*This is a guest post
Cervical cancer – I’m betting that you’re pretty sure that it could never affect you. It’s not something that happens to you right? I mean, cancer is not something you really want to think about but when you do you think of the “bigger” cancers like lung or pancreatic cancer. That’s what I did – I never considered that I could be affected by cervical cancer.
At 36 years old I had my routine smear test earlier this year and to my shock it began a journey I never thought I would go through. The routine test revealed “abnormal cells” and I had to take a trip to the hospital for further tests. In the months between May and July I went through tests, investigative procedures, and surgery – which revealed that I had, in fact, had cervical cancer. Since May I have learned a lot about cervical cancer and want to share my knowledge with every single woman out there, including you, which is why I’m writing this post. Here’s what you need to know…
Cervical cancer forms in the cells that line the cervix. In the early stages it may not have any symptoms, and can be prevented with regular smear tests – which is why you should go for your smear test when you receive the reminder.
99.7% of cases of cervical cancer are caused by persistent high-risk HPV, an extremely common virus that causes changes to the cervical cells. HPV is contracted via skin-to-skin contact of the genital area which means anyone who has been sexually active could’ve contracted the virus. Around 4 out of 5 people will contract HPV at some point in their lifetime. The body’s immune system usually clears up the HPV infection on it’s own and most people are unaware they have contracted the virus.
Abnormal cells are caused by persistent infections with HPV. They are not cancerous, but over time (usually years) can develop into cancer. The abnormal cells can return to normal by themselves but the decision to let them is a determination your doctor will make.
The first time you hear about abnormal cells will probably be when you receive your letter after your smear test. It will likely tell you abnormal cells were found during the routine test and you’ll be sent a hospital appointment for further tests. While receiving that letter is terrifying (believe me I know) at this stage it is not something to worry about. Having abnormal cells does not mean you have cancer but further tests will help doctors judge whether or not you need further treatment.
In the early stages you probably won’t have symptoms but if you have any of the following you should consult your GP.
- Abnormal bleeding: during or after sexual intercourse, or between periods.
- Post menopausal bleeding: if you are not on hormone replacement therapy (HRT) or have stopped it for six weeks or more.
- Unusual vaginal discharge.
- Discomfort or pain during sexual intercourse.
- Lower back pain.
Not all women experience symptoms, which is why it is so important to go for your routine smear tests.
As cervical cancer progresses it can cause other symptoms which include:
- Increased frequency of urination
- Blood in the urine
- Bleeding from the bottom
- Swelling of the lower limbs
I had NO symptoms. It was only because I went for my routine smear test that the cervical cancer was found. The smear test saved my life.
Okay so it’s not definitely going to happen to you but it really can happen to any woman. Cervical cancer grows silently and without the smear test you could have no idea it is growing inside you – like me.
While it can happen to any woman there are certain factors that increase your chances of developing cancer.
- Being sexually active from a younger age
- Having children at a younger age
- Giving birth to many children
- Having a higher number of sexual partners
- Long term use of the contraceptive pill (more than 10 years) can slightly increase the risk of developing cervical cancer.
I first gave birth when I was 23 and I have two children, I started taking the contraceptive pill at 15 and stopped taking it when I was about 28. I had never considered myself “at risk” of developing cervical cancer and it is only thanks to the smear test that I am here today to be able to write about it
It’s likely the first time you’ll be alerted to anything is when you receive your letter after your smear test informing you they have found abnormal cells. Like I said, this does not mean you have cancer, but you will be sent to the hospital for further investigation.
At your hospital appointment you’ll undergo what is called a Colposcopy, this is where a doctor will use a microscope to look at your cervix. Apart from some die to colour the abnormal cells nothing goes inside you at this point. The doctor will use the Colposcopy to decide whether to do anything with your abnormal cells. Sometimes they decide to leave them alone to heal, sometimes they’ll perform a LLETZ.
A LLETZ procedure is where the doctor uses a special tool to cut away part of your cervix. At my appointment, straight after doing the Colposcopy, the doctor decided to do the LLETZ while I was there. A patch was placed on my thigh, which was to numb me, and they waited a little time for it to start working. They knew it was working when my legs began trembling uncontrollably – a little unnerving but the nurse distracted me. The LLETZ tool is a heated tool and when they are performing the procedure you can feel something – kind of like pressure. It’s uncomfortable but not unbearable.
Once the LLETZ has been performed you’re given time to recover and given a list of restrictions on your lifestyle for the next 6 weeks, after all you’ve just had surgery. The tissue they cut out during the LLETZ is then sent to a laboratory to be tested.
The process may alter slightly depending on your doctor and the decisions they make but this is a general idea.
Being diagnosed with cancer
It may have been a short experience – over in a few short months – but it changed me. I had to go through 2 LLETZ procedures to confirm my cancer had been removed. It wasn’t a pleasant experience, in fact the second LLETZ hurt – a lot – but I tried to act like it was nothing. It wasn’t nothing. It has changed me.
Now if I have bleeding between periods or after intercourse I immediately think the cancer is back. I worry. I think about it. I even dream about it.
It may have been over quickly but the mental implications are real.
If you are diagnosed with cervical cancer you will be monitored closely after your procedures. I will be sent for a Colposcopy every six months for a while and if everything remains clear that will reduce to every year. It will be that way until the doctors decide they can put me back on 3 yearly smear tests with my GP.
A cervical cancer diagnosis is a scary thing, but it doesn’t have to be the end. Going for your smear tests regularly increases the chances of any changes being discovered. And that could save your life.
After my experience this year I am urging every single women to go for their smear test. It really could save your life – it did mine.
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Headline picture courtesy of Jo’s Trust