A CORK mum who has beaten cervical cancer but who has been left with life- changing consequences due to the illness is appealing to women not to fear their smear test.
And another local woman, who is currently battling the disease with every last ounce of strength she has, is urging all women to book their test today.
Majella O’Mahony and Katie O’Connor, both from Midleton, have made their plea to coincide with European Cervical Cancer Week which runs from January 28 to February 3.
Both had been conscientious about having regular smear tests, but for different reasons had missed their scheduled Cervical Check after notices to them from the national screening programme which provides free smear tests to women aged 25 to 60.
It was only when Majella and her husband decided to try for a second baby that she made the appointment, only to get the devastating diagnosis.
“I kept meaning to go, but hadn’t got around to it. Then I was pregnant so couldn’t go, then I was busy with my little baby, Éabha, and time ran on. Eventually, when my little girl was 18 months old, and we were hoping to try for a second baby, I finally got around to going for my smear.
“I was then given the news by my doctor that I had high grade abnormalities and referred to St Finbarr’s Colposcopy Unit, where, following a colposcopy and biopsy, I was diagnosed with cervical cancer.”
In the run up to her diagnosis she had felt fine — just tired — but as a working mum with a toddler she considered that normal.
However, from the moment she heard she had ‘high grade abnormalities’ her instinct told her to expect the worst.
“I had guessed what was going on before I actually heard the words. On the morning I got my diagnosis I went for my morning appointment in the hospital, went for a quick coffee with my husband Tom, had a little cry then pulled myself together and was back in work before lunchtime. I think I was on autopilot, it was Christmas week 2014 and there was loads to do so I just kept going as normal.”
Ultimately, the diagnosis ended the couple’s dream of growing their family as a then 39-year- old Majella decided a hysterectomy was the best way to eradicate the disease. They contemplated delaying her surgery but decided the risks were too high.
“We could possibly have delayed surgery and treatment and tried for another baby quickly, but the danger was there that the cervical cancer (which is usually quite slow to develop) would spread. We talked about it, and decided the most important thing was that I would be here for Éabha, rather than trying for another baby and have children possibly ending up without a mammy.”
She’s now three years cancer free and is grateful that her detection meant she was treated successfully.
But there are times when the enormity of what happened hit her and she’s left with mixed feelings: “I regret that I didn’t go for my smear sooner and could possibly have avoided the whole thing, but there’s also extreme relief that I went when I did and avoided it being any worse. I’m here to tell the tale so that’s the most important thing.”
But she says it is ‘heart-breaking’ when Éabha says she wishes she had a brother or sister.
“We nearly lost Éabha during childbirth so she was incredibly special from the very start. Knowing she will be our only child makes her even more so. She’s an amazing, perfect kid, so affectionate and caring and a real little bundle of energy. It breaks my heart when she says that she wishes she could have a baby brother or sister but she understands that mammy’s tummy was sick.”
The experience has definitely changed her outlook on life, says Majella, who works in DAOL Office Supplies.
“I try not to stress about the little stuff as much, and have shortened my working hours so I can have more time with my family. At the end of the day that’s what’s really important. Experiencing cancer really puts a lot of things into perspective.”
Mum of two, 38-year-old Katie O’Connor is still in the middle of her battle against the disease but insists she’s not going to let it beat her.
She’s undergoing chemotherapy and wishes she could turn the clock back to when she was due to have her smear test. But life was busy for the single working mum who said she simply never had time for herself.
She worked as a porter and cleaner in a local bank and from around April, 2016, started to suffer extreme fatigue but put it down to being busy.
She also suffered excruciating back and pelvic pain as well as prolonged bleeding but put them down to endometriosis. There was also weight loss — going from 19.5 stone to 14 stone — but again she felt that was explained by being active in her job.
It was after she seized up in agony one day at work last April that her diagnosis with stage three cervical cancer came, with traces in her pelvic lymph nodes.
Katie started on an immediate and gruelling regime of radiotherapy and chemotherapy. She also went through brachytherapy — internal radiotherapy — which she said was “terrifying”.
“Stephen King couldn’t make this up — it’s the stuff of nightmares.”
She was told her treatment had a 70% chance of catching everything and afterwards scans showed her cervix was cancer free.
“I was looking better than I ever did in my life,” remembers Katie.
But, unfortunately, pain returned not long afterwards and she spent two weeks in hospital last December where cancer was detected in her pelvic and groin area.
And so she has embarked on another, stronger 12 week schedule of chemo which will take her up to this April.
But she insists: “I’m going nowhere — I’m fighting with everything I’ve got. My diagnosis has now reached terminal status. However, I have a good chance if chemo works that I can fight it for many years and be around to see my 17-year-old daughter Lauryn and 10-year-old son Conor grow into wonderful adults that I’ve raised them to hopefully become.”
Lauryn, a leaving cert student in St Colman’s, is her mum’s main carer.
“I’m spending most days at home, in my pyjamas. Going up the stairs is a struggle. On a good day I’d cook dinner, light the fire and get to the nearest shop on crutches, but the exhaustion is extreme, regardless of how much sleep you get,” said Katie.
She admits that there are some “difficult decisions” regarding her future to be made and she is sitting down at the moment discussing those with family.
But the fighter says.
“There is no stopping me — I’m going to be around for 30 to 40 years still kicking ass,” she pledges ahead of her head shave she’s planning in aid of Marymount where she has availed of their palliative care nurses.
Both Majella and Katie’s message is simple:
Majella says: “Don’t make excuses to yourself about why this week isn’t convenient — just go and have your test.
“Admittedly it’s not the most pleasant or dignified procedure, but it’s over and done with in a few minutes and could save your life. The vast majority of results come back clear, so if nothing else it will put your mind at rest.”
Katie adds: “If I could turn back the clock I would — I regret not making the time for my test so it could have been caught earlier. There is nothing to fear from a smear, it’s not embarrassing and it’s over in a few minutes.
“People don’t have to go through what I’m going through, lives can be saved if those tests are booked.”
ABOUT CERVICAL CHECK
Cervical Check was established in 2008 and is one of the national screening programmes provided by the National Screening Service, which is part of the Health Service Executive.
Approximately 300 women are diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer each year in Ireland and more than 90 women die from the disease. The best way to prevent cervical cancer is by having the HPV vaccination and regular cervical screening.
All women in Ireland aged between 25 and 60 can avail of free cervical screening tests through CervicalCheck — The National Cervical Screening Programme. Women can choose to have their screening test done from more than 4,500 GPs, practice nurses and health clinics nationwide.
CervicalCheck provides for women aged 25 to 44 to have free cervical screening tests every three years and women aged 44 to 60 every five years.
Call 1800454555 or visit cervicalcheck.ie to see when you are due your next cervical screening test.
An awareness event was hosted today at the Clayton Hotel in Cork, hosted by the Lady Mayoress, to coincide with European Cervical Cancer Prevention Week.