Mum who lost her daughter to cervical cancer at 23: 'You know when something is wrong with your body... She knew. I knew'
Sorcha Glenn from Derry had just moved in with her boyfriend and started a new job when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer at 23.
Sorcha visited her GP to ask for a smear test in June 2013. A family history with the illness had given her cause to be concerned for her own health but she was denied a screening as she was considered too young.
Two months later Sorcha started to experience symptoms associated with cervical cancer: abnormal bleeding between periods and pelvic cramps. She returned to her GP and this time a smear test was carried out.
On September 9, 2013, Sorcha was diagnosed with cervical cancer.
“When she came home and gave me the news, all I could think was ‘I know’” said Christina.
“You know when something is wrong with your body. You can tell when something isn’t right. She knew. I knew. I think I’d known all along. There was always that fear.”
What followed for Sorcha was a lengthy, brave and painful battle with the disease. She suffered numerous setbacks and struggles along the way but her family say that she remained positive throughout and fought hard, never giving up despite the suffering her cancer forced upon her.
"Cancer moves into your home, everything revolves around the disease. It controls everything. The victim almost becomes secondary to the disease. Everything is just about the cancer.
"During that time I learned the name of so many drugs. Too many drugs." said Christina.
Sorcha even underwent fertility treatment to harvest her eggs, a decision that most girls her age will never have to make.
Months of treatment, good news, bad news, confusion and heartache followed with each day presenting a new challenge.
"Towards the end she was skin and bones. It was so hard to see her like that. My daughter. My little girl who was always full of life, who loved going out with her friends. A girl who was always on top of things.
"She was so organised. The type of girl who'd have her clothes for work organised the night before. She planned everything out all the time. She was good like that."
Christina said that even when Sorcha was in hospital she organised a party for her boyfriend, Matt Lynch's, birthday.
"She has balloons in the hospital, cake, bunting, the works. It meant a lot to her to do something like that. She loved doing things for others, she really did," said Christina.
Even in the months leading up to her death Sorcha organised Christmas presents for her family, friends and Matt.
“It was typical of her to think of other people while being in so much pain and discomfort. She kept on buying us all things while she was in hospital but she kept it all a secret," said Matt.
However, Sorcha didn't make it to Christmas, she didn't get a chance to see her loved ones open the presents she carefully selected for them. She passed away in Matt's arms on October 24, 2014.
Following Sorcha's death, her family set up TeamSorcha: a petition to reduce the age limit on cervical cancer screening from 25 to 18. The petition received over 10,000 signatures but was rejected by the UK government as ''no new scientific evidence was available to support the reintroduction of screening in women under 25."
The World Health Organisation, the International Agency for Research on Cancer and European Guidelines recommend screening women starting from age 25 based on evidence that HPV infection (which typically causes the disease) is very common in young women but most infections are transient.
The WHO states that screening younger women will detect many lesions that will never develop into cancer. This can lead to considerable over-treatment, which can result in fertility problems later in life.
Cervical cancer is the eighth most-common form of cancer in Ireland. The National Cancer Registry in Ireland’s latest figures state that in 2012, 273 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer. Of these, 23 cases were women under 29; the incidence rate for women under 25 was 1.3 per 100 000 women.
The evidence against screening for women under 25 makes sense but it doesn’t take into account anomalies like Sorcha. Women under the age of 25 can still have cervical cancer. The fact that it is rare offers little solace to the victims.
Earlier this year, Rachel Sarjanston (24) from Blackpool, England, died after battling cervical cancer for a year. She was too young to have a free smear test so the disease was not detected.
In 2014, Dawn Weston (26) from East Sussex, Engalnd, also died of cervical cancer. She visited her GP with back pain and asked for a smear test but was denied because she was under the age of 25.
“I don’t blame anyone for what happened to Sorcha” said Christina.“I’m not angry. If she had a smear test when she first went to [her doctor] about it in June 2013, I don’t think it would have made a difference.
"The cancer was already there. I just wish that the rules were different; I wish that girls were invited to have a smear test when they turn 18 or even when they become sexually active.”
"Ever since my daughter passed away, I'm hearing more and more stories about women under 25 dying from cervical cancer. Deaths that could be avoided if these women were allowed to be screened from a young age." said Christina.
The recommended age for onset of screening varies across countries from age 20 in New Zealand to 30 in Finland. Other countries such as Canada recommend screening as soon as a woman becomes sexually active.
In Ireland there's no indication that the age limit of 25 will be lowered any time soon but in the meantime it's important to be aware of the symptoms (there's a guide here) and speak to your GP regarding any concerns.
For women over the age of 25, routine screening through CervicalCheck plays a vital role in catching the symptoms early - and it's free. It's designed to detect abnormal cells before they turn cancerous saving a woman from going through invasive treatment with devastating consequences.
"I hope Sorcha's story makes other girls more aware of the disease," said Christina.
"One of her friends went to book a smear test just recently but the doctor said there was a three-month waiting list because they're booked up. So many girls are booking their smear tests. That's one positive we can take away from this.
"I don't want any parent, any sister, any brother or any friend to follow in our footsteps. I wouldn't wish it upon anyone," she continued.
Christina said that the pain of losing your daughter never goes away.
"At first we coped minute-by-minute, then it was hour-by-hour and now it's day-by-day. You never get over something like this."