Quarter-Life Cancer…

Karen Hobbs was diagnosed with cervical cancer at just 24 - after experiencing bleeding in-between periods and heavily after sex. Here, Karen shares her story, in the hope that others who may be experiencing similar symptoms will visit their GP.

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At 24 I had just started my third year at Birkbeck University, studying for a Drama and Theatre degree, working in an office to stay financially afloat and planning my future as a comedy writer and actress. Then my world was turned upside down. I was diagnosed with cervical cancer.

This came as a shock to me, being so young, I just hadn’t expected that news. It all began when I noticed that I was bleeding a minimal amount in between periods, and heavily after sex.  I decided that my body was not behaving as it should and visited my doctors surgery for a consultation. I was examined and at the same stage the nurse decided she would perform a smear test; despite being under the national age guidelines. I was obviously worried and fearing it would be something sinister, but was reassured when told it was most likely cell erosion due to being on the combined pill.

During the examination, the nurse said she could see an aggravated area on my cervix, (the smear test results also reflected this) and she would be referring me to St Georges hospital for another consultation, but that I needn’t be worried – so I did exactly that – I put it to the back of my mind. At the next appointment, the doctor performed a colposcopy, examination of the cervix, where a visible lump was discovered. He had even asked if I would like to take a look on the screen, which I duly obliged, and was in shock to see it so clear in front of me. This is what was effectively going to change my life.

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A biopsy was taken during the examination, and he suggested to me that given that he had been a gynaecologist for over 30 years, that it would likely to be cancer. He said it was likely, but I knew that it was a definite. I know my own body and something just clicked. I had cancer – how would this affect me? Would I eventually be able to have children? Or ultimately – would I die?

Two weeks later I had a MRI-scan alongside numerous other tests and it was at this stage that it had been determined that I had stage 1B cervical cancer. Luckily for me, if it can be considered as that, it was at a stage where it could be treated – unlike being diagnosed at stage 3 / 4 where the prognosis is not as pretty. The treatment methods available to me at this stage meant I could opt for surgery, which given my prognosis I decided to go ahead with a radical trachelectomy (cervix removal) – it was better than the alternatives that I had contemplated upon being diagnosed. I never thought I’d say I would be relieved to need my cervix removed.

This was deemed to be a success, and further tests on my lymph nodes at the end of December were negative, which is when I was told I would not require chemotherapy or radiography. That was the best news I could have hoped for. But I was still assured that I was one of the lucky ones at this stage.

I am now having 12-weekly check-ups to ensure that the cancer doesn’t relapse, but in the process two different incidences HPV were detected; clearly my body has decided to befriend this virus. I’ve had a fair amount of additional bleeding, which given how this whole process began, always throws me off guard, but my wonderful surgeon reassures me that it is just part of the lengthy healing process. I was sent for an ultrasound due to an unnerving amount of pain, but it showed that it was simply scar tissue repairing – so back on the horse I got so to speak.

I have started an aptly named blog, Quarter-Life Cancer, which is a humorous take on my experience with this disease thus far, and I continue to live my life as ‘normal’ and try my best to not let the fact that I have or had cancer cast a permanent shadow over my life.

Karen has recently developed a one-woman theatrical comedy show called Karen Hobbs: Tumour Has It (due to be debuted at Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2016), which uses comedy and storytelling to challenge the stigma of having a gynaecological disease, raise awareness for cervical cancer, celebrate life and loudly tell cancer that it was barking up the wrong chuff.