Friday 18 October 2019

'The C-word had become a dinner table discussion for us' - This is what happened me after my smear test

Louise Kelly

Louise Kelly

Tidying up my bikini line and selecting a pair of appropriate knickers would ordinarily be an indication of a special date night ahead.

This smooth legged lady, however, was taking herself off to the doctor for what seemed like the umpteenth time in two years.

'You have abnormal cells' is not the news you want to receive a couple of months after your legs are in stirrups as a stranger examines your insides. That first letter sparked a series of awkward appointments that initially only mildly concerned me. 

'How many women get that letter?' I reasoned with myself. (After checking in with the experts, of course, and finding out that only 1pc of women who get abnormal results get cancer.)

Because the C-word had become pretty much become a dinner table discussion for our family at the time.

My father was recovering from an operation to remove a lump from his neck and was receiving radiotherapy for throat cancer. Not one to miss out on the limelight, my mother had also tricked me into attending a hospital appointment with her where we were told she had cancer of the womb.

A hysterectomy (Mam) and a lung cancer diagnosis (Dad) later, I was relatively indifferent when my second smear - almost ten months later - also came back abnormal.

In the grand scheme of things, my health concerns were like a pebble against the Carrauntoohil. Besides, it'd be a really poor joke if our little family unit scored a cancer hat trick.

Going in for my colposcopy - so another stranger could get even more up close and personal with my cervix - I was very relaxed. I had the morning off so I planned a breakfast with a friend afterwards and I cycled in to Holles St because the sun was splitting the rocks.

An alternate version of myself emerged from the red brick building some two hours later and the bicycle most definitely got left behind.

"Have a look at how grey that is," the very amiable medical professional in the little white room said as he pointed to the screen which reflected what the camera inside me was looking at.

"I can't tell you for sure but it looks like that will have to be removed. Nothing to worry about but we'll probably have to get rid of it."

I got carried along with his carefree attitude so when he asked if I needed a painkiller injection before he took a sample (read three LARGE samples), I simply scoffed. Lesson learned.

Naturally when that sample came back with - as the friendly doctor called it - an abnormality called CIN3, my first thought was to take any (legal) drugs I'm offered next time round.

The LLETZ procedure date (that's Large Loop Excision of the Transformation Zone for you lucky ducks who are unaware) couldn't come around quickly enough.

No, I was not looking forward to the aforementioned prep for no reward - but, for the first time, I started to become really worried. And I felt...well, dirty.

I wanted that odd looking mass I had seen on the screen out of my body as soon as possible. And I wanted to be told I wasn't going to get sick. 

So I acted like a patient on my next trip by happily accepting a door-to-door lift, taking a full day of work and giving an emphatic 'YES' when the local anaesthetic was up for grabs.

And apart from the weird adrenaline rush from the painkiller that sent my heart racing and my leg thumping uncontrollably (oh and the smell of burning flesh), the five minute procedure was actually a bit of a breeze.

But it was the results of my follow up smear test six months later that made me realise just how fearful I really was all along.

The overwhelming relief I felt when I read the 'you're grand, don't bother coming back to us for a good while' letter took me by surprise. And I rang more than a few bemused people to tell them my 'good news'. 

I always thought that if someone close to me was diagnosed with cancer, it would make me more aware of my own mortality. But, to be honest, it made me feel almost invincible - that something as foreign as that could never happen to my body.

My less than normal cells never made it as far as the dreaded illness but the whole experience gave me a tiny insight into what it might be like to be diagnosed. I'm not being flippant - I'm just more aware.

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