As I sit here eating porridge and wondering how I can introduce more eggs into my diet, it is fair to say that I'm in fitness training. For anyone who knows me, they'll know how ridiculous that sounds. I mean me? Lover of concepts such as, "second breakfast", having a "separate cake stomach" and "why run when you can just be a few minutes late?" However, I am in training for Ride the Night, a charity 100k cycle ride, that I never would have contemplated doing three years ago. So what got me here? The simple answer: Pre-cancerous cells in my cervix - probably as a result of HPV.
Three years ago, at the age of 29, after taking up the invitation for my regular cervical screening, I received my first abnormal result. The re-test showed mild changes to the cells of my cervix and so I was referred to the hospital's colposcopy clinic for a biopsy.
First thing I did? Worry myself stupid! Seeing the words like dyskaryosis and colposcopy next to your name is scary. I did what any of us would do when we're alone and worried about something... I googled it! In between the forum posts by women with horror stories about their colposcopy and subsequent treatments, I did, however, find a calm, clear and easy to understand website that told me everything I needed to know and put my fears into perspective. It was the Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust website, the only UK charity dedicated to women and their families affected by cervical cancer and cervical abnormalities. Each year in the UK, over 3000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and around 300,000 women are told they may have some form of cervical abnormality.
I revisited the site several times before my first colposcopy. The talk of dyes in your cervix, cameras and biopsies, are enough to make any woman keep her legs crossed! Above everything though, I was embarrassed and nervous. Do you know what? It wasn't that bad. It was like a longer-lasting smear test; uncomfortable, not painful. The consultant said they would wait for the results before deciding on treatment, but he did mention and explain a virus called human papillomavirus (HPV).
Reading the Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust website, I learned that cervical cancer, in 99.7% of cases, is caused by persistent infection with HPV. It's a very common virus transmitted through skin to skin contact in the genital area. Around four out of five people (80%) will be infected with HPV at some point in their lives. However, it is very important to mention that for the majority of women, this will not result in cervical cancer.
I continued to receive abnormal smear and biopsy results for two years. Visits to the hospital, every three-six months, were stressful and sometimes more painful. My body clearly wasn't rectifying the problem by itself, so I received treatment to destroy the cells. It was done under local anaesthetic; again, it was uncomfortable, but not painful. After the procedure I was sore and it felt like having 'period pain and cramps'. I had something similar to a four week long 'light period' and it took about six weeks for everything to start feeling normal 'down there'!
I was invited back, six months later, for a smear test and an HPV test, to see if I had contracted high-risk HPV. I needed a normal smear result and a negative result to high risk HPV to be discharged from the hospital and return to the normal three year screening programme. Fortunately I got a negative result - which in this case was very positive result indeed!
If I hadn't had regular smear tests, I would've been walking around with abnormal cells, being none the wiser. In years to come, those pre-cancerous cells could have become something far worse. Last week was Cervical Cancer Awareness Week (19-25 January 2014). Cervical screenings save 5,000 lives a year, yet one in five women who are eligible for screening don't attend and for young women aged 25-29 this rises to one in three.
Back to this bike ride then...
In May, I shall be smothering my undercarriage in Vaseline and raising money for Jo's Trust to say thank you for the support they gave me. Since my experience, I'm actively encouraging women, straight or gay, to have regular smears, to get clued up about the facts of HPV and for young girls to find out more about the vaccine available to them. Cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women aged 35 and under. Let's not forget that startling fact. But let's also not forget that the information, support and, most importantly, the prevention available to all women right now, can start to have a positive impact on this statistic.
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