'I would not be alive if I hadn’t gone for my first smear' - Woman was diagnosed with stage three cervical cancer at age 27
A test had been on the to-do list for a while - but the results came as a big shock, Sarah Daly tells our reporter
Sarah Daly has three sons and like every mother, feels blessed by their presence. But the Dublin woman is extra grateful for her children, and indeed her own life, as a routine health check over a decade ago both saved her life and rendered her infertile.
The Special Needs Assistant welcomed her first baby, Ben (now 17) when she was just 22 years old. Just over a year later, she had Lee (15) and again after a similar length of time, Karl (13) arrived.
Since before her first pregnancy, she was advised to have a smear test as she had never had one before — but with three pregnancies and deliveries in quick succession, it wasn’t until months after her third child was born that she finally went for the recommended test.
“I had my babies very young so didn’t even think about smear tests before becoming pregnant,” admits the mother of three.
“Then after I had Ben, my doctor said I should go for one at some stage, but for the next few years I was either pregnant or had just given birth so it wasn’t something that was on my mind.
“However, after Karl was born, the midwife said I should really have a smear done and about nine months later, I finally got around to it. It was just something I could tick off my list before getting on with looking after my babies.”
But although she had no symptoms whatsoever and no family history suggesting a risk, the young mother was diagnosed with a stage three cervical cancer.
“Once I had the test done, I totally forgot about it until I got a phone call two weeks later to say that I needed to have further checks at the Rotunda,” recalls Sarah, who lives in Clondalkin with her children and husband, Jason.
“Again I wasn’t worried even when the doctor said that after looking at the results, things weren’t as expected and I would need a biopsy. I was called back for the results a day or so later and because the nurse couldn’t tell me on the phone that there was anything wrong, I went in by myself and was on my own when I got the results. I will never forget that day as I was in total shock when they told me that I had CN3 Cervical Cancer.
“In fact, I was so numb that when the doctor said I needed to have surgery done straight away, I told him I couldn’t do it until after my sister’s wedding (a few weeks later). He was really surprised but allowed me that time as I didn’t want to be giving bad news to the family at such a happy event — so I kept it to myself until afterwards.”
Sarah’s mother had died three years previously and she felt that her absence was heartache enough for the time being.
“The fact that my mum wasn’t there for my sister’s wedding was really upsetting for us all so I didn’t want to add to that by telling them my news,” says Sarah.
“But after it was all over, I told my family and they couldn’t have been more supportive. I had to go for a radical hysterectomy (in March 2005) which would mean I would never have any more children — I was so grateful I already had my lovely boys.
“I was only 27 at the time so the doctor decided not to remove my ovaries, as I would have gone into a very early menopause but my lymph nodes had to be removed and thankfully this revealed that the cancer hadn’t spread so after the operation, I didn’t need chemotherapy or radiotherapy.”
But despite the reprieve of further treatment, the Dublin woman was in considerable pain and with a young family to take care of, was extremely grateful for the support she received from her family and friends.
“I was on my own at the time (as this was before marrying Jason) so my dad and step-mum took the boys to their house and looked after them for two months while I recovered from the operation,” she says.
“This was an amazing help and I don’t know how I could have done it without them — in fact, without their support and that of my sisters and friends, I wouldn’t be in the place I am in today.
“And to be honest, if I hadn’t gone for that routine smear test, I probably wouldn’t be here at all, which is a very frightening thought.”
So grateful is she for being alive, that Sarah — along with her extended family — plans to take part in the Irish Cancer Society (ICS) Colour Dash run on June 11.
She hopes her participation will help to raise funds for cancer research and awareness of the very real need to avail of free routine smear tests.
“Having a smear test saved my life,” she says.
“I would not be here if I hadn’t gone for it and it just goes to show that you don’t necessarily get any warnings either as I didn’t have any symptoms. So I would advise everyone to get their smear tests done as soon as the appointment letter arrives and even if it doesn’t, just ring the doctor and arrange to have one done.
“You only have one life and I have seen how easily it can be taken away. I am so fortunate, not only because I am alive but also because I have my children — some women will find out that they have cervical cancer when it is too late for either treatment or a family, so I can’t say enough how important it is to get checked out. Sure it might be a bit uncomfortable or a bit embarrassing, but it only takes 15 minutes, the doctor or nurse has seen it all before and if you don’t make the effort, you could actually die from embarrassment.”
In Ireland an average of 300 women every year are diagnosed with cervical cancer and it is the second most common female cancer in Europe.
Naomi Fitzgibbon, Cancer Nurseline manager for ICS, says while these numbers are reducing, it is still absolutely vital that women take part in their screening and keep up to date with their free smear test, which is a short, simple process.
“The test is a straightforward procedure, carried out by your smear taker, where he/she takes a sample of cells from the cervix or the neck of the womb,” she says. “Some woman do not like going for their smear or find it a little uncomfortable and while this can be true, it’s not at all painful and should only take about 15 minutes. Those minutes could be really crucial if they are reducing your risk of cervical cancer.
“Once the results come back, sometimes changes are detected but in the majority of cases it will not lead to cervical cancer because early detection and treatment of pre-cancerous cells can prevent cancer developing in most cases.
“If higher grade changes are detected, you may need to go for further tests.”
The annual Irish Cancer Society Colour Dash run takes place in Dublin on June 11, Galway on June 18 and Cork on June 25. Register now for the 5km event at cancer.ie/colourdash
ABOUT CERVICAL CANCER
* Around 300 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year in Ireland.
* It is the second most common female cancer in Europe.
* Cervical cancer takes a long time to develop and often has no symptoms, which is why regular screening is crucial.
* One of the biggest risk factors for developing cervical cancer is a HPV infection, which is a virus passed on during sex.
* All women between the ages of 25 and 60 are entitled to free tests through the state’s CervicalCheck screening programme and can arrange the test with their own local GP or family planning clinic.
* The schools-based Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccination programme for girls in first year in secondary school was rolled out by the National Immunisation Office in September 2010.
* The combination of a HPV vaccination programme along with an effective screening programme has the potential to reduce the incidence of cervical cancers by up to 90pc.
* Symptoms of cervical cancer include - bleeding between periods, after sex or after the menopause. It can also include blood-stained vaginal discharge and discomfort or pain in the pelvis.