How test spotted cervical cancer early and saved our lives
Cervical cancer screening prevents 75% of diseased cells from developing, yet one in four women don't go when they are invited for their smear test. To mark Cervical Cancer Awareness Week - which runs from January 22-29 - Linda Stewart talks to two women who've battled the condition.
'Many women went for smear test after hearing my story'
Laura McClintock (31) is a bartender at Duke's bar in Londonderry. Her daughter Ellie Kate is 12. Laura says:
I grew up in the Waterside and was the oldest in a family of six. I have an aunt who had cancer and she beat it.
My parents are Eileen and Paul - daddy works in Parcelforce Worldwide and my mum is a housewife.
I was a bit of a tearaway when I was a child. I was always on the go - never indoors. I went to St Brecan's High School in Gobnascale. I enjoyed music, but I didn't particularly enjoy school and I didn't come out with anything much in the way of achievements.
I started off as a secretary when I left school.
My father got me in through a recruitment agency to Parcelforce and I did so well that I ended up getting a contract. There were lots of girls in there that I got on with, so I did enjoy the work. I continued with secretarial work until 2004. Then I had a baby girl, Ellie Kate, and I didn't go back to work until she was starting nursery.
I went to work in Stream, which was a call centre, and I was there for about two years before leaving to join another call centre, but I didn't stay there too long.
After that I started doing bar work. It's great for meeting people as I am quite outgoing.
After I had Ellie Kate, I had a smear appointment. I had the tests regularly and after one I was diagnosed with cancerous cells.
I underwent cell burning and I had to keep returning for more treatment.
Eventually, I had to have a Lletz procedure, which is where they remove part of the cervix.
I was friendly with a girl called Keelin Glen whose sister Sorcha had cervical cancer.
When she was diagnosed with cervical cancer she started chemotherapy and went through quite gruelling treatment, but she always kept her head up and was a fighter. Unfortunately she didn't survive.
I was friends with Keelin all through that and I knew what way things could go.
Through Team Sorcha, her friends and family have been working to raise awareness and reduce the smear test age limit to detect cancer in younger girls. They've done so much in her memory, it's unreal.
I had a biopsy which showed that I had cancer. I was diagnosed the day after I had done a big fundraiser in the bar where I worked in memory of Sorcha.
It was surreal getting up the next day to the news that I had cancer myself.
I was really shocked - I was numb for a while. But I just tried to think of my daughter and get on with it.
I had an MRI to see how big the tumour was and the very next day I was booked in for a hysterectomy - that was two years ago this January.
It wasn't nice, but I was told that if I had a hysterectomy it was the best chance I would have.
I had a full recovery after having the hysterectomy, so obviously it was the right thing to do. I had a daughter waiting at home and there was no point waiting for other children.
I was in Belfast City Hospital for two weeks and then I had to stay with my sister for quite a few weeks.
I could do nothing - I was just laid up. At the end of the February I had a scan which showed the cancer hadn't gone into the lymph nodes so I had made a full recovery.
Early detection is just life saving. The cancer was caught so early it hadn't even a chance and that is down to early detection. If it had been a few months later, it might have spread to other parts of the body.
My story was published in a local newspaper and the number of people who have contacted me to say they had never had a smear and had decided to go and get one after reading my story is unbelievable.
There were 30 at least who contacted me through Facebook. It just proves that sharing your story and reaching out to people does work."
‘The doctor said it’s bad news, and I knew what that meant’
Tanya Byers (37) is a languages teacher at Downshire School in Carrickfergus. She is married to retail manager Colin (43) and has three children, Bethany (12), Ethan (10) and Rhys (8). Tanya says:
I am from Drumahoe outside Londonderry. I was adopted at about five months old. My father died four days before my 10th birthday of a brain haemorrhage which left just me and my mum.
I studied at Foyle College and was really into languages — I studied French, Spanish and History at A-level and then went to Queen’s University in Belfast.
During my degree I took a year out in Spain and I wanted to go back and live there, but I had fallen for a Northern Irish man who was a bit of a homebird.
I didn’t have any symptoms of cervical cancer whatsoever. I was called for my regular smear in November and made an appointment for the Christmas holidays when I was off school.
I had noticed a wee bit of spotting between my period and sex had become a bit painful so I mentioned that to our practice nurse and she wrote it on the form when she was sending it off.
On Valentine’s weekend I got a letter saying they had found abnormal cells and I had to go for a colposcopy. They did a couple of biopsies and I got a letter to say the cells were abnormal and I needed a Lletz procedure —that was under anaesthetic so it wasn’t really unpleasant.
In between the biopsies I had about five infections — I just knew I wasn’t right — and my periods got really, really heavy.
The doctor said he might be able to do something about that and he said ‘see you in six months’ and I took that as gospel.
About a fortnight later I got a letter to say an appointment had been made to go and see him. My husband wanted to go with me but I was so convinced it wasn’t going to be anything that I didn’t want him to go, but he was off work and insisted on taking me.
As soon as we were in his office, the doctor’s first words were ‘it’s bad news’ and I knew what that meant.
But the prognosis wasn’t as bad as it could have been —it was at the earliest stage it could have been. They told me I could have a simple hysterectomy — womb and cervix — but they wanted to do a deeper biopsy under anaesthetic to check there was nothing else there.
Then it came back that there was a second tumour in the cervix. I was moved to Belfast City Hospital and they wanted to do a radical hysterectomy — that is, keyhole surgery to remove the womb, cervix, two centimetres of the vagina, the Fallopian tubes and check the lymph nodes to make sure it hadn’t spread.
They did the operation on July 21. I was quite frustrated because I had this vision that it was multiplying inside me and I was convinced it was going to spread.
But it was also the anniversary of the day my dad died, and I felt like the only thing that happened that day was death. So I really struggled with the date.
They checked the lymph nodes on August 9 and they were clear and I had got rid of the tumour. I couldn’t believe I didn’t need any chemotherapy or radiotherapy.
One of the results of the operation is that the bladder stopped working properly and I had to self-catheterise.
But I feel really lucky because it could have been a lot worse and a lot of people I’ve met along the way have gone through a lot worse.
I hate going for my smears — I’d rather do anything else. But it’s five minutes discomfort that can change your life. If I’d put it off for another couple of months, I dread to think what situation I would have been left in.
We decided not to tell the children at the time, although we told Bethany in the summer holidays after she finished primary school. I didn’t tell my boys at all because it’s such a scary thing.
I told them I would need an operation on my tummy and I had to be very, very careful and they had to help daddy. Rhys still loves cuddles and I had to tell him he had to hug me round the neck, not round the belly — things like that.
My church was amazing and with all the babysitting we were able to keep living a relatively normal life. There were a few friends that were not there for us, which was really difficult.
I had a lot of help from Jo’s Trust — the only UK charity dedicated to women with cervical cancer.
The people there were amazing, even down to giving me shopping lists for going into hospital. And Hope House were really behind us — we spent a weekend at an apartment, just the two of us, and it was just what we needed to process everything.”