'I ignored letters about smear tests for five years ... when I did go for one I found out I had cervical cancer at just 26 years old'
After Co Down fitness model Rachel Nelson was diagnosed with cervical cancer, she realised the value of the screening programme. Now she wants to raise money and awareness about the disease by taking part in an NI-wide gym challenge.
Putting herself through a punishing one-hour workout every day for 30 days in 30 different gyms across Northern Ireland is Rachel Nelson’s way of bringing home to people the challenge which cancer patients face every single day.
The 28-year-old fitness model was diagnosed with early stage cervical cancer two years ago and is now so grateful to be healthy and well that she aims to test herself to her limits to raise awareness and funds for Cancer Research UK.
Rachel was typical of many young women and repeatedly ignored letters from her doctor inviting her for a routine smear test, believing that she was fine.
Now though she confesses to having paid a high price for neglecting to have the test done and is urging others not to do the same.
She says: “I just kept putting it off and I know it sounds terrible but I was too busy, I had too much going on. I ignored the letters for five years and it wasn’t until I had to go into hospital for other tests that I decided when I got home that I should go for the smear test.”
That was two years ago and Rachel, who lives in Gilford, Co Down, says she is still reeling from the shock of what happened next.
Having had the test done, Rachel admits she had put it out of her mind and was horrified to receive a call from her doctor’s surgery a few weeks later asking her to come in and discuss the results.
She says: “I had forgotten I had even had it done when I got the phone call. They wanted to know when I could come in to discuss the results and I asked her to please tell me over the phone as it was obviously not good news. She told me they had found some abnormal cells.
“I just broke down. I didn’t know how to take it. I started crying as I didn’t know what was going to happen and I never thought it would be me.”
Rachel had the highest grade of pre-cancerous cells — grade three. She was admitted to hospital to have them removed.
After the procedure she suffered bleeding for several days and had to be taken into hospital again.
When a follow-up smear just three months later revealed that the cells had returned, again she found herself in hospital for further treatment. Since then Rachel has had to have a smear test every three months and is only now starting to come to terms with what happened.
“Apparently there are three levels and I had level three which was the highest and early stages of cervical cancer. It scared me so much,” she says. “I started to panic and all I can think about now is that if I hadn’t ignored the letters about the smear test then I wouldn’t have had to go through that.
“It was a tough procedure and I had complications afterwards because my body wouldn’t heal properly and I had to go back into hospital again.
“When the cells came back so quickly it really frightened me and I thought I was never going to get past it. Now though I realise I was lucky that I did get a smear test when I did. If I hadn’t, it could have been a lot worse. It is still upsetting and I know for the rest of my life I will need to have regular tests.
“I think I had a smear test in my late teens and hadn’t been back for one since.
“You just think it isn’t going to happen to you.
“I know a lot of girls in their 20s who were like me and didn’t go for smears and I know some who also had pre-cancerous cells.
“No matter what age you are I think that we all believe it will never happen to us and yet one in two people now get cancer. I want to raise awareness and urge people not to ignore symptoms or routine tests.”
Rachel, who started a new job this week as an advertising executive with a fitness magazine, has always been fit and healthy and in the past year has become a body building competitor.
She is due to take part in her third competition next week, the UK BFF — a body building and fitness contest, and is currently working out three times a day to prepare.
September, though, will be the real challenge when she takes on 30 workouts in 30 days across Northern Ireland in the hope of raising funds for Cancer Research UK and drawing attention to cervical cancer.
“Since the beginning of the year I’ve wanted to do something to help others,” she says.
“I don’t have a lot of money so I couldn’t make a big donation. I thought about what I can do and fitness is my thing so I decided to do the work-outs.
“I want to raise awareness with as many people as I can here so I decided to take it right across the province and do 30 workouts in 30 gyms in 30 days.
“I will have a personal trainer putting me through my paces in every gym and I’ve told them I want it to be hard. People with cancer don’t get a break and have to go through it every single day and that’s the message I am hoping to send out by working out for 30 days in a row without a break.”
Rachel has spent the past eight months planning her marathon fitness crusade and was overwhelmed by how eager the gyms she contacted were to get on board.
She will drive from her home in Gilford each day to her chosen gym and back again at her own expense, travelling as far as Londonderry, Coleraine, Bangor and right round every county in Northern Ireland.
She hopes that in each town local fitness enthusiasts will turn out and support her as well as donating to Cancer Research.
“The response so far has been fantastic and I have set up a link so people can follow me on social media,” says Rachel.
“Every gym I contacted was really keen to support me and in fact I ended up with more than I needed. It was really encouraging and I hope that people will come along to the gyms and join in or just make a donation and support me.
“I won’t have a social life for a month and will be driving all over Northern Ireland but that is my contribution. I want the trainers to make it tough — if it is too easy then it’s not a challenge. It has to represent what people with cancer go through mentally and physically.
“I’m used to working out but I always have two rest days at the weekend so it will tough from that point of view, not getting a break for 30 days.
“I hope to raise awareness about cervical cancer and also raise as much money as I can for research into this form of the disease, and also for children’s cancer.
“I was lucky, although you always have that fear that it could come back. However, you have to get on with your life and the reason I talk about it is because I feel so strongly about people getting tested rather than ignoring symptoms or missing screening like I did.”
You can follow Rachel, who will be starting her challenge on September 1, at Rachbeat on Instagram and Facebook and she also hopes to set up a Twitter feed under the same name.
Warning symptoms to look out for
The symptoms of cervical cancer aren’t always obvious and it may not cause any symptoms at all until it’s reached an advanced stage.
This is why it’s very important that you attend all of your cervical screening appointments.
In most cases, vaginal bleeding is the first noticeable symptom of cervical cancer. It usually occurs after having sex.
Bleeding at any other time, other than your expected monthly period, is also considered unusual. This includes bleeding after the menopause (when a woman’s monthly periods stop).
Visit your GP for advice if you experience any type of unusual vaginal bleeding.
Other symptoms of cervical cancer may include pain and discomfort during sex and an unpleasant smelling vaginal discharge.
If the cancer spreads out of your cervix and into surrounding tissue and organs, it can trigger a range of other symptoms, including:
- blood in your urine
- loss of bladder control
- bone pain
- swelling of one of your legs
- severe pain in your side or back caused by swelling in your kidneys, related to a condition called hydronephrosis
- changes to your bladder and bowel habits
- loss of appetite
- weight loss
- tiredness and a lack of energy.
Vaginal bleeding is very common and can have a wide range of causes, so it doesn’t necessarily mean you have cervical cancer. However, unusual vaginal bleeding is a symptom that needs to be investigated by your GP.
For further information contact Cancer Research UK, tel: 0300 123 1022; speak to a nurse, tel: 0808 800 4040 or visit cancerresearchuk.org or write to: Cancer Research UK, PO Box 1561, Oxford, OX4 9G2 For more information on the cervical cancer screening programme here, visit cancerscreening.hscni.net