When I knew something was wrong: I was presenting with intermittent bleeding between periods, excessively heavy periods and bleeding after intercourse for about 18 months. However, all my pap smears came back normal. When my symptoms first began, I was living in the UK and due to my age, there was a reluctance to investigate further. My symptoms were put down as “just one of those things.” After relocating to Australia and still having the symptoms and a general feeling of something not being right, I went to my current doctor and explained my concerns. Again, a Pap smear came back clear; however, my doctor agreed that these things shouldn’t be happening and he subsequently arranged for an appointment with a specialist gynaecologist and he in turn took a biopsy.
Upon hearing my diagnosis: I had gone to my results appointment on my own, somewhat naively thinking that since my Pap smears came back clear, whatever the biopsy found couldn’t be too serious… I was wrong! Initially, I was panicked but in control. When I asked the gynaecologist what the likely treatment was and he responded very matter of fact “ Oh, a radical hysterectomy, without a doubt,” I fell apart.
I called my partner in tears and had to explain over the phone about my results saying it was cancer and asking if he could come home from work. Truth being told, as I look back, I very starkly remember not questioning my mortality like you presume you would do. At 32, we hadn’t yet had children and the prospect of not being able to was far more devastating and overwhelming than the possibility that this could kill me. That didn’t really cross my mind.
My treatment: I underwent a laparoscopic radical hysterectomy and lymph node removal. My pathology came back clear so no further treatment was required.
What I do to help others: I try my best to raise awareness of women’s cancers, specifically cervical cancer, because so many women are put off either by the testing process or the stigma associated with certain cancers. They avoid taking care of their health, which can literally mean the difference between life and death. I also encourage women to listen to their own bodies. I was lucky that I had a vigilant doctor in Australia who trusted me and listened to me and pushed my testing further. With my tumour being in the glandular tissue, had he not pushed for a biopsy, I very likely would not be here today. To be aware, informed and in charge of your own wellbeing is empowering. Women shouldn’t be put off, but rather embrace that empowerment and use it for the greater good.
I also am part of a number of local and national charities and support networks for Cervical and Women’s cancers. And I take part annually in a 60km walk benefiting the Harry Perkins Research Institute in Perth, Australia.
What was most difficult for me: For me, the returning to “normal” was the most difficult – people see you fit and well for all intents and purpose; however, for me personally, it was at least a year after my surgery that I started to actually emotionally process and deal with the impact of my diagnosis and subsequent surgery and all that it meant. Even now, over 2 years later, there are still days where it all feels as if it was yesterday. There are also so many other issues, such as menopause, peripheral pain/scar tissue, hurt and so on that have a huge physical impact on your body that it takes a long time to come to terms with your new normal, especially since it’s a normal that you didn’t choose for yourself. It can be very difficult to share that with people or to help them understand at the same time as you are trying to move on for yourself.
Side effects of treatment: My main side effects are early menopause, mild lymphedema and neuropathic pain.
How I found support: I found support via a number of online networks such as Cervivor, teal ladies, Cervical cancer network Aus/NZ, as well as seeing a psychologist and of course my partner, family and friends.
My life today: In December 2015, I would have reached 3 years in remission; however, I was diagnosed with a metastatic tumour in the lymph nodes in my groin with cluster cells in the pelvis in June 2015. So, I am currently in unchartered waters having just completed 8 weeks of daily radiation and weekly chemo.
Despite my second diagnosis, I refuse to let cancer own and define me. It can and will take many things from you and it can lead to many a dark day where you find it difficult to hold your head high. But what it cannot do, not if you don’t let it, is take your heart and soul. It cannot take your determination and it cannot take your hope. I know my current path is far from the best fun I’ve ever had, but I know that I will get to the end of this path and I will still be standing and I will be able to regain my life and live it my way. I have an exceptional and supportive partner (Russell), a fantastic and cheeky furbaby (Fonzie – a beautifiul Australian cattle dog), a wonderful family, incredible friends, loving and supportive colleagues, a great home and a great lifestyle and most importantly – we have many more years of opportunity and adventure ahead of us.
What I want other women to know: I want other women to know that whatever stage they are in their journey or whether they are a caregiver or friend of someone dealing with cancer and its fallout – there is an abundance of support for everyone and to not be afraid to seek it out. I would hope that women become armed with the knowledge of what the various symptoms are and what their options are.
Most importantly, trust yourself! If something doesn’t seem right, push to get it checked out.