WHEN she was in her early twenties, Karen Sheahan had to have “a really tough conversation” with her boyfriend, Declan.
Now aged 33, Karen, who plans to marry Declan next year, is unable to have children. She had a radical hysterectomy when she was just 23 as she was diagnosed with cervical cancer.
While Karen found it hard to raise the issue of not being able to have a child, she says Declan “was absolutely amazing”.
She added: “He has always said that he doesn’t even know if he ever wants children. We’re together nearly eight years now and even from day one, he was saying that. I check in with him every now and then asking him if he still feels the same.
“The decision not to have children has been made for us,” says Karen, who has ruled out surrogacy or foreign adoption as not being feasible, because of the high cost among other factors.
“A friend who is nearly 60 and never had kids said to me that not having kids can be an unspoken happiness. You can be just as happy as someone who has kids.
“I personally feel there’s a huge pressure from society to have children. People who don’t know my background tell me kids are next, after I get married. When people say that, I get angry more than upset. I’m angry for other women and couples who can’t have kids because of their situation.”
When she was a 21-year-old student of a fitness related course at Tralee IT, Karen’s symptoms were spotting between periods and bleeding after sex. She also had backache.
“The doctor said I was too young for a smear test. I was sent for an STI (sexually transmitted infection) test and it came back clear both times. I was put on different versions of the contraceptive pill in case one of them wasn’t agreeing with me. But everything was still the same. I was quite upset.
“Jade Goody had died not long before (from cervical cancer). I looked it up. I was 22. It put the worry in my head that I had cervical cancer. Everyone thought I was being silly and a hypochondriac because I was so young.
“But the guy doing the STI check did suggest I go for a colposcopy (examination of the cervix). I went for that in the last week of September in 2010. A week later, I got called into the doctor and was told I had cervical cancer. It was stage 2 B.”
Karen, who is from Limerick, went to see a surgeon there.
“He was fantastic. He brought my case forward. It even went to a conference in Prague because of my age and to see what could be done to save my reproductive organs.
“When I was told I needed a hysterectomy, I was with mom and dad. I was told that the doctors would be able to keep my ovaries from being removed. That was the end of any conversation that had anything to do with fertility. Everything from there on with the surgeon was to do with getting rid of the cancer. I had my surgery in the first week of December.”
Karen, who works in administration at the students’ union at the University of Limerick, has almost completed a masters in counselling and psychotherapy and would like to practise in this area, probably on a part time basis.
Her interest in mental health was sparked because she felt there was an issue in the fact that she was never referred for counselling either before or after her life-changing surgery. It was recommended that she attend the Daffodil Centre, a support centre, at Limerick University Hospital. But the opening hours didn’t suit her as she is studying and working.
She attended counselling on a private basis, which she needed to do anyway as part of her masters. But Karen would like to see cancer patients being offered counselling as a matter of course.
While she has her ovaries, “they’re clipped to hold them in place, somewhere near my hips. As a result, the blood flow is very restrictive. The chances of being able to retrieve eggs for surrogacy would be difficult because of the blood flow restriction. Usually, they go in via the vagina but that’s not a goer for me as I don’t have a womb. I wasn’t told any of this until I went seeking the information.”
Asked how she feels about not being able to have children, Karen says: “You know what, I have to come to terms with it. It was difficult for me. I will always still have guilt that it’s my fault we can’t have children. But I’m OK with it now. We have looked at adopting from other countries, as there’s very little adoption in Ireland, but you’re looking at €40,000.”
Karen bounced back after surgery “relatively fast as I was quite active beforehand. They cut through my abdomen and everything so it took me a while to get fully active again. But psychologically, I probably wasn’t in a good place.
“I went back to college and passed my exams thankfully. But I did go nuts and off the scales for a couple of years, socialising and partying. I just wanted to be out and about all the time.
“Looking back, and with the studying I have done, it looks like I was avoiding thinking about (the hysterectomy). I had been in a relationship when I got diagnosed and that all fell apart. The guy I was going out with was dead set on having his own biological kids, even from a young age. I was all over the place. I was going out with this guy for one and a half years. It was way too heavy for me.”
Karen was part of the review that occurred when the cervical check scandal broke in 2018.
“I was like — do I have to think about all this again? I had to sit in front of a panel with my medical records and discuss things. That brought a lot of stuff up. Everything came back the same.
“No mistakes had been made in my tests. That was a relief.”
For those women whose smear tests were read incorrectly, leading to death in some cases, Karen is sad and angry for them.
“It’s quite scary, not just for anyone who has cervical cancer. It puts a question mark over any kind of screening. I was getting counselling at the time of the review so that definitely helped me. It was time for me to deal with everything that I hadn’t dealt with in my twenties. In the last three or four years, I really have dealt with everything.”
Karen says her hormones can be all over the place at times.
“I get a lot of symptoms of the menopause. Obviously, I’m not menstruating but I can still feel symptoms like PMS and can feel moodiness... I probably would get depressed from time to time. but luckily I haven’t been very bad in that sense.”
A national campaign is taking place to raise awareness of HPV (Human Papilloma Virus).
HPV Immunisation prevents certain HPV infections which can lead to cancers in women and men like cervical cancer and anal cancer.
The immunisation is most effective before a person becomes sexually active.
The national HPV immunisation programme will, for just the second time, include both boys and girls.
Almost every sexually active man and woman in Ireland will get HPV in their life time. For most people, HPV clears up on its own.
An estimated 420 cancers were caused by HPV in Ireland between 2010-2014.
An average of 130 men and women die from HPV-related cancers in Ireland every year.
A high level of vaccine uptake - above 80% of the targeted population-is required for community protection.
Jade Goody had died not long before. I looked it up. I was 22. It put the worry in my head that I had cervical cancer. Everyone thought I was being silly and a hypochondriac.