Monday 19 February 2018

'I was shocked to hear that the cells were pre-cancerous - mum-of-one (34) urges women to be vigilant

After her first smear test, Kim was slightly concerned, but still didn't think it could be cancer. So when further tests revealed potentially cancerous cells, she was totally unprepared.

Kim Curtin Ryan beat cervical cancer and urges women to look out for symptoms. Photo: Daragh McSweeney/Provision
Kim Curtin Ryan beat cervical cancer and urges women to look out for symptoms. Photo: Daragh McSweeney/Provision
Writer Arlene Harris's aunt Carmel O'Beirne, who died of cervical cancer at just 35

Arlene Harris

When I was a teenager, I loved hanging out with my aunt Carmel - feisty, funny, mischievous and always irreverent, she was exactly the sort of person the nuns at my west Clare boarding school tried to prevent their charges from emulating.

Having abandoned her rural Irish roots, she moved to Paris where she lived (as far as I was concerned) an impossibly glamourous, bohemian lifestyle and whenever she visited home, seemed to light up our sleepy country village.

But in my Inter Cert year, the unthinkable happened and although still in her early thirties, my father's favourite sister was diagnosed with cervical cancer. And whether through naivety, fear or a refusal to face reality, she initially ignored symptoms before finally accepting the need for conventional medicine.

Unfortunately as many of us know, cancer is a cruel disease with a mind of its own and the malignant cells which could have been eradicated if treated early, had soon spread throughout her body and there was nothing anyone could do to save her life.

So in 1986, at the age of 35, my fun-loving, theatrical, full-of-life aunt passed away, leaving behind a loving husband and a beautiful daughter along with the rest of her shocked and bereaved family and friends. She's always in our thoughts, but not least this week, which is Cervical Cancer Prevention Week.

The initiative is aimed at shining a spotlight on the disease, which claims the lives of up to 90 women per year in Ireland.

As with all cancers, it has the potential to kill, but although relatively uncommon, this strain of the disease has good survival rates if detected early.

Kim Curtin Ryan is living proof of that. The Cork woman discovered that she had the disease in 2014 and finally, after three long years, her latest smear test revealed that she is cancer free.

She says women need to be aware of the symptoms and seek medical advice sooner rather than later, as the early detection is vital.

"Back in 2014, I discovered that I was bleeding between periods," says Kim (34). "The first time it happened, I didn't think too much about it but then when it happened again the following month I knew something wasn't right so I went to my GP to have some tests done.

"I hadn't had a smear test in ages so that was the first thing the doctor suggested and although I didn't think there was anything seriously wrong, when the results came back as abnormal, I began to get worried."

After the first smear test, Kim - who is married to Martin and has a 15-year-old son called Dean - was slightly concerned, but still didn't think it could be cancer. So when further tests revealed potentially cancerous cells, she was totally unprepared.

"I had my second smear test done in February 2015, along with a biopsy," recalls Kim, who works as a hairdresser.

"I was given the results there and then and luckily Martin was with me as it was very shocking to be told that the cells were pre-cancerous and would develop unless I had treatment straight away. They also informed me that the cells were CIN 3 which meant they were changing quickly and were quite far gone.

"An appointment was made for the following week to have laser treatment, which would burn away the cells, and although I was very scared, I knew how lucky I was that the cancer was detected, because some people don't get any warning until it's too late."

The mother-of-one underwent laser treatment in early 2015 and says that while the operation was successful, it was very nerve-wracking to have to wait for almost three years to discover that she is now cancer free.

"I had a general anaesthetic for the laser surgery and was told afterwards that it had been successful," she says. "But it was very strange to be sent home and to have to wait for six months until my next smear to see if the cells had returned.

"Luckily they hadn't, but the next examination revealed that I had the HPV virus and nothing could be done except to wait for it to go of its own accord. So the waiting game continued until October 2016, when I had another smear test and this revealed that the cells hadn't returned but the HPV was still there. So I had to wait another year, until October 2017, when my last smear revealed that both the cancer cells and the virus were gone - I was absolutely delighted."

Kim, who recently moved to Waterford, says now that she is cancer-free, she and Martin can think about extending their family and urges other women to be vigilant about the symptoms of cervical cancer, which may go unnoticed for some time.

"The latest smear test is such good news for me and my family," she says. "The last three-and-a-half years have been a long haul for all of us and there have been many ups and downs. But with the all-clear, we can start thinking about having another baby and can get on with the rest of our lives.

"Cervical cancer can be difficult to spot so I would encourage other women to always make sure they keep on top of their smear tests - they only take five minutes and keeping the appointment could save a life.

"Also, I would advise them to look out for symptoms and if they notice bleeding between periods, go and see a doctor straight away. If I hadn't been checked when I did, I might not be here today. But because I got diagnosed early, the outcome is good.

"Women should also bear in mind that an abnormal smear test is not the end of the world - it might be cancer, or it might not, but either way, getting it sorted early makes all the difference."

Naomi Fitzgibbon, Cancer Nursline manager, agrees and says while the disease can go undiagnosed for some time, there are warning signs.

"Cervical cancer develops slowly over a number of years," she says. "At first it develops abnormal cell changes called CIN (cervical intraepithelial neoplasia), which are precancerous, and then this leads to cancer if left untreated.

"The symptoms to look out for include abnormal vaginal bleeding - for example, bleeding in between your periods, after sex or after the menopause, blood-stained vaginal discharge that may have a foul smell, and discomfort or pain in your pelvis.

"Anyone who experiences any of those symptoms should get them checked by a doctor, without delay. These issues can occur in other conditions as well but it is always much safer to get checked."

Cervical Cancer Prevention week has just kicked off, and Fitzgibbon says it is important for women to use this time to educate themselves about the disease.

"European Cervical Cancer Prevention Week occurs every January and the Irish Cancer Society is very pro-active in reaching out to women to raise awareness of this issue," she says. "Each year, the Society supports the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) and its Pearl of Wisdom campaign.

"The Pearl of Wisdom is the international emblem of cervical cancer prevention. To raise awareness about the disease the IFPA distributes Pearls of Wisdom and information leaflets to women around the country, including to our network of 13 Daffodil Centres."

• This week is European Cervical Cancer Prevention Week. See cervicalcheck.ie, cancer.ie and ifpa.ie for more information

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