Brave Northern Ireland mum breaking the taboo about rare female cancer that left her unable to have another baby
Young mother-of-two Aisling Ferry, from Londonderry, was planning a third baby with her husband when she was given the shattering news that she had vaginal cancer. Here, she tells Leona O’Neill about her life-changing diagnosis
A Londonderry mother who battled a rare form of cancer that robbed her of the chance to have a much-longed-for third baby has rung in the new year cancer-free.
Now Aisling Ferry, a 34-year-old photographer, wants to use her own experience to educate other women about vaginal cancer and break the embarrassment around the illness.
The young mother, who is married to Daniel and has two daughters, Emily (4) and Daisy (21 months), says that she was left "shell-shocked" after being told a polyp that had caused her some discomfort while pregnant had turned cancerous when her youngest daughter was just 15 months old.
"I didn't have a single symptom," she says. "But when I was six months' pregnant with Daisy I had a bleed, and they investigated it and found that it was a polyp. They kept checking me for that every six months and in June of 2019 I went back for my very last follow-up appointment. The doctor in Altnagelvin decided that because it was my last appointment she would check everything and discovered that the polyp had never healed.
"I was referred to a gynaecology consultant and just assumed I would get the results of my latest tests. But then, the night before the appointment, I became very anxious - I just had a niggling feeling in the back of my head.
"I went into the consultant's room with my mum. After a polite exchange my world dropped out of sync. The consultant said I had vaginal cancer. Everything went hazy, I could hear people talking, but it sounded like I was underwater. I was in so much shock. My mum grabbed my hand, told me I was okay and I cried. But it wasn't the breathless, uncontrollable crying that you imagine in your head when you've played out scenes like this in your head. It was just sobbing. Then I pulled myself together just enough to try to ask questions, because I needed answers.
"I heard that I needed further investigation, that it was a very rare case and that it didn't normally happen to women my age. Within minutes I'd signed a consent form and was booked in to day case surgery for the following week for more investigation."
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Aisling says the next daunting step was telling her family - her husband Daniel and their two little girls.
"I can't remember the journey home but I do vividly remember getting out of the car and seeing my front door and thinking that I was about to vomit," she says.
"I felt like my world was collapsing around me and I could just hear white noise in my ears, with just the word 'cancer' running through my mind. In my head I was planning on making sure that I told my mum I wanted to be waked in her house if I died. It's funny the things that go through your head.
"My husband opened the front door and my two young children were playing in the living room. My overwhelming feeling at that moment was guilt. I felt terrible having to explain to him that I was about to change our plans for the future. I couldn't give any answers to the questions in my head nor anyone else's.
"The next 12 hours went by in a rush of tearful phone calls, messages on group chats and the stark realisation that I'd best get used to things. I'd said the word die, cancer and vagina far too many times in 24 hours and it was beginning to get easier.
"My sister-in-law was diagnosed with breast cancer less than seven days earlier and I took comfort in the fact that even though this is one of the hardest situations I had faced in my whole life, I had someone who understood."
Aisling says that it wasn't until the next night that she was able to cry properly.
"I cried the tears that I thought would come in the hospital the day before. I couldn't see properly, I couldn't breathe and I just fell apart. It was the most cathartic moment. I felt so much relief - I'd soon learn this was my cycle of coping, falling apart then picking myself back up again and getting on with it.
"I would have my appointment, fall to pieces for 24 hours, pull myself back up, grab it by the scruff of the neck and say 'let's deal with it', because I had no other choice." Just five weeks later Aisling was in the City Hospital in Belfast having a full hysterectomy, a prospect she found particularly heartbreaking as she and her husband had been planning to have another baby.
"The worst part of the whole thing, and the most difficult by far for me, was that Daniel and I had just started trying for a third and final baby," she says.
"We'd talked at length about how we really wanted a boy but that, whatever the outcome, we'd just be over the moon to have another baby.
"In my head, I had the future planned, right down to the nursery colours. I was now looking down the barrel of a shotgun, but I had my two daughters and couldn't stop thinking how lucky I was to have them."
Aisling continues: "I remember the consultant saying to me to sign the form for the hysterectomy and me hesitating, thinking we could still have time to have another baby. But I was made aware that I was so lucky they had caught the cancer early.
"Nine months down the line it could have been just Daniel with our two girls and a new baby and I would be dead. The doctors had to keep me alive, I knew that. I had to live, there wasn't any other alternative ending for me, I just wouldn't allow it.
"The doctors told me it was endometrioid adenocarcinoma - vaginal cancer - but it was moving out to the left hand side of my womb. They told me I had undiagnosed endometriosis and that was what was making the cancer spread.
"I sat there, shell-shocked at being told that, along with the expected hysterectomy, I also had to have a portion of my bowel removed and I faced the possibility of a stoma bag, a scenario which completely threw me. In surgery my womb, ovaries, fallopian tubes, cervix and part of my vagina were taken out. Thankfully I didn't need any of the bowel removed, or to have a stoma bag fitted, which I am thankful for."
Aisling, who didn't need chemotherapy, is now forging ahead into 2020 cancer-free and is thankful to put a roller-coaster year fully behind her.
"I feel I got through this experience because I had an amazingly supportive husband, a family and friends network that had supported me absolutely - and I also had two girls who needed me to be a mummy," she says.
"The surgeons removed everything they felt they had to and I am now cancer-free," she says. "I have to attend the hospital for the foreseeable future but it has been amazing to know it's gone. I do worry at times that it will come back - but I know I will have the best care should it return.
"I knew I wasn't supposed to give up and I have promised myself to try to raise awareness of the condition when I can. After my operation I posted openly on social media about everything - while still in hospital."
Stressing why she is determined to break the taboo of talking about vaginal cancer, Aisling adds: "I want to take all embarrassment out of this type of cancer. I have said the word vagina to so many people, so many strangers, over the last six months, it has been unreal.
"There is nothing to be ashamed of, I want women to be well, to talk about these things and look after themselves. I am adamant that I feel no shame in talking about it and other ladies shouldn't either.
"I don't want to have gone through this without raising awareness and encouraging everyone to get any unusual symptoms or changes in their bodies checked out.
"For example, I want to encourage everyone to go to their smear test appointment - smear tests check for abnormalities in the cervix. I want women to look after themselves.
"No one knows your body like you, so be aware of any changes and keep those smear appointments, they could save your life because if there are abnormal changes taking place, they may be caught at an early stage and be treatable."
General symptoms of vaginal cancer
As many as 20 in 100 women (20%) diagnosed with vaginal cancer don't have symptoms at all. Your doctor may pick up signs of very early vaginal cancer during routine cervical screening. As with most cancers, doctors can successfully treat this early stage of the disease.
Overall, around 80% of women with vaginal cancer have one or more symptoms. These include:
- bleeding in between periods or after the menopause
- bleeding after sex
- pain during sexual intercourse
- lump or growth in the vagina that you or your doctor can feel
- vaginal discharge that smells or is blood stained
- a vaginal itch that won't go away
These symptoms are more likely with advanced vaginal cancer:
- constipation feeling unable to completely empty your bowels even if there is nothing there to come out
- swelling in your legs (oedema)
- pain in the pelvic area that won't go away
- pain when going for a wee or going more often than usual
When to see your doctor
There are many other conditions that cause these symptoms.
Most of them are much more common than vaginal cancer.
However, you should go to your GP straight away if you have any of these symptoms.
You probably don't have cancer. But if you do, the sooner you are treated, the more likely you are to be cured.
Tests and diagnosis
Your GP will ask about your symptoms and may ask to examine your vagina (a pelvic examination).
If they're not sure what the cause is, they may refer you to a specialist for further tests, such as another pelvic examination or a colposcopy, where a microscope is used to look inside your vagina and a small piece of tissue may be removed for testing (biopsy)
The specialist can tell you if you have cancer or something else. If it is cancer, they'll talk to you about what happens next.
Sources: www.nhs.uk/conditions/vaginal-cancer and about-cancer. cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/vaginal-cancer