Cervical cancer screening: Dinah’s story

My name is Dinah. I am a performer. I sing, dance, and (hopefully) make people happy.

Both my sisters have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). I once had a conversation with one of them, and she told me that if at some point I wanted to start a family, I should probably consider getting myself checked, too. So, I booked a test with my doctor.

After the test, I received a letter from my doctor to book a cervical screening  test. I had put this off for a while. I just didn't go. I have to admit I probably wouldn't have booked a cervical screening test if I hadn't already been going to the doctor. As someone who hadn't had one before, I found the idea of it a bit daunting.

So, I had the screening, and I didn’t think anything of it. I had no symptoms, nothing to tell me there was something wrong. About 10 days later, I received a letter saying that the reading wasn’t clear, and that HPV - human papillomavirus - had been found, I would need to do a colposcopy. At the time, I didn’t know what HPV was. When I went to my doctor to get the PCOS results, I asked about it and he told me quite bluntly that HPV is a sexually transmitted disease (STD). I didn’t really understand because I’d always practiced safe sex.

When I did the colposcopy, I was told that the results would come 14 days later. But within four days, I received a letter saying that I should book an appointment as soon as possible. Alarm bells rang straight away. When I went back to the hospital, I brought my mum with me but told her to wait outside. I had to hear the news by myself. At this appointment, I was informed that, unfortunately, they had found HPV, cervical cancer, and pre-cancer cells.

My first and only question was, “Will I still be able to have children?” The doctor told me that they would need to make sure it hadn’t spread, but there was a chance it wouldn’t affect me at all.

Cancer is a scary word. I couldn’t bear to tell my mum, who was sitting outside the examination room. So, I asked the doctor to tell her. I was very matter of fact and just wanted to start with my procedures. It only really hit me when my sister called. That was the first time I had to say the word “cancer”. Saying the word was difficult. I hung up on her. My dad couldn’t accept it either. Equally my husband (boyfriend at the time) couldn’t comprehend what I was telling him and needed it repeated several times. Looking back, I don’t think I allowed people to react the way they wanted or needed to. However, I had to go through my own journey and the only way I knew was to be strong and carry on.

Luckily, the type of cancer I had didn’t affect my ability to have children. I didn’t have to undergo chemotherapy, only laser surgery. For a long time, I felt like a fraud sitting among people who were having horrendous treatments and awful reactions to those treatments.

I think it had a larger effect on my mental health than I realised. I had the chance to speak with a nurse who said that HPV can be activated by sexual activity, that many people will have it during their lives, but it will often clear up itself. Knowing I wasn’t responsible put my mind at ease, that I hadn’t done anything wrong. I knew how to handle cancer because there was a clear process I had to go through. HPV, I didn’t know. My doctor had said to me, “this is what it is,” but it is not just a matter of fact for people who don’t know what HPV is. That was in some ways worse than hearing I had cancer because I didn’t know how to handle that. I didn’t know how to approach telling people.

If any woman is in any doubt, I would say: go, go to your cervical screening tests! You might feel a slight discomfort, but it doesn’t hurt. We go through far worse on a monthly basis. Things could have been much worse for me. In a worse-case scenario, I might not be sitting here telling my story. Life is fragile, it’s short. Five minutes of your life to do the test is worth it! It can save your life.

There are a lot of taboos, but we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about these things. Maybe now HPV is talked about because there is a vaccine. But a lot of people are probably taking the vaccine without actually knowing what HPV is. We should talk about it to understand what a cervical screening is and why it’s important to do them.

I get tested once every year, and I’m more than happy to do it. There is always a little bit of anxiety leading up to the appointment, but the benefits of getting it are worthwhile.

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