My mum prepared me for what was to come

This Gynae Cancer Awareness Month, Kathryn Firth tells us her story of being diagnosed with cervical cancer and how her straight talking, taboo-free Mum helped her through her diagnosis and treatment.

Imagine how shocked I was to be asked by Eve Appeal to join them in their new campaign #GoRed for September 2019? They’ve asked me to tell my story and how my cancer diagnosis came about. S0, here it is…. Enjoy!

I received my first letter for a smear test when I was 19, back in 2004. First thing I did was call my mum and ask her what the test was and did I really need to attend. Mum (who worked in a GP’s surgery) explained the context of the test to me and why I should attend, that the test helped to detect any abnormalities in my cells in my cervix and the surrounding area. So off I went to get myself checked. I did this religiously every time that letter came through the door. Many of the reasons I have always been diligent with the smear tests are because of my mum. Since my first test and following Jade Goody’s high profile death due to cervical cancer she has always reiterated the importance of the test. Not attending my smear was never an option for me.

Back to the present day (2018) where my story begins. I was dating and started noticing changes in my body during intimate moments. I was experiencing bleeding sometimes nothing more than spotting but as time went on the bleeding was got heavier…..Embarrassing and worrying in equal measure.

Initially, I would find an excuse or a reason for the bleeding. I would blame it on the fact that it was at the start or the end of my cycle so sex must have kick started my period. Or that taking the contraceptive pill for so long meant that the skin inside my vagina had hardened and sex just irritated it which caused the bleeding. Eventually, the excuses ran out and with sex becoming painful and the bleeding getting increasingly worse I realised this wasn’t normal.

I went to see my GP and they recommended that I had an STI test and my smear test was moved forward as well. My smear test that time was slightly painful (which I think was as a result of the cancer) and I experienced very heavy bleeding after I left the GP’s surgery (again cancers fault).

I then got called in for a colposcopy at my local hospital following abnormal cells having been detected. I was incredibly overwhelmed and ended up having a panic attack. The nurses and the doctor were amazing. The nurses held my hand and calmed me throughout the whole procedure and the doctor was incredibly gentle making sure that I was aware of everything he was doing at every part of the process. The doctor confirmed that he had seen a lump and that this was definitely the reason for my bleeding during sex. I figured it was probably nothing and that it was probably a cyst or something. However thinking back now, the look on the doctor’s face was of concern and sympathy. I am clearly better at sticking my head in the sand than I thought.

The hospital called me 10 days later asking me to attend an appointment the next day. I called my mum immediately and cried and I went straight to see her when I finished work. That evening myself and my mum had a frank conversation. Having worked in hospitals she had an understanding of why they might have called me in so urgently. My mum can be a sharp shooter and I appreciate that she did all she could to prepare me for the news I was about to receive. She turned to me and said, ‘Kathryn you have to be prepared for them to tell you that you might have cancer’. I cannot imagine how hard that must have been for her to say to me.

The next day we drove to the hospital, we sat in a room with a nurse and my consultant and I was told that I had cervical cancer. It’s a really hard moment to put into words and I still remember feeling like it was an outer body experience. That my story is someone else’s story. It wasn’t, this was happening to me.

I was referred to the Royal Marsden and put under the care of the surgeon who treated Jade Goody, a leading specialist in his field, Dr T Ind. I made the very difficult decision to receive 9-weeks of chemotherapy to shrink the cancer and after this I had a successful operation to remove my cervix in order to save my fertility. This was coupled with hormone treatment to protect my ovaries to enable my reproductive organs to remain healthy after treatment.

Fast forward 6 months and I was placed into remission. I’m one of the fortunate ones, my cancer was treatable and was not life threatening. It has impacted my intimacy with my current partner, reduced my chances of conceiving and carrying my own child but I was determined that it would not rob me of my fertility. My mum has been with me through all of this, we have since my diagnosis had open conversations about my cervix, my sex life and my vagina. She’s been present through most of my appointments and we have a more open and stronger relationship because of it.

Without the influence of my mum in encouraging me to attend my smear tests and reminding me of its importance by hammering into me the high-profile death of Jade Goody at such a young age. There is a significant possibility that I wouldn’t have known why it is so important to attend my smear tests and my cancer might not have been picked up so early. Thank-you mum for always reminding me of the importance of this test, allowing me to be so open and talking with me about my vagina and for facing those tough conversations with me. I’ll always be grateful for you ensuring I was aware enough the what’s and why’s in relation to screening and for being my pillar of support.