Cancer screening: We are the living proof that early detection is essential
After a recent Cancer Research UK report called for urgent action to ensure the future of screening services here, two NI people who suffered from the disease tell Lisa Smyth how a quick diagnosis saved their lives.
'I'm not 100% yet but I know how lucky I have been'
Lynsey Jamieson (31) is a nursery assistant from Portstewart, Co Antrim, and was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2008. She says:
I was in hospital in Cyprus in April 2008, when I first noticed things weren't right. I was bleeding even when my period finished and other times, which just wasn't right for me, so when I got home I made an appointment to see my GP.
She did seem concerned and sent me to Coleraine Hospital for a biopsy, which happened in May, so it was very quick.
They said to me it would take three to five days for the results to come back but actually rang the next day.
I had given the hospital my aunt's number because I knew I couldn't cope with bad results.
I will never forget the day - I was working in a nursery in Coleraine at the time and my aunt rang me and told me.
I had known all along that something wasn't right but I didn't actually think it was going to be as serious as it was.
My mum died from cervical cancer when she was 37 and I was 16, and I saw what she went through - and it was horrific.
She was in so much pain, she was so ill, and even though I knew the bleeding wasn't right, I was so different from my mum, so it was still a total shock when I found out it was cancer.
But I had seen what she had gone through, how hard it was for her, so I was really scared when I found out I had cervical cancer as well.
I had to go to Antrim Area Hospital for a camera (investigative procedure) and that's when they told me I was going to need a hysterectomy. It was all so quick and they were almost making the decisions for me.
I was so young as well - just 21 - and I just went along with what they said and didn't ask any questions.
If it happened to me now, I might not just go for the hysterectomy, although they told me it was the best thing for me.
The actual surgery for the hysterectomy wasn't too bad - I have needed surgery on my bowel since and that was a million times worse.
I spent my 22nd birthday in Belfast City Hospital; I will always remember, it was two days after the operation.
I went through the menopause after and I'm on HRT to try and control the symptoms.
I was having the moods and the night sweats but I see the consultant every year now and I'm on medication to control it.
There are so many different things you can take - gels, injections, tablets, it's a bit like taking the pill and finding the one that suits you best.
They wanted me to have radiotherapy and chemotherapy, but before that I went to London to a hospital to see about having my eggs frozen.
Because I was so young, they gave me that choice, so I could have a family in the future.
I had to go back and forward to the hospital here for injections beforehand and then went back to London to have the eggs removed.
After that was done I started the chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
As I am from Portstewart I got the radiotherapy every day from Monday to Friday and the chemotherapy was overnight on Thursday.
The rest of the week I would go up and down to the hospital - either my aunt, nanny or daddy would take me up and keep me company, or I would get the train.
The tiredness was really hard through the chemo and I think the travelling just made it worse because it was a really long day.
Eventually it got so bad I just couldn't face it, so I rang the hospital and told them I wasn't coming up, but they talked me round.
They were pretty confident after the hysterectomy that they had got everything and that it was the best thing for me because the cancer hadn't spread to my lymph nodes, so the radiotherapy and chemo was an extra precaution.
After I finished that, I went for another MRI scan which showed that everything was fine. Just before Christmas I went out for a night out and loved it, especially because I had spent my birthday in hospital.
I still have to go back to the hospital for check-ups but they will be less frequent as the years go by, although the doctors seem happy enough so far.
I did end up in a bad way with my bowel and needed more surgery.
We don't know if my bowel was damaged during the hysterectomy or because of the chemotherapy - but I just don't care what happened, I just wanted to be better.
I'm not 100% but it's not as bad as it was and that's all that matters and I know how lucky I have been.
Brian and I are engaged now - we've been together for seven years.
I don't know if Brian and I will have a family - our main priority is getting ourselves a wee house, but it's something we could maybe talk about in the future.
My mum, Donna, was back and forward to her GP for months and she was told it was irritable bowel syndrome and she was even put on anti-depressants.
She was in agony and went through a terrible time.
She tried to hide it from me but I realised what was going on from all the hospital appointments and the whispers, that she had cancer.
I was doing my GCSEs at the time and I remember worrying about how I was going to cope with my exams.
Mum never told me how bad it was, she wouldn't have wanted me to know.
Our two experiences just show how things have changed and how important it is to get an early diagnosis.
I'm happy now; if I could get a wee house I would be even happier, but we will get there in the end.
I really believe that everything happens for a reason and what has happened to me has made me who I am today.
If I wake up and feel well then that's another day and that's a blessing."
‘If I’d not gone to the GP it may have been terminal ...’
William Edgar (36), a manual labourer, lives in Kilkeel, Co Down, with his mum and dad, Florence (63) and Clifford (65). He was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2012. He says:
Four years ago, I was 32 and working in London when I started having symptoms that started practically overnight. I started having a bit of diarrhoea with blood and that’s why I was worried.
While I wasn’t in pain I said to a guy I worked with and he thought it sounded a bit suspicious. I knew it wasn’t piles so when I was on the phone to my parents I told my mum.
At that stage I was going home every second week, so I asked her to make me an appointment with the GP for the next time I was home. When I saw the doctor he referred me to Daisy Hill for an endoscope.
Within a matter of days I had an appointment, but there was no mention of cancer until it was done.
The surgeon said it was stage two cancer, he was able to tell from the size of the tumour. He said it was the size of the face of a wrist watch.
It was just a shock, but at the same time the surgeon was able to turn around and tell me what stage it was, that he could cut it out and cure it.
When my mum and dad came in, I told them what the doctor had said.
They didn’t get worked up but then neither did I because that just isn’t in my nature, and as well as that, there is a certain element of wanting to protect them.
Perhaps it hadn’t really sunk in — I don’t think I believed it until I went for the first operation.
They told me I would need surgery and no other treatment was mentioned at that stage.
The surgeon said the operation was a success, that they’d been able to take everything away.
They had to take the tumour and send it away for a biopsy before they would know if I needed any further treatment.
It was low down in my bowel, which the doctors said was a good thing, but of course I still needed a colostomy bag for a year.
The colostomy nurse was brilliant and she told me there was no way I was getting out of hospital until I could change it myself.
I did have a couple of little mishaps with it leaking, but I got around it and learned how to do it.
You do worry about it — it is at the back of your mind that you might be out in public and it might leak. I didn’t go back to work while I had it, as I’m a manual labourer and I just didn’t think it was the right place to be with the bag.
My wound opened up as well, I was sitting in the armchair and I could actually feel the staples coming out and the wound pulling apart.
There was no pain because all the nerves had been cut but I ended up having to have it packed for 16 weeks, which meant that my treatment was interrupted for a while.
They had decided I needed chemotherapy because they had taken 26 lymph nodes during the operation and the cancer was in one of them.
I was offered the chance to take part in a trial, which was comparing 12 weeks and 24 weeks of chemotherapy in people who had surgery for bowel cancer.
It was to discover whether it is better for patients to go through the longer course of treatment.
They did warn me that the side effects of the chemo would get worse as the treatment progressed and that’s exactly what happened.
When it came down to it, I was chosen for the shorter course but I wasn’t able to finish it because the chemo was starting to destroy my liver.
Fortunately, though, it is one of the organs that can repair itself.
Initially I thought it was going to be a walk in the park, but as time went on it got harder and harder. The nausea got worse to the point that at the end of it, when I was taking the chemo tablets I couldn’t swallow them.
They were being brought straight back up again. For me the tiredness was the worst thing, I didn’t have the tingling in the fingers that so many people have, or the ulcers on the bottom of the feet.
It didn’t feel nice walking into the reception of the hospital, as soon as I smelt it I felt bad.
It wasn’t that it smelled bad, it’s just that it was familiar and your body knew what was coming.
I was very rundown by that stage, all I could do was lie in the bedroom or in front of the TV and if anyone came in I didn’t want to know.
Eventually they stopped the chemo. I had an operation to remove the stoma and my bowel is definitely better than it was, but it’s nowhere near back to being normal.
I was back to work a couple of months after the surgery to remove the bag and now I’m going on holiday to Berlin with my girlfriend Joanne. We’ve been together for two years now.
I don’t think I could have put anyone else through what I went through.
My mum and dad were there throughout the whole process and they were amazing.
When you go through cancer you have so many people worrying about you.
It’s been a hard journey but we got the right result in the end.
I just want people to know they shouldn’t be embarrassed about going to their doctor.
If I had left it, I could have been diagnosed with stage three or even terminal, stage four, you just wouldn’t know.
The only thing you do know is that the cancer is going to progress, it definitely isn’t going to get better.”
- For more detail about Cancer Research UK visit cancerresearchuk.org/