Wednesday 21 August 2019

Cervical Cancer: 'My dad's sister had died of the same cancer when she was in her mid 30s - and now it felt like it was my turn'

Suzanne Harrington developed cervical cancer after the HPV virus she had was left untreated by not having regular smear tests. Here, she warns women to get checked

Suzanne Harrington: The cancer seemed like a slow-acting wake up call.
Suzanne Harrington: The cancer seemed like a slow-acting wake up call.

Suzanne Harrington

One of the scariest things to ever arrive at my door - and I've had police knocking on my front door with their bereavement faces on - was a letter from the hospital with my name on it which ended with the words "not signed to avoid delay".

A week after my 37th birthday, with two children still under four, the letter came, full of words like 'biopsy results' and 'further treatment', and most crucially, the urgency of its unsigned ending.

That was the give away. If they didn't have time to sign a letter, that must mean that there was something very wrong. With me, as well as their admin system.

After an agonising weekend of waiting, a consultant confirmed that yes I did indeed have cancer - cervical cancer, which had developed from the HPV virus left unchecked by not having regular smear tests, and was now actual cancer, discovered by a colposcopy. Not pre-cancer, but the real deal.

Obviously I freaked out and began planning my funeral. My dad's sister had died of the same cancer when she was in her mid 30s - and now it was my turn; my genetic destiny.

My poor kids, I thought. This will really mess them up. Will I die? I asked the gynaecologist, whose name was Mr Fish (yes, really - he even had silver fish-shaped cufflinks, which I remember staring at very hard as he was giving me the diagnosis).

He told me that the recovery rate for cervical cancer was 90pc, providing it was caught early enough - hence the importance of smear tests. No, he said. You probably won't die. Just get in here next week for a hysterectomy.

In the interim I went to Paris on a long-planned trip with my then-husband for our fifth wedding anniversary, which was a good distraction, although the drumbeat of 'I have cancer, I have cancer' never abated, not even once, not for one second.

Being in Paris just made it slightly muffled. I bashed my credit card, reasoning that if the doctors couldn't repair me, then a monster Visa bill would be the least of my worries - which meant we had some very good lunches. As if they would be our last.

But because I had small children, I couldn't just go into a visible tailspin. Instead I went for free counselling at the hospital before the surgery, to a specialist cancer counsellor who let me babble all my fears in the safety of a confined space. It sort of helped, but all I wanted was to get it over with.

I was petrified, walking around the local herbalist loading up on Bach Flower remedies and tinctures and potions in the hope that they would somehow help. (I'd checked with the surgeon first - you can't, for instance, take arnica before an operation, but must wait until afterwards).

The operation - my first ever, apart from two straightforward elective C-sections, which hardly count - would last two-and-a-half hours, until my liver started twitching and they had to close me up. It was a success, the surgeon said, as he visited my bedside afterwards, where I lay off my head on morphine in a tangle of tubes.

I remember feeling relieved, but physically awful. The worst I have ever felt.

Turns out I had a Stage 1b Grade 1 tumour, which I realise makes me sound like a listed building. The stages of cancer go from 1 to 4, and the grades of 1, 2 and 3 signify the aggression of the tumour. So in terms of advancement and aggression, at that early stage I had the tumour equivalent of a kitten. In the bed beside me on the cancer ward, I heard the surgeon gently tell a very elderly lady that hers was a maurading Rottweiler.

The 10 days between surgery and waiting for the lab results to see if the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes were endless, and almost worse than the few days between diagnosis and the operation. I was flattened after the hysterectomy. Never in my life had I felt so physically like I'd been hit by a truck.

I remember insisting on going for a walk into town, and having to call an emergency taxi as I was about to collapse in the street. Or trying to do ordinary things at home, like cook dinner, and having to lie down.

The idea of just lying down in the first place never occurred to me, even with the amazing support of close friends who took it in turns to be with us at home, looking after the children and making cups of tea and keeping the place going. You really need your friends around you when you are ill.

After 10 long days of trying not to think about it, the surgeon rang and said that the cancer had not spread. I would not be needing radiotherapy or chemotherapy. It was the only time in the whole process that I actually cried - until that moment I had been holding my breath.

I didn't care about stuff like my hair falling out - like Visa bills, that would have been the least of it - but I'd been scared stiff that I would die too soon and leave my kids without a mummy. That had been the real fear. The rest was just the white noise of free-floating anxiety.

Obviously, there were loads of check ups. Five years of them, starting with every three months, and then tapering off to six months, then annual. Initially those check ups were worrying; there always seemed to be someone with a flashlight rummaging around inside my vagina, making 'hmmmm' noises. But after five years, they told me I need not come back.

It's now been 11 summers since my cancer diagnosis and surgery. Eighteen months after the operation, I stopped drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco (in retrospect, it seems unimaginable that it took so long to stop, but that's how long it took). As a result, I became healthier, more active, and two years ago changed my diet from long-term vegetarian to vegan.

The cancer seemed like a slow-acting wake up call.

Given how clean living I am these days, the assumption is that I will live forever, because despite still being built like Miss Piggy, I now have Gwyneth Paltrow levels of neurosis around health and well-being. My favourite cookbook is Deliciously Ella. I have a juicer. I do yoga. I am immortal.

Until this summer, fed up with the frequency of getting cystitis, I went for a routine ultrasound to see what was going on in my urology department. Nothing, as it turned out - but what were those UFOs around my ovaries? Probably cysts, said the scanner lady.

The word "probably" wasn't terribly reassuring, especially when I mentioned I'd already had cancer in that region. My ovaries had been left intact so that I wasn't hurled into menopause aged 37 while still recovering from cancer; now they are sprouting things which several tests later, nobody yet seems able to indentify. How very ungrateful of them.

I am currently in the middle of another series of blood tests, CT scans and trips to a different gynaecologist whose favourite word is "inconclusive".

However, unlike 11 years ago, this time around I am not that worried. Yes, it might be ovarian cancer, but it might also not be ovarian cancer.

So far, nobody has sent a letter "not signed to avoid delay". Those weird shapes showing up in scans are not something I am ready to lose sleep over; these days I am far more sanguine, far less dramatic, in my responses to stuff over which I have little control. One in three of us will get cancer. Millions survive.

In the meantime, all I would say to anyone who hasn't had a smear test in a while is to go and get one right now, because it could save you an awful lot of hassle. It could even save your life.

* CervicalCheck, The National Cervical Screening Programme, provides free smear tests to women aged 25 to 60

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