Monday 10 December 2018

'I was pregnant when I was told I had cervical cancer' - mum-of-one (39)

The frenzy surrounding the HPV vaccine has seen a marked decline in uptake. Denise Smith talks to two women who have survived cervical cancer - both of whom want their children to be protected from the virus by availing of the vaccine when the time comes

Katrzyna Spiewak
Katrzyna Spiewak

If your daughter is entering secondary school, you'll undoubtedly have heard about the HPV vaccine which is administered to thousands of first-year students each year to protect against cervical cancer.

An estimated 300 women in Ireland are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year. For many, the life-saving vaccine which protects against seven out of 10 cervical cancers is the difference between life or death. Despite the compelling scientific evidence that concludes that the vaccine is both safe and groundbreakingly effective for both girls and boys, a campaign, spread on the internet and social media, has meant that there has been an alarming drop off in the uptake of the vaccine.

Pleading with parents to ignore the conspiracy theories, Dr Jennifer Grant of the Beacon Hospital explains why children should be vaccinated against HPV.

"Mass scaremongering about potential vaccine side effects has resulted in a decline in vaccine uptake in the past year to less than half of all eligible school girls taking up the offer for free vaccination. Recent evidence from Scotland and Australia has shown a reduced rate of pre-cancer changes and cancer cases in young girls following vaccination. In my eyes, there is no debate.

"The vaccine protects against the main types of HPV virus and reduces the risk of developing cervical cancer and genital warts, but does not remove the need for cervical smear tests.

HPV is linked to a lot of mouth, throat, anal and penile cancers. Therefore, boys should also get vaccinated. It is offered free of charge to all girls but not boys as yet. In November 2015, the European Medicines Agency reported no link between chronic fatigue-like syndromes and the HPV vaccine."

Two women who were diagnosed with cervical cancer explain how the vaccine can save lives.

Katrzyna Spiewak

After struggling to conceive Katrzyna was overjoyed when she discovered she was pregnant only to be shocked by bad news soon after...

The 39-year-old - who lives with her partner Peter and baby girl Melanie, now one-year-old, in Whitehall, Dublin - explains why she will vaccinate her daughter when the time comes and is encouraging other parents to do the same.

"I was experiencing bleeding so I went to my GP and I had a smear test. I was referred for an ultrasound and that's when the doctor told me I was pregnant. I was thrilled because I thought I was unable to have children as we had been trying for some time.

"I was eight weeks pregnant when the results from the smear came back and I was told I had severe dysplasia. I was referred to the colposcopy clinic. At that time, I still thought it was related to the pregnancy, so I wasn't worried.

"By the time the baby's 12 week scan came around, I had completely forgotten about the smear test. Myself and my partner Peter were told that there was a 50pc chance that the baby could have a genetic condition or heart disease, so we were dealing with that."

Reeling from the news that her baby could be born with major health concerns, the business woman, who is originally from Poland, was dealt another devastating blow when it was confirmed that she had cancer.

"When I went to the colposcopy clinic, the first question the doctor asked when he checked my cervix was 'How many children do you have already?' I said, 'It's my first baby'. I knew from his reaction it wasn't good news.

"I had a biopsy and three days later, I had the results. I was told that I had cancer and that it was locally advanced.

"I was sent for an MRI so they could see what stage cancer I had. That was the most difficult part, that really was the deciding factor in how the team would proceed."

Unsure whether she could continue the pregnancy and advance with treatment, the doting mum explains,

"From the beginning, I said that if there was any chance for both of us, I would take the chance and that's what I did.

"When the results came back, I had stage 2B cervical cancer which meant that I needed radiotherapy, but that was impossible because I was pregnant so my team decided chemotherapy would be the best option, but it would only contain the cancer.

"In the midst of all this we found out that the baby didn't have any genetic problems, but her heart was not developing properly. She had Hypoplastic Right Heart Syndrome, so the right ventricle was smaller than it should be. It was just another complication on top of the cancer.

"My doctors contacted hospitals around the world to see if they had any similar cases - the goal was to start on a chemo that would cause the least amount of damage to the baby."

Delaying radiotherapy treatment until after her pregnancy, Katrzyna received chemotherapy treatment from the 20th week of her pregnancy until baby Melanie was born on September 28 last year.

"I underwent a C-section and a hysterectomy at the same time. The doctors wanted to put me under anaesthetic but I wanted to hold Melanie.

"They understood, so they did the epidural first. I got to see her and hold her and kiss her and then she was transported to the Rotunda Hospital.

"When Melanie was two-months-old, I started radiotherapy and began more chemotherapy.

"It was hard because she was so small and I hated leaving her, but Peter and his mum were amazing. I could not have done it without them. Peter was my rock throughout it all.

"I finished the whole treatment in January it was an amazing moment. It was the hardest thing to go through, but Melanie is really beautiful. She really is amazing and I am so grateful she is healthy and happy.

"The only problem she has is a hearing loss, she is not deaf but she does not hear 100pc so she has small hearing aids. We thought she would need open heart surgery when she was born, but her heart repaired itself while I was pregnant and she was born with a hole in her heart, but that healed when she was six-months-old."

Speaking about the importance of the vaccine, the first-time mum says: "I was very good with the smear test. I did everything right, I had them every year or two years and they were all clear. I am convinced smear tests are not enough. I had a really healthy lifestyle too.

"Seventy percent of the population has the virus, while it's unclear why it develops into cancer in some people's bodies and not others. What we do know is that the vaccine is safe and it can really prevent cancer.

"I trust the science. I know I will vaccinate Melanie and keep her safe. I hope nobody else has to go through what we did."

Of the 420 cancer cases attributable to HPV each year, 335 are in women and 85 are in men.

Donal Buggy, head of services and advocacy at the Irish Cancer Society is calling on the government to "invest in the extension of the national HPV school vaccination programme to boys.

"HIQA is currently completing a health technology assessment looking at feasibility of introducing a gender-neutral HPV vaccination programme.

"They're looking at the clinical and economic benefits of providing the vaccine on a gender-neutral basis as HPV can be transmitted during sexual intercourse or skin-to-skin contact with an infected person."

Donal explains: "In relation to vaccines in general, they are most effective when they are delivered at a population level so giving boys accessibility to the vaccine will help with immunity and protects girls.

"If boys are not carrying the HPV virus they are not transferring it to girls."

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