I was only 24 when I got the shocking news I had cervical cancer but thankfully early detection has saved my life
Known as the ‘silent killer’ cervical cancer kills one in 1,000 women in the UK every year. At present the NHS only offers smear tests to women over 25 but one Lurgan woman, who knows she could have become another tragic statistic if it hadn’t been for early intervention, tells Karen Ireland why the age limit should be lowered to help save more lives
Life was good for Natasha Cairns from Lurgan. She had trained in hairdressing, her dream job from school days, and was working in a busy salon in the Co Armagh town. She was in a long term relationship with partner Andrew Hagan, a plumber from the same town, and was enjoying luxury holidays every year and a great social life with good friends and family.
However, a routine letter last year changed her life forever.
“My mum and I both got letters at the same time to go for smear tests,” she says.
“I was only 24 at the time and got my letter early and didn’t really think anything about it, but mum said she was going to the doctor’s to make an appointment and she would make one for me at the same time.
“If she hadn’t done that I know I probably would have ignored the letter and I mightn’t be talking to you now,” says Natasha bluntly.
Her mother, Gilda, got appointments for them both and they went along together to their GP’s surgery to have their smear tests.
“It was embarrassing and uncomfortable but it only took about five minutes and I honestly believe that five minutes saved my life,” she says.
Ironically Natasha, now 25, hadn’t been remotely concerned about the test results. “I knew it was very unlikely for anything to happen at my age so I wasn’t worried,” she says.
But then she noticed she kept getting missed calls from a withheld number on her mobile phone.
“I wasn’t bothered about the missed calls but then my mum got her letter to say that everything was okay with her test and I started to wonder where my letter was.
“I mentioned it to my boss in work and she said that perhaps the calls were from the doctor about my results. So I called the surgery to see if they were looking for me but they hadn’t received any results and couldn’t tell me anything.”
Natasha admits that by this time she was starting to get concerned.
“I knew deep down something was wrong. Mum had got her letter and we had the tests done on the same day. I just had an unsettling feeling that I was going to get bad news. I phoned the hospital and I was crying my eyes out and begging them to tell me something but the consultant wasn’t available and I couldn’t get to speak to anyone. The receptionist was really nice but obviously she couldn’t tell me anything.
“Eventually I got to see the consultant and mum came with me to the appointment. As I sat in that room I saw the nurse taking everyone in for their appointments but the consultant herself actually came out to call me in.
“I knew it was bad news and I didn’t want mum coming in with me. The consultant patted my hand and told me that my smear had showed up some abnormal cells. She assured me that it would be okay and that they could burn them all off and get all the pre-cancerous cells.”
Natasha recalls how she went home with her mind reeling.
“I am a bit of a drama queen, I know, and I do panic, but all I could think was ‘I have cancer and I am going to die’. I had Googled all about cervical cancer and I knew people died from it and that it was deadly. I was worrying about things like who would look after my dog and how would Andrew and my mum cope.”
A week later Natasha went for a colposcopy and all the abnormal cells were taken away. It was confirmed she did have stage 1 cervical cancer but it could be treated by removing the cells.
Natasha says: “I was relieved and thought I could put it all behind me. I was uncomfortable after the operation and bleeding a lot but I just kept thinking ‘Thank goodness they caught it when they did’. That smear saved my life.”
A few weeks later the missed calls started coming again filling Natasha with a foreboding dread.
“I found myself sitting in the same waiting room one more and looking around; everyone else seemed to be in their 50s or 60s. I sat beside my mum and I was the youngest one there again. I couldn't believe this was happening to me. It was like a nightmare and I just wanted it to be over."
The consultant confirmed that it was cancer but said she had good news too.
"I was beside myself and kept firing questions at her and didn't let the poor woman speak," says Natasha. "Eventually when I calmed down she said the good news was they thought they had got most of the cells away but they wanted to take away another part of the cervix just to be completely sure it was all gone.
"The consultant then held my hand and said, 'I think you and I are going to be good friends over the next few years as I won't be letting you go'. That was very reassuring," says Natasha.
She was scheduled for surgery in a few weeks but when the date came through it was a week before she was due to go to Cancun with a group of friends.
"I asked would I still be able to go on holidays and the consultant said I could go as long as I didn't go into the pool or the sea as it might cause infection," she says.
"I was still bleeding a lot and uncomfortable from the first surgery and now I had to have more. Mum and Andrew wanted me to put the surgery off until I came back from holidays, but I just wanted it over and every possible trace of the cancer away and to go on holidays and let my hair down and forget about it.
"The way I saw it, the uncomfortableness and pain were a small price to pay for walking away with my life.
"I wanted to get back to the old me again as I knew I had changed as a person over the months I was undergoing surgery and appointments. I was cruel and nasty to everyone close to me. I took my anger and frustration out on them."
Natasha says that Andrew, also 25, and her mum were hugely supportive: "They were by my side all the time. I didn't really tell very many people what was going on as I found it embarrassing and I didn't want to confront it. After I had my final surgery that all changed. I decided to open up about it and tell people what had been going on so I put a post on Facebook and the response was unbelievable. Everyone was so caring and supportive.
"On my journey I felt very alone. There was no one around my age to identify with what I was going through. I felt angry that if I had to wait until I was 25, like the health service guidelines state, then my cancer would have reached an advanced stage and this could be a very different story with a very different ending.
"I am appealing on behalf of all young women for the age limit to be lowered to 17 or 18 when a lot of girls become sexually active and then they can be screened for an early diagnosis. Early diagnosis definitely saved my life. Now, I want to raise awareness as much as possible and I have even contacted my local councillor, the DUP's Carla Lockhart, urging her to lobby the issue on my behalf."
A determined Natasha, says she is just getting on with her life now but has become a very different person to the one she was before the diagnosis.
"I went through a year of hell. I was worried and anxious all the time and convinced I was going to die. I don't want anyone else to go through what I went through so I will talk about it as much as possible to raise awareness.
"I am trying to enjoy every minute of my life now and to be as positive as possible. I got a second chance. I know I will have to keep having smear tests and check-ups but I make the most of every second of my life now.
"I always wanted to go to New York so Andrew said after the past year that we had really earned it.
"So he just booked it and off we went and had the holiday of a lifetime."
And Natasha adds: "I've been warned that I may have problems conceiving or I could have a miscarriage or a premature baby and different complications due to my diagnosis but I honestly try not to think about that.
"Right now I just want to take every day as it comes and be glad for every day I have."
Useful contacts ■ Helplines: Macmillan, tel: 0808II 808 0000 ■ Cancer research UK, tel: 0808 800 40 40 ■ Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust, tel: 0808 802 8000
Symptoms of cervical cancer may include:
■ Bleeding which is not normal, inbetween periods, after sex or after the menopause
■ Pain in the lower stomach or pelvis area
■ Pain during sex
■ Vaginal discharge which isn't normal
■ Blood in urine
■ Loss of bladder control
■ Bone pain
■ Swelling in legs