'I kicked out my partner after being told I had a sexually transmitted disease... but then I learned it was a rare form of cancer'
A brave woman has spoken about how she left her partner after the shock of being diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection but was later told she in fact had a rare form of gynecological cancer.
Only around 33 women hear the words 'You have vulval cancer' in Northern Ireland every year. Seven years ago Julie Clarke was one of them. The 48-year-old from Belfast has now taken the courageous step to speak out about her devastating diagnosis in a bid to break the silence and taboo around the rare gynecological cancer.
"Breast cancer is spoken about now naturally, testicular cancer is spoken about naturally. I'm not frightened to talk about vulval cancer it anymore," she said.
Julie had self-treated for over a year after first experiencing symptoms which included itching and bleeding. But said she had been worried about talking to her GP.
"Pride stops you going to the doctor - and some people feel embarrassed," she said. "It was getting to the stage where I was bleeding. I eventually went to the doctor, for something else - she was new and I just asked her could she look?"
After being examined, Julie was initially told she had herpes which left her shocked and angry at her then partner.
"I went home and kicked him out. But I went to the GUM clinic and they were fantastic. I was treated for two weeks but I went back and that was when I was diagnosed with vulval cancer.
"They were words I had never heard before in my life". Julie, who is supported by her son Gareth (25) and daughter Danielle (30), has since undergone 12 operations in six years and last year discovered the devastating news that cancer had spread to her lymph nodes.
She underwent chemotherapy and radiotherapy but still faces surgeries to treat the vulval cancer. But despite the emotional rollercoaster she is determined to raise awareness of the disease and praises the staff at the Macmillan Support and Information Centre in the Belfast City Hospital.
"They have been just wonderful," she said. "I would like to meet people and reassure them that it isn't a bad word.
"Many are older and would be of the thought;'you don't talk about your bits'. But they should not be embarrassed. I treated myself for over a year and I could have stopped it from developing into cancer. I would say to any wo man, don't be scared just go to your GP - it could save your life."
Symptoms of vulval cancer include itching, burning or soreness of the vulva that doesn't go away; a lump or swelling or wart-like growth on the vulva; a sore or ulcerated area.