How seven simple minutes saved my life
By Anna Trevelyan
Of all the things I worried about, I never really worried about getting cervical cancer. I always attended my cervical screening tests, and it’s true that cancer usually takes 10 years or more to develop in most cases. Unfortunately though, we can’t all be most cases.
I wasn’t worried when my routine cervical screening came back as ‘abnormal’. I knew that stats; I knew that, if you attend your regular 3 yearly appointments, it’s like worrying about train which might crash in a decade’s time (plenty of time to re-route the track, so to speak).
I wasn’t even worried when I had to attend a colposcopy appointment, as it happens to most of us girls at one time or other, nor was I concerned when the doctor took biopsies. I merrily skipped off on holiday, not particularly thinking about these results. My husband and I had even decided we were going to try to extend our family further, after a succession of three miscarriages in the past (pretty rubbish) year. I hoped my bad luck had come and gone.
I certainly didn’t expect the letter which arrived, almost in soap opera style – bang – onto the mat, and disrupting all I took for granted at that very moment. My health, my chance of having a second baby, the entire future of my family – thrown into an abrupt U-turn by the arrival of the unsuspecting postman. The oppressive opposite of a red letter day, delivered by the kindly man in red.
I was called straight in for a LLETZ procedure. Not the most pleasant of experiences, but certainly a (usually) effective operation to try to remove the bad bits.
I only had about 2 minutes of regretting attending that cervical screening appointment, until I realised it was just a matter of knowledge. It WAS there, and this actually was something I’d rather know. From then on I was glad I’d phoned up and chased my appointment with the practice nurse (as said friendly Postie isn’t always the most reliable).
The C word (with a small C)
My actual diagnosis was high grade glandular cervical intraepithelial neoplasia with carcinoma in situ. My doctor described this as ‘stage 0 cervical cancer’. It’s certainly not the best diagnosis, but, of all the cancers, it’s one of the best ones you can have (every cloud and all that). Although it’s a bit of guess work, they aim to remove the malignant cells before they become ‘invasive’. So, although my train crash was imminent, there might still just be time for an emergency stop.
Strangely, for me, one of the worst parts was the lack of control. The timing couldn’t have been more ironic – it was a matter of hours between deciding to try for another baby and being told it was the last thing in the world we should be doing. Being banned from something you had set your heart on is tricky, especially when I felt so well.
I didn’t cry at my diagnosis, nor during my two (somewhat painful) operations. It surprised me that I had sudden bouts of tears during strange times: my little boy pushing an empty swing in the playground, and seeing a small baby toad when out running (weird in more ways than one).
But it turns out the word cancer isn’t a binary diagnosis. It’s complex and unique to every person. It wasn’t a nice conversation to have at the hospital (back to the bad news room again for me) but early cervical cancer detection isn’t a doorway to a death sentence. It’s a fire exit.
It saddens me that many women still don’t undertake this straightforward test which is so important. I’ll always be grateful that we live in a country where this test is not only free, but freely available. As for me, I’m not out of the woods yet but I’ve at least finally found the proper footpath. Without this wonderful test who knows where I would have ended up.
After my second operation my husband drove me home in the car. We were both feeling morose. But suddenly I saw a sight which I’ll never forget: a poodle proudly strutting along, carrying its own (filled) dog poo bag. I’ll always be grateful to that ridiculous poodle as it not only made me laugh but it symbolised so much to me at that moment – you’ve got to sort your own sh** out. No one else is going to carry it for you.
Ladies – please put a reminder in your phone, write it on your calendar and call your doctor’s surgery to book your cervical screening tests. Don’t rely on the letters to come – be proactive and book the tests regularly for yourself, as you CAN save the train from crashing. It’s seven slightly awkward minutes, but that simple test really can save your life.
Thanks to Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust and Cancer Research UK for the information and support, and to Miss Prietzel-Meyer and the fabulous team at Frimley Park Hospital.
Special thanks to my close family and friends for all your love, laughter and lovely words.