A woman who suspected she had endometriosis discovered after six months of symptoms that she had cervical cancer.
Sarah Carey, 40, experienced stomach cramps and heavy bleeding after intercourse and suspected she had endometriosis – a long-term condition in which tissue similar to the lining of the womb grows in other places, such as the ovaries and fallopian tubes, causing pelvic pain and severe pain during and after sex.
Carey hadn’t had a Pap smear — a medical screening that checks the health of your cervix — in seven years. “I avoided it because I had given birth to twins six years earlier and I was tearing up with third-degree tears,” she shared. The independent. “The pain and everything I went through with having the twins just put me off (getting a Pap smear) and just scared me.”
As Cervical Cancer Prevention Week is celebrated this week (Jan. 23), charities such as Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust are encouraging people to book a Pap smear if they’re late for a screening. During a Pap smear, a nurse or doctor inserts a speculum (a tube-shaped device) into the patient’s vagina. The nurse will open the speculum so they can view the cervix and take a small sample of the cells.
Carey suffered from bleeding and abdominal pain for six months until her now-husband suggested she make a doctor’s appointment. She was booked for a Pap smear a week later because she was late for a screening.
“Two weeks after the screening I received a letter that there were abnormal cells. The doctor called me and said, ‘Oh, it’s nothing to worry about. A lot of women get it’, which I know.
After the doctors took a biopsy of her cervix, Carey was asked to come to the hospital immediately.
“The hospital called me three days before Christmas. They called my work and said, “You have to come to the hospital today and take someone with you.” So I immediately knew something was wrong.”
Carey was diagnosed with stage 2B cervical cancer in 2018, meaning the cancer had spread to the tissues around the cervix. She then underwent 11 weeks of radiotherapy every day Monday through Friday, followed by 11 weeks of chemotherapy every Monday. She then received brachytherapy three times.
“Before starting treatment, I had surgery to remove my ovaries so I wouldn’t go into early menopause,” she said.
She continued, “I lost so much weight; I was in a wheelchair. I expected it to be bad, but maybe not this bad.”
After her treatment cycle was complete, Carey had to visit the hospital every six months for scans, blood work and internal tests.
Carey’s treatment was successful – she calls herself “lucky” – and in a year she will be officially cancer-free.
“Right now I’m cancer-free, but (the doctor) will sign me off in a year,” she said. Carey, who returned to work six months after finishing her treatment, is still experiencing complications she says were caused by the radiation therapy. “I had to use dilators where they did the radiotherapy because it sort of shrinks (the vagina).”
Carey says the radiation therapy also affected her gut and she still experiences IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) today.
Last month, data from the NHS showed smear numbers have fallen to an all-time low in the wake of the pandemic. Only 69.9 percent of eligible women ages 25 to 64 took up the offer of free cervical screening last year, meaning take-up is now at its lowest level in a decade.
Pap smears are free and take less than five minutes to complete, but the procedure has a reputation for being painful and invasive.
Carey is keen to encourage women to keep up with their regular screenings. “I think a lot of women find Pap smears invasive and that’s why they avoid it,” she said. “Even though I was only uncomfortable for a few minutes, it’s a lot easier to go (and get a cervical screening) than having to go through a treatment and all of its after-effects.”