A woman who suspected she had endometriosis found out that she had cervical cancer after experiencing symptoms for six months.
Sarah Carey, 40, was experiencing stomach cramps and heavy bleeding after sexual intercourse and guessed she had endometriosis – a long-term condition where tissue similar to the womb’s lining grows in other places, such as the ovaries and fallopian tubes, causing pelvic pain and severe pain during and after sex.
Carey hadn’t had a smear test – a medical screening that checks the health of your cervix – for seven years. “I was avoiding it because I had given birth to twins six years prior and I tore quite badly with third-degree tears,” she told The Independent. “The pain and everything I went through with having the twins just put me off [getting a smear test] and just scared me.”
As Cervical Cancer Prevention Week is observed this week (23 January), charities like Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust are encouraging people to book a smear test if they are overdue a screening. During a smear test, a nurse or doctor inserts a speculum (a tube-shaped tool) into the patient’s vagina. The nurse will open the speculum so they can view the cervix and take a small sample of its cells.
Carey experienced bleeding and stomach pains for six months until her now-husband suggested she get a doctor’s appointment. She was booked into a smear test a week later because she was overdue for a screening.
“Two weeks after the screening, I got a letter saying there were abnormal cells. The doctor rang me and said, ‘Oh, it’s nothing to worry about. A lot of women get it’, which I know about.”
After the doctors took a biopsy of her cervix, Carey was asked to come into the hospital immediately.
“The hospital called me three days before Christmas. They rang my work and said: ‘You need to come to the hospital today and bring somebody with you’. So then I knew straight away that something was wrong.”
Carey was diagnosed with cervical cancer stage 2B in 2018, meaning that the cancer had spread to the tissues around the cervix. She then underwent 11 weeks of radiotherapy every day Monday to Friday, followed by 11 weeks of chemotherapy every Monday. She then had three bouts of brachytherapy.
“Before the treatment started, I had an operation first to remove my ovaries so that I didn’t go into early menopause,” she said.
She continued: “I lost so much weight; I was in a wheelchair. I expected it to be bad, but maybe not quite as that bad.”
After her treatment cycle was completed, Carey had to visit the hospital every six months for scans, blood tests and internal tests.
Carey’s treatment was successful – she calls herself “lucky” – and she will be officially cancer-free in a year’s time.
“At the moment, I am cancer free, but [the doctor] signs me off in another year,” she said. Carey, who went back to work six months after her treatment finished, still experiences complications that she says were triggered by the radiotherapy. “I had to use dilators where they had done the radiotherapy as it sort of shrinks [the vagina].”
Carey says that the radiotherapy also affected her bowel, and she still experiences IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) today.
Last month, NHS data showed that smear test rates have fallen to a record low in the wake of the pandemic. Just 69.9 per cent of eligible women between the ages of 25 and 64 took up the offer of free cervical screening last year, meaning that uptake is now at its lowest for a decade.
Smear tests are free and take less than five minutes to complete, but the procedure has a reputation for being painful and invasive.
Carey is keen to encourage women to keep up with their regular screenings. “I think a lot of women find smear tests to be invasive and that’s why they avoid it,” she said. “Although it’s only a few minutes that made me feel uncomfortable, it’s a lot easier to go [and get a cervical screening] than having to go through treatment and all the after-effects of it.”