‘Five minutes of slight discomfort can save your life’ Cervical cancer survivor on the importance of smear tests

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  • Over 3000 women in the UK are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year.

    But while cervical screenings can help reduce the number of women suffering from cancer, not all of us are going for a smear test as often as we should.

    According to NHS figures, it’s thought that an extra 347 lives could be saved each year in England if all eligible women went for regular screenings.

    After having a traumatic first smear test and moving abroad, Samme Allen didn’t have another test for 10 years. However, it was after this second test that she was diagnosed with early stage cervical cancer.

    Samme spoke to GoodtoKnow about what it’s like to be diagnosed with cancer, and how a five minute smear test could potentially save your life.

    When I was 25 I went for my first smear test, just as everybody does when they get their letter.

    But my first experience was really horrible because I bled. Bleeding is actually a very normal thing to happen but I didn’t know and the nurse didn’t tell me. Instead she was alluding to the fact that there could be something wrong. I left there quite upset and worried.

    It’s not the most pleasant experience at the best of times but that first experience was probably a bit off putting. However, the results came back and they were fine, it was negative.

    After that, I just didn’t go back for my subsequent smear tests. I was travelling and lived overseas for a few years. It probably wasn’t a direct cause of that first experience but life just got in the way. When I returned to the UK and received the invitations for a smear test, I simply ignored them thinking I was fine. I had no symptoms that I necessarily recognized as problematic.

    This is why it’s so important for women to have a regular smear test. The test isn’t to diagnose cancer; it’s a method of detecting abnormalities on the cervix. Finding any abnormalities can prevent cancer.

    When you have an eye test, you don’t go thinking ‘I’m checking for eye cancer’.

    A smear test is just a check up and if there’s anything that’s minor. It’s fixable. Cervical cancer is a largely preventable cancer if symptoms are detected early.

    Many years later, I went to my local GP surgery for a routine check. There was a lovely nurse and she asked me the last time I had a smear. This was the first time anybody had ever asked me. I mentioned that it was probably about 8-10 years ago, and I told her what happened the first time I went.

    She suggested I book a double appointment and that the smear test would be done at my own pace. I went the following week on 20th April 2010.

    I received the results from the test on the bank holiday weekend saying that I had severe dyskariosis (severe cell changes in the cervix). The results said I must go straight to hospital at my earliest convenience for a colposcopy – lots of words that I didn’t know and were quite frightening to see. It would have been great at that point to have been signposted to a support resource. Also, sending out a letter like this over a bank holiday wasn’t ideal either.

    (Charity Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust explains: ‘Colposcopy is simply a more detailed look at the cervix. Instead of looking at the cervix with the naked eye, the person performing the colposcopy will use a special microscope to see the changes at high magnification with good lighting. Please don’t worry about how this sounds!’)

    Once they had further investigated, the decision was to have a cone biopsy. This allows for the cells at the edges of the specimen to be seen clearly through a microscope, ensuring that all of the biopsy can be examined by a histopathologist (an expert in studying diseases by looking at cells).

    The results came back after this operation and I was called into meet my consultant, who diagnosed early stage cancer.

    As you hear that word ‘cancer’ you don’t hear anything else.

    When you hear that word ‘cancer’ you don’t hear anything else after that. It’s such a shock as you really don’t think it will ever happen to you. The only thing I can tell you from that day is the specialist nurse held a little envelope with Macmillan brochures in it.

    I was quickly referred to another specialist who confirmed the subsequent treatment I would need was lymph nodes removal followed by a radical hysterectomy or tracheotomy.

    After leaving the hospital, I felt a range of emotions never experienced before. Pure, red, hot anger. My whole life, I realised, had been turned upside down because I hadn’t gone for a simple, regular health test.

    The following operation didn’t happen. The specialist examined me under anesthetic and felt that the cancer had been removed from the previous treatment and that he would hold off further invasive surgery for a couple of months. This was positive but still a traumatic experience to have, and one that could have been avoided.

    After a further colposcopy, the specialists decided to perform one more cone biopsy and on December 22nd I was told that the cancer cells had been removed.

    All my treatment was all in the same year, which was good. I didn’t have to have any chemotherapy or radiotherapy or further radical treatments. I was one of the lucky ones.

    Since December 2010 I’ve been cancer free, but psychologically I wasn’t free of cancer.

    But the journey doesn’t stop after these treatments – I have had to attend the hospital for colposcopy and smear tests every six months. It was an emotional ordeal realizing that it wasn’t all over. I struggled not being able to talk to anyone who really empathized with how I was feeling.

    I needed some support, and this is where I found Jo’s Trust and the Jo’s Trust forum. I posted how I was feeling and within minutes I got messages of love, support, and empathy from amazing women. I found facts and information about the various treatments I had and support to understand what I had been going through.

    I think what Jo’s Trust do to raise awareness is phenomenal because it’s such a small charity. It’s a one-stop shop of information and support.

    From November 2015, I now attend the hospital once a year for smear test and checkup. This is a positive move forward and consequently, I founded my own small business in 2016 with the confidence that I am strong, healthy and cancer free.

    If I could talk to the old Samme, I would say that the five minutes of slight inconvenience can save your life.

    My advice to others that if, for whatever reason, if you are putting off having your smear test, think of all the positive reasons you shouldn’t! Having to tell your family, your friends, and your partner that you have cancer is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.

    People are having to do this every day, it’s traumatic and you can do something about it so you don’t have to do this!

    For those who’ve just been diagnosed with cervical cancer, I’d say go to the Jo’s Trust website straight away.

    Talk to Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust – there are forums on the website, specialist helplines and there are support groups all around the country. It doesn’t matter how severe your treatment is or how bad you feel, Jo’s Trust will provide you with support, advice and connections to real women who can empathize with your experience.

    Please just get in and get the support that you need.

    As part of cervical cancer prevention week, Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, a charity for women with cervical cancer has launched it’s #SmearForSmear campaign (22-28 January) to help raise awareness about the importance of getting a regular smear tests.