More than 3,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer in the UK each year, and almost 1,000 lose their lives to the killer disease – yet it is 99.8 per cent preventable with regular screening.
Big Brother star Jade Goody’s death at 27 in 2009 led to a surge in women having smear tests. But now attendance at clinics is at a 20-year-low.
As Cervical Cancer Prevention week starts on Monday, three women tell their story – and explain why getting screened early could save your life.
How could I look my kids in the eye if I refused a test?
When Laura Flaherty received the letter saying her smear test was due, she felt that familiar dread.
“I was a mum of two with a full-time job and it was the run-up to Christmas,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘I don’t have time for this’ and kept putting it off.”
After several reminders, Laura finally went for a test and, then aged 29, was diagnosed with cervical cancer in June 2016.
She recalls: “When the doctor said the words, I completely broke down.
“I begged him to save me. I said, ‘I’ve got two small children at home, they aren’t going to remember me if they lose me’. I was utterly devastated.”
Already mum to Violet, now four, and Alex, eight, Laura and her partner Ryan made the tough decision for her to have a hysterectomy.
“I was convinced I was going to die in the operating theatre,” says Laura. “I wrote letters to the kids, to say goodbye.”
Thankfully she survived, and got the all-clear in August 2016. Now she campaigns to raise cancer awareness.
Laura, an aquarium worker from Leigh, Gtr Manchester, adds: “I watched Jade Goody on Big Brother and loved her. What happened to her was tragic and it is preventable.
“If I kept putting off my smear, my cancer would have killed me – how could I ever have looked my children in the eye and told them I was dying?”
I put off trip to the doc but it pays to get checked
It was Jade Goody’s death that convinced mum-of-three Hayley Prince to go for her smear test.
She says: “My periods were really heavy and I had painful cramps, but had been putting off the test. I always liked Jade and when she died it prompted me to go to my appointment.”
Hayley – a focused care practitioner – was diagnosed with cervical cancer on May 2009, two months after Jade died.
Terrified Hayley, mum to Nathan, 21, Joe, 20, and Ben, 15, says: “Jade died, so I thought I was going to die. It scared the living daylights out of me. I went to bits.”
Hayley had a hysterectomy in July 2009, then six weeks of radiotherapy and chemotherapy as the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes.
“It was awful,” she says. “After the hysterectomy, I no longer felt like a woman. Then the chemo knocked me off my feet.”
After a difficult recovery Hayley, from Stockport, Gtr Manchester, got the all-clear in January 2015.
She recalls: “I threw a party to celebrate with 250 friends and family members all delighted that I’d beaten cancer. Living with a cancer diagnosis feels like a life sentence.
“With cervical cancer, it really is preventable. It is so, so important to get your smear test done on time.”
I came through the tears and trauma and so can you
Young, active, fit, happy and engaged to be married, the last thing on Sophie Wheeldon’s mind was cervical cancer – until she was diagnosed in November 2016, aged just 26.
“It was a total shock,” says the M&S manager. “As soon as you hear the word cancer, you feel like your life is over. I remember thinking, ‘Surely this can’t be right. I’m 26, I’m far too young to get ill’.”
Sophie, from Buxton, Derbys, had no symptoms and was diagnosed following her routine smear test.
Once the devastating news had sunk in, she faced the heartbreaking decision of whether to have a hysterectomy – and end her dream of having kids – or choose a trachelectomy, which leaves the womb and ovaries in tact.
“My wonderful partner Alex and I always wanted kids, so the thought of that dream ending killed me,” Sophie says. She opted to have the trachelectomy.
Her recovery was slow and difficult and she remembers days when she would “stand in the shower and cry”.
But two years on, Sophie is free of cancer. She married IT specialist Alex in June last year and the pair are now trying for a baby.
She adds: “I’m happy, healthy and planning my future – my smear test saved my life. It could save yours too.”
Most types of cervical cancer are caused by high-risk strains of the HPV virus.
Attending your scheduled smear test means doctors can detect any cell changes early and prevent cancer forming.
Not all women diagnosed with cervical cancer have symptoms.
But look out for unusual bleeding during or after sex or between periods, pain during sex and pain in the pelvis, bleeding after the menopause and changes to vaginal discharge.
For more information, visit Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust at jostrust.org.uk or call their helpline on 0808 802 8000.