Vicky Phelan (guest editor): Five women, from their 20s to 50s, on how a cervical smear test saved their lives

Michelle O'Loughlin, Killaloe, Clare. Photograph: Liam Burke/Press 22.

Ranging in age from their 20s to 50s, these women survived cancer because of cervical screening, writes Arlene Harris.

Screening for cervical cancer has been in the headlines for months for all the wrong reasons.

“We acknowledge the concern women in Ireland have had about cervical screening during the last year and are working to strengthen CervicalCheck in order to provide a screening programme of the highest possible standard,” says Dr Caroline Mason Mohan, director of public health at the National Screening Service.

“Like all screening programmes, cervical screening is not perfect. But it does save lives and can prevent 75% of cervical cancer cases.”

CervicalCheck diagnoses one case of cervical cancer every two days and recommends women, aged 25 to 60, attend free cervical screening when they are called.

Here, five women of differing ages who were diagnosed with cervical cancer following a routine smear test, talk about the test that helped to save their lives.

Orla O’Connor

Orla, from Douglas, Cork, had a smear test in June 2016 when she was 26.

Orla O’Connor who had her first smear test at the age of 26 and cancer was detected. Picture Dan Linehan
Orla O’Connor who had her first smear test at the age of 26 and cancer was detected. Picture Dan Linehan

“I got called for a smear test when I was 25 but put it off for a year and ended up being asked by my GP why I hadn’t had it done. Afterwards, I couldn’t understand why I had put it off as it was so quick and just a little uncomfortable.

“Six weeks later I was told abnormal cells had been found and was referred to a colposcopy clinic for further tests. At this point, I knew something was wrong and after being told there were cancer cells on the cervix, I was referred to an oncology gynaecologist. I felt rel-atively calm and kept positive while waiting for the surgery the following week.

“During the operation, I had my cervix and abdominal lymph nodes removed and the recovery was tough. But I started to feel better around six weeks later — the big turning point was being able to tie my shoes and get into the shower unaided.

“My prognosis today is excellent but the surgery left me with extremely painful periods and my right thigh is bigger than the left due to losing my lymph nodes and this can be painful occasionally. But if I hadn’t gone for my smear then the [cancerous] cells would have continued to develop and it may have been too late by the time I found out what was happening. However, if I had gone when I turned 25 then maybe it would have been caught even earlier and not required any surgery at all.

“I honestly can’t put into words how important it is to get your smear.”

Michelle O’Loughlin

Michelle is a primary school teacher in Co Clare. She recalls how she underwent her first smear test aged 36 and discovered that she had cancer.

“I never had a smear test before 2012 — my doctor mentioned it in passing but I never received a letter from the cervical screening programme and didn’t realise women of my age were having regular smears. I don’t know how I reached the age of 36 without knowing how important they are. Perhaps it’s because I’m not the best when it comes to looking after my health and I’m very squeamish about blood tests or injections, so it would be normal for me to put off check-ups.

“But in November 2012, at a follow-up appointment after minor surgery, I asked the doctor if she did smear tests. I didn’t have any symptoms but she did the test and I got a call the following week informing me that there were some abnormal cells found and I was transferred to another doctor who said that cancerous cells had shown up during my test.

“I underwent a colposcopy and an MRI and went back for results and was shocked to hear the cancer was at stage three. I had no signs or symptoms and couldn’t believe that I was at this stage — I could easily have reached stage four if I had not asked my doctor for the smear test.

“I had robotic surgery and spent four days in hospital but today my prognosis is good.

“I would advise every woman to ask for a smear test if they notice any symptoms and I wish I had this advice when I was younger as I believe a smear test can save your life.”

Shirley Murray

Shirley lives in Meath with her two children aged 17 and 11. She went for an overdue smear test when she was aged 39 after experiencing some pain.

Shirley Murray who has been treated for cervical cancer. Photograph: Moya Nolan.
Shirley Murray who has been treated for cervical cancer. Photograph: Moya Nolan.

“I was due to get a smear test in 2012 but was struggling [after separating from my partner], so just ignored the letters.

“I ended up suffering a terrible pain one day and went to get it checked after a friend suggested it could be an ovarian cyst. The nurse realised immediately there was a problem — she couldn’t even touch my cervix without it bleeding — so the doctor referred me for a colposcopy.

“When I was called back for results, I was told it was early-stage cancer which was very treatable and I would need a hysterectomy. I was in complete shock. The word cancer conjures up such dark and scary thoughts.

“I found out on Christmas Eve 2013 that the cancer was invasive and about six weeks later, I had a radical hysterectomy and 37 lymph nodes removed from my pelvis.

“The recovery was really tough— I had a catheter for six weeks, was also injecting myself with blood thinners for six weeks, and the stents in my kidneys had to be removed after three months. I also suffered from lymphoedema in my legs.

“It took me a year to get used to the new normal but I feel so lucky that a random pain led me to get the test which saved my life. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have bothered as I didn’t grasp the importance of it.

“None of us is invincible. Cancer does not discriminate, it doesn’t care about how busy you are or how embarrassed you might be to get that test. Yes, the system is under scrutiny right now but there’s no better time to have that smear and be confident of the results.”

Kathy Levick

Kathy lives in Co Wicklow with her husband Damian and two children aged 24 and 14. The production assistant underwent a routine smear test in 2017 anddiscovered at the age of 43 that she had cervical cancer.

 Kathy Levick, Mellow's Ave, Arklow, Co Wicklow. Photograph: Garry O'Ne
Kathy Levick, Mellow's Ave, Arklow, Co Wicklow. Photograph: Garry O'Ne

“I had a routine smear test in November 2017 — it had been three years since my last one and I had never had an issue before — but was called back in January 2018 and told that abnormal cells were found so underwent further tests and then was called back for a D&C under general anaesthetic.

“A month later, I heard that I had adenocarcinoma 1A2 cervical cancer. My husband and I were totally devastated, we just sat there and cried. I thought I was going to die and worried about how I would tell my children.

“I underwent a radical hysterectomy and bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy, removing the the ovaries and the fallopian tubes, and had to wait until the operation was over to see if the cancer was in my lymph nodes. That would determine whether or not I would have to have chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

“I wasn’t concerned about the fertility aspect of things but was a bit worried about the menopause as I was told that I would go into it straight away. But luckily my lymph nodes were cancer free, so no further treatment was necessary.

“Now my prognosis is good and I will be closely monitored for the next five years, but the worries about a recurrence stay with me.

“I would say to anyone worried about the cervical smear test that it takes the nurse longer to fill out the label than it does taking the sample. If I hadn’t had that smear test my outcome would have been very poor- so please, please go for the test — the system worked for me and saved my life.”

Jacqui Power

Jacqui lives in Waterford with partner Seamus. She has two grown-up daughters and two grandchildren. The 56-year-old was diagnosed with cervical cancer 12 years ago after a smear test.

Jacqui Power from Waterford. Photo: Mary Browne.
Jacqui Power from Waterford. Photo: Mary Browne.

“I went for a test in 2007 after I had some abnormal bleeding and had a gut feeling that something was wrong. I went to see my doctor who (as well as doing the smear test) did an internal examination and told me she could see some blood in my cervix.

“A week-and-a-half later I was called for a colposcopy and had a LEEP (Loop Electrosurgical Excision Procedure) carried out under local anaesthetic — I also had blood tests, a CT scan, an MRI, bone scan, and a chest X-ray.

“Following all of these tests, the doctor told me that I had a tumour on my cervix and that I had cervical cancer — I was numb with shock.

“I went on a programme of treatment — first was chemoradiotherapy (chemotherapy and radiotherapy together), with 33 rounds of radiotherapy and five rounds of chemotherapy. I also had brachytherapy (internal radiotherapy) and I coped by taking one day at a time and by counting down the radiotherapy treatments.

“My advice to any women avoiding a smear test is please, please, please get yourself checked out. The earlier the detection, the better chance you have of survival. I am here today because I went for that five-minute smear test.”

More on this topic

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Remembering Adrienne: Taking a stand against the system

Vicky Phelan (guest editor): Why it’s essential children get the HPV jab

Vicky Phelan (guest editor): Supporting children with a parent undergoing cancer treatment

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