharge
- Persistent pain in your pelvis
- Pain during sex
- Extreme tiredness
- Leg pain or swelling and
- Lower back pain
Anything that is not normal for you, should always be checked.
I experienced 4 of these symptoms - bleeding and spotting, unusual and persistent discharge, tiredness and lower back pain. But because they were all sporadic - in the beginning at least, and almost seemed quite generic, they were so easy to brush off and put into other categories. If I had been aware of the symptoms of gynaecological cancers, I would have sought help sooner and perhaps lessened the severity of my outcome.
Cervical cancer most commonly occurs in women between 35 and 50 years. In New Zealand, 160 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year and approximately 60 women die from the disease.
There are many things you can do to reduce your risk of developing cervical cancer, the main one is getting regular cervical screening every 3 years. Over 85% of women who develop cervical cancer have either never been screened or have been screened infrequently. As someone who always had regular screening, when I hear myself read this statistic out loud, it feels like a punch to my stomach.
The biggest contributing factor to developing Cervical Cancer, is persistent HPV infection. Most sexually active people, both female and male, will have HPV at some point in their lives. In many cases our bodies will clear the virus, but in other cases it may develop into cancer. These days there is an immunisation for HPV but it doesn't cover all strains of HPV. Therefore, women who have been immunised still need regular screening. Even with regular screening, you still aren't immune to getting cervical cancer - it is up to you to be vigilant and be aware.
Other contributing factors include smoking (women who smoke are twice as likely as non-smokers to develop Cervical Cancer), and lastly, a family history of the disease.
At the point of diagnosis, I was 1 and a half years into my 3 yearly smear cycle. I was lucky to go to a doctor who suggested doing a test even though I was well outside of that cycle. I shudder to think what may have happened had I not done that test. I remember my Oncologist describing my situation as being a case of very, very, very bad luck. My opinion, based on personal experience, would be to get screened more regularly. This is not the advice of medical professionals, however, if I could do my time again, I would go annually.
Last October, I dedicated my speech to my fiend Ariane Bailey who, at the time, was fighting a long battle with cervical cancer. In March this year, at the age of 35, Ariane lost her fight. She left behind a loving husband and 2 young children. She is sad proof of how serious cervical cancer can be. And despite the screening in place, she is proof that women can not only still develop cervical cancer, but that it can be deadly if you do.
We were both in our early 30's when we were diagnosed. We both got regular cervical screening. We were healthy. We didn't smoke. We didn't have a family history. We were both body aware. But we didn't know the symptoms - and we both waited too long to seek help. I will never understand why I got to survive and shy Ariane didn't.
Almost 2 months ago, on 22nd August, I celebrated 3 years cancer free. In the cancer world, this is a monumental milestone. My Oncologists always said that if it was to come back, it was more likely to come back within the first 2-3 years, so reaching the 3 year mark has been a huge relief to say the least. Although, my Oncologists warn, that I am still not completely out of the woods. Sometimes I don't believe the tings I've been through, nor can I believe I've made it this far. I am actually headed to the hospital straight after this event for what is hopefully to be my final check-up before being officially discharged. A prospect that is as daunting as it is exciting.
We need to start talking about our gynaecological health. Knowing the signs and symptoms is imperative. Early detection and treatment of cervical cancer is highly successful. I am living proof of this. Be vigilant, know your body and trust your instincts. But don't just notice changes - act on them. Thank you.