Yesterday I received a tweet asking me to a sign a petition to get through to the Government that no girl should be denied a smear test based on age. I followed this link and read the heart breaking story that had prompted the petition, about a 23 year old girl called Sorcha Glenn who, despite a family history of cervical cancer, was refused an earlier smear and was told to come back at 25. Sorcha was diagnosed in September 2013 with cervical cancer, a matter of months after asking for a smear in June 2013. She died a year later in October 2014. I signed the petition straightaway.
I remember feeling so lucky that the first smear test age was put up from 21 to 25 a year or so before my 21st birthday, after hearing stories of the dreaded smear test from some of my friends who were a couple of years older. I didn’t think that anyone that young would ever be at risk so thought it’d be a waste of time, destroying my dignity for no reason. Jade Goody’s story hit the news not long after. Then one of my now best friends was diagnosed with cervical cancer at 26. I still remember that day when she told me after the months of treatment and appointments. Thankfully she has since been given the all clear and now lives a healthy and happy life, but it could’ve been so different. So many what if’s: what if the age had never been put up to 25, would they have spotted it sooner, would she never have had to go through treatment and operations?
I received my letter from my GP a couple of weeks before my 25th birthday. By this point my friend had been given the amazing news that she no longer had cancer, but was still needing to go for regular 3 month smears. I rang the same day my letter came through my door and booked the earliest appointment. I remember feeling so nervous and dreading the appointment, but the nurse immediately put my mind at ease. I knew I had to relax otherwise it’d make the whole experience worse, so that’s what I tried to do. I won’t lie, it wasn’t pleasant having a warm instrument inserted and then a scrape taken from my insides, but it was over within seconds and no where near as bad as I imagined. Now I just had to wait for the results. I’d never had any problems so was telling myself it would be fine. I didn’t hear for 2 weeks so during that time I told myself it would be clear, confident that if there was any problem I would’ve heard sooner.
I received a letter around the 2 week mark. My results were irregular. I was being referred for 6 months at which point I’d need another smear for the results to be compared. I didn’t think too much of it. I figured the doctors couldn’t be too concerned if I was being referred for 6 months so I convinced myself that next time it would be fine. But 5 months in I started to have irregular bleeding. At this point I was scared, I rang and demanded an emergency same day appointment with my GP. Between tears I explained the last 6 months, they took a smear there and then as tears rolled down my cheeks.
The results came back irregular again. I was referred to the hospital for a colposcopy.
The colposcopy appointment, I have to admit, was the worst bit for me. In principle it’s the same as a smear, just with a microscope so they can find and take a sample of the abnormal cells. It was made more unpleasant because it took that bit longer than a smear but the nurses were fantastic and reassured me all the way through. The specialist took the sample they needed, assuring me that I would be contacted within 2 weeks with the results. Another 2 weeks of waiting.
LLETZ (Large Loop Excision of the Transformation Zone), it was explained, is a biopsy where they use a loop type of device which has an electric current. I needed this treatment to remove the abnormal cells. I was told that I had quite a large area of abnormal cells so they would need to do it under a general anaesthetic, not a local which is usually the standard. I have to admit, knowing what my friend had gone through, and how this is how it started for her, I was terrified. Looking back I shut off thinking about it, if I didn’t think about it I couldn’t feel the emotions that came with it, and so convinced myself that it was just procedure. I focused on talking to people about being scared of the general, never having one before, then the treatment or what this all meant. I don’t know anything of the LLETZ procedure itself with being knocked out, and apart from feeling groggy from the general I felt fine. The consultant stressed that it was very important that I let myself heal though. I was told to take a week off work to recover from the general, and no baths or swimming for a few days, no sex for 4 weeks, no exercise for 6 weeks. But I didn’t care, it was all over.
The Follow Up
I had a follow up colposcopy a couple months following. It was then that I was told that my second smear had been classed as severe CIN3. My first smear was borderline CIN1-2. CIN is Cervical Intraepithelial Neoplasia, rated 1-3, and the terminology related to abnormal cells that, if left untreated, can turn into cancer. CIN3 is the highest category, the next level is when the cells are diagnosed as cancerous. The specialist, whilst unpleasantly still poking and prodding my insides, showed me how my cervix looked now after the treatment. And then showed me the before. The before was covered, you could barely see any healthy cervix on my original colposcopy picture.
I had another smear 3 months following. The results came back irregular again, but CIN1. I was referred for another 3 month smear. Nearly a year to the date after my second smear, when I had the irregular bleeding, I had my smear and got back CLEAR results. I was being put back onto the 3 year list, and they didn’t want to see me again until then unless I had any irregularities.
I was chuffing over the moon!!!!!!!!
The reason for sharing my story after 2 years? To highlight the important of attending your smears when called. It was a terrifying experience that I would never want to go through again, but it will by no means ever put me off having a smear. I know that as soon as my letter lands on my door calling me for my check up that I will ring up straightaway. I can guarantee that I will be anxious, but my story proves that there’s a reason for it. Who knows what would have happened if I hadn’t of had that LLETZ treatment? And my friend, what would have happened if they hadn’t found it and treated her? Smears are as important as any regular health check, such as visiting the dentists, and can make the difference between a small bit of treatment and hearing the C word. They are a preventive measure, to remove those irregular cells before they develop into something worse. If you are due for your screening PLEASE book an appointment today, it can make all the difference. And if you ever have any irregularities or concerns, regardless of your age or when your next smear is due, PLEASE speak to you GP and demand a smear if needed. Ask for second opinions if you don’t get anywhere the first time. You know your body and if something’s not right listen to it. It’s not worth waiting.