Signs of cervical cancer: How I knew I had symptoms
AND a cancer survivor who experienced severe vaginal bleeding who felt like “someone just popped a bubble” before undergoing grueling treatment to remove a large vascular tumor in her cervix wants to give a positive message to other women that the diagnosis is cervical cancer it is not “death penalty”.
Joanne Painter, who lives in Northampton, was diagnosed with stage 2 cervical cancer when she was 38 after noticing an unusual vaginal discharge and then experiencing abnormal, heavy bleeding for several months.
The mother-of-two, who is the founder and director of Natural Green Cemetery and a humanist funeral celebrant, said the bleeding was so heavy that at times it felt like “someone had just popped a balloon or turned a tap”.
The now 43-year-old said doctors repeatedly told her they weren’t concerned and initially misdiagnosed her with cervical ectropion – when cells from the inner cervical canal grow on the outside of the cervix – but Joanne knew her symptoms should not can be ignored.
After seeking a diagnosis in February 2018, Joanne received the news she had cervical cancer and said she was “stunned” – but now, as a survivor looking back on the past five years, Joanne wants to raise awareness of the importance of early detection and “staying positive”.
“You know your body better than anyone else and if something isn’t right don’t be fooled by a practitioner or a doctor or anyone who says ‘oh it’s fine’…go ahead and get your checkups and vaccinations if you can and don’t take no for an answer,” Joanne said.
“Obviously, the sooner you get a diagnosis, the better your chances are.”
Cervical cancer is a cancer found anywhere in the cervix – the opening between the vagina and the womb – and, according to the charity Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, currently kills two women in the UK every day.
Cervical screening, known as a smear test, checks the health of the cervix and is a test that helps prevent cancer, but in Joanne’s case, the results of her previous smear tests were negative before diagnosis.
After noticing an unusual discharge at the age of 38, which she described as “very watery”, Joanne contacted her GP to make an appointment.
She said the doctor “wasn’t too concerned at all,” but just a few days later, she started experiencing vaginal bleeding, which got progressively worse.
At first Joanne likened the bleeding to a “light period” and was initially diagnosed with cervical ectropion, but when she started bleeding through sanitary napkins to her clothes and sometimes spending up to an hour on the toilet, she knew “this is not right”.
It became so serious that, while going to the theater with friends, she said she “felt a ‘pop’ and blood gushed down (her) legs”.
On another occasion, during a trip to Australiashe bled “for almost the entire 24-hour flight” and it “reached the plane seat”.
Joanne said: “The spotting became really heavy bleeding; I could sit on the toilet for 20 minutes at a time and it was like someone had just popped a balloon or turned on a faucet and everything just dripped dripped dripped.
“That’s when I started thinking, ‘oh, this doesn’t look good’, and that’s when I felt really, really tired.
“I had a four-year-old and a seven-year-old, and I was working full-time, so I put the tiredness down to that alone…(but) obviously I was losing a lot of blood, so that brought me back to my doctor.”
Joanne was referred to a genealogist at Northampton General Hospital, but husband Neil, 48, a builder, had taken her to hospital earlier after she bled through her clothes again while at dinner.
She said doctors initially dismissed her symptoms again, but after staying overnight to try to stop the bleeding, Joanne was told by a gynecologist the next morning: “I’m really sorry, this doesn’t look good.”
She was informed that she has cervical cancer and, after a biopsy was taken and she underwent various tests and MRIshe was found to have a 6cm vascular tumor in her cervix, the removal of which would require medical treatment rather than surgery.
“I was in complete and utter disbelief, to be honest… I remember just sitting there, completely speechless,” Joanne said.
“I wasn’t particularly upset, I think it was just like, is this really happening?
“Then, within about half an hour, a Macmillan the nurse just appeared at the foot of my bed and introduced herself, and I think that was the moment it sunk in – the reality, oh my GodI actually have a Macmillan nurse sitting at the end of my bed, that’s not good news.”
Joanne explained that the news was even harder to hear because she had lost her father to cancer nine years earlier, but despite her fears, she knew she had to stay positive.
“I was sitting there thinking, my dad died of cancer, now they’re telling me I potentially have cancer, and I have a four-year-old and a seven-year-old, and I have to go through this because I can’t not be there for my kids,” Joanne explained.
“So very quickly I was overcome by this overwhelming need to survive.”
Joanne believes her positive mindset was fundamental in helping her get through the treatment, which included six weeks of chemoradiation followed by three weeks of brachytherapy – a type of internal radiation therapy, which Joanne said left her with “ black and baked”.
The mum-of-two explained that she didn’t lose her hair due to the type of chemotherapy she underwent but sometimes felt “terrible”.
She said she experienced severe exhaustion, chronic diarrhea and felt “a bit hungover, like (she) drank 20 shots of tequila”, and although she was sometimes “terrified”, she knew she had to work through the challenges she faced, especially for your children.
“You can’t dwell on it, you just have to get on with it,” Joanne said.
“You never want (your kids) to see you upset and you never want them to think you’re that bad, so you just snap…
“I never felt I needed any counseling, I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me; I didn’t want to ever be defined as ‘Jo who had cancer,’ so I was like, just get on with it, get through it, it’s not that bad.”
Three months after the treatment ended, Joanne returned to hospital for a check-up and was given the “wonderful” news that the tumor had disappeared.
Although Joanne said it took a “long time to recover” and described the consequences of her treatments, such as entering menopause, as a “train wreck”, she emphasized the importance of a good support network, exercise and “being good to yourself” during rehab.
Joanne also “really believes in the law of attraction and putting it out there to the universe,” and said writing affirmations has helped tremendously.
“These things take time, so people probably just need to know that (they’re) not going to recover and feel absolutely 100% afterwards and life will go back to normal,” she said.
“I think there is a bit of life adjustment and acceptance of the new self; this is the ‘new me’ now and I’m different from who I was before, but that’s not a bad thing, it’s just a little bit different.”
Joanne has regular check-ups every few months and although she has had “a few ups and downs over the years”, she wants to encourage other women who may have been diagnosed with cervical cancer to “try not to go down that tunnel of fear of this being a death sentence”, adding: “You have everything to live for.”
Cervical Cancer Prevention Week runs from 23-29 January and Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust is launching its biggest ever campaign: #WeCanEnd Cervical Cancer, to work towards the day cervical cancer is a thing of the past.
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