Sunday 19 November 2017

'A smear test in Abu Dhabi spotted cervical cancer and saved my life'

Aoife Harrington: ‘My advice to everyone would be to please go for a smear test.’ Photo: Frank Dolan
Aoife Harrington: ‘My advice to everyone would be to please go for a smear test.’ Photo: Frank Dolan

Arlene Harris

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in Ireland with almost 11,000 diagnoses made a year. Prostate and breast cancer also affect high numbers of the population, with bowel and lung cancers making up the top five most common forms.

But while cervical cancer statistics are much lower at around 300 diagnoses a year, recent figures show that this year 90 women will die from the disease. That's almost two mothers, sisters, daughters or friends who will lose their lives every week as a result of cervical cancer.

In addition, according to the Irish Cancer Society (ICS), another 280 women will be diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer and a further 6,500 will need hospital treatment to remove precancerous growths in their cervix - all of these caused by the HPV virus.

"Human papilloma virus (HPV) is the leading cause of cervical cancer," said Dr Robert O'Connor, head of research for ICS.

"The virus is passed through sexual activity and HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women will get at least one type of HPV at some point in their lives. Most people never know that they have been infected and may give HPV to a partner without knowing it.

"Most people with HPV never develop symptoms or health problems and most HPV infections (nine out of 10) go away by themselves within two years. But sometimes they persist and can cause cervical cancer and other diseases."

Read more: Daffodil Day: 'Pancreatic cancer crept up silently and swiftly and took my dad in two months'

Aoife Harrington, from Westport, Co Mayo, was diagnosed with cervical cancer aged just 24. With no discernible symptoms or concerns about cancer, she discovered she had the disease when she and some friends decided to get tested.

"It was a Thursday, June 19, 2014, when I was diagnosed with grade 3 squamous cell cervical cancer," she said. "I was living and working as a teacher in Abu Dhabi when some of my friends and I decided to go for a routine smear test. It was the first time I had ever had a smear test and to be honest I wasn't even sure what it entailed.

"I feel that this test definitely saved my life because without it I would never have known about my cancer. At the time, I didn't think that I had any major symptoms but had been getting quite tired and had some dizzy spells at work. I had also lost some weight - which other people noticed more than me."

Although far away from home, Ms Harrington, who will soon be a qualified primary school teacher in Ireland, was with a friend when she received the devastating news and, by sheer coincidence, her father was also in the country so was able to offer immediate support to his daughter.

"The appointment was on a weekend so I should have known that it wouldn't be good news," she said. "Luckily my friend Olive was with me as I don't remember much after being told the diagnosis, it's all a bit of a blur.

Aoife Harrington was diagnosed with cervical cancer while living in Abu Dhabi Picture; Frank Dolan.
Aoife Harrington was diagnosed with cervical cancer while living in Abu Dhabi Picture; Frank Dolan.

"But thankfully my dad, who works abroad quite a lot, happened to be in Abu Dhabi airport on a stopover. My friends rang him straight away and he cancelled his flight to be with me.

"The next few days sped by. I had to leave my job as the only thing I could think about was getting home to my family. My GP (in Ireland) helped us get the wheels in motion and within two days of arriving home my road to recovery had begun."

The 27-year-old, who has been with her boyfriend Shane since long before her diagnosis, had further tests when she arrived back in Ireland and was then referred to St James's Hospital for surgery - an ovarian transposition, in order to move her ovaries away from the radiation treatment which would follow.

Read more: Daffodil Day: 'My advice to anyone having chemo would be to get rid of your hair before it falls out'

Four days later she was discharged and, due to her age, began fertility treatment at the HARI unit in the Rotunda Hospital.

"After the surgery, I had my eggs extracted and two weeks later started six weeks of external and internal radiotherapy and chemotherapy," she recalled. "A total whirlwind is the only way to describe everything.

"I was so blessed with all the doctors and nurses who were amazing. And my family were more supportive than I can explain. Now that it is all over, my advice to everyone would be to please go for a smear test - do not put it off because I am proof that it can save your life."

Dr O'Connor of the ICS said while symptoms may be difficult to spot in the early stages, there are ways to reduce the chances of developing cervical cancer.

"Not having regular smear tests can increase your risk of getting cervical cancer but this can be minimised by availing of the National Screening Service's CervicalCheck Screening Programme," he advised. "CervicalCheck provides free smear tests to women aged 25 to 60 which involve a simple procedure that only takes minutes and is the most effective way to detect changes in the cells of the cervix.

"The HPV vaccine is also offered free of charge to first-year secondary school girls in Ireland each year. It protects against the strains of human papilloma virus which cause 70pc of all cervical cancers. It eliminates the risk of contracting seven in 10 cervical cancer cases."

Today marks the Irish Cancer Society's 30th Daffodil Day. Thousands of volunteers all around the country will be selling daffodils. You can buy a daffodil or make a donation by visiting cancer.ie, calling CallSave on 1850 60 60 60 or texting 'Daff' to 50300 to donate €4.

Irish Independent

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