A Falmouth woman is urging others to take up their smear tests and HPV injections as she recovers from life-saving treatment for cervical cancer.
Louise Blenkinsop, 31, was told in January 2013 that she had cervical cancer after she suffered a heavy bleed while taking a break from the contraceptive pill. Louise says she was ignorant of the risks or the importance of screening and wants to make sure no one else goes through what she has.
Louise says: “It all started with a random conversation with my mum about having a break from the pill. I’d been on it for years so decided to take a month off. As a result of that, I ended up having horrendous bleeding, fainting and anaemia, which at the time everyone put down to the pill withdrawal. My GP asked me to come back after it had settled down so she could check there was nothing else going on. If it hadn’t been for that conversation with my mum and the GP asking me to go back, I’m not sure I would be here now.”
With a self-confessed hate of doctors surgeries, Louise enjoyed a trouble free Christmas and New Year and almost forgot about it. She said: “It just niggled at me and so I made the appointment to go back and I am so grateful I did get it checked.”
After an examination by the GP Louise was referred to the Colposcopy Clinic at the Royal Cornwall Hospital in Truro and within a few days was being seen by Mr Tito Lopes, lead consultant gynaecological oncologist.
Louise said: “It was such a whirlwind. I’d gone on my own to the appointment. I think I knew at the time it wasn’t right and my gut instinct told me I was going to get bad news but I just thought ‘get on with it then’ and went alone. Mr Lopes told me it was cancer.”
Louise underwent a biopsy which triggered more bleeding and her mum arrived at the hospital. “My mum arrived and when you have a cancer diagnosis it’s like the cancer SAS coming in. The nurses Emma and Zoe whisk you off into another room and make sure you are ok and give you information. It was overwhelming.”
Within two weeks Louise had had scans and had started treatment which included chemotherapy, radiotherapy and then was sent to Derriford Hospital in Plymouth for Brachytherapy.
“The treatment wasn’t nice. I did suffer a lot of side effects, skin complaints with the radiotherapy and the chemo made me really tired. The brachytherapy was a complete nightmare, really awful but the staff are so attentive it makes it slightly more bearable. Everything was finished by the end of March and then it becomes a waiting game until you have your PET scan.”
On July 3, Louise received a call from one of the radiographers who had treated her at Derriford to tell her the PET scan was clear, she was cancer free.
“It was then that I found out how bad it had been. I had never known the staging of my cancer, I’d not asked, it was bad enough that I was ill. But when I got the official documentation it showed I had had Stage 3b cervical cancer. My tumour had been seven and a half centimetres. That was quite scary.”
Louise is still having regular checks but is keen to make sure her experience helps others.
“Before all this I didn’t understand the importance of smear tests. I didn’t have any symptoms but I could have had the cancer for years. I just wish I could go back and do it differently. It is so important to get checked.
“It was six months of my life from diagnosis to all clear but that has completely changed the rest of my life. I had to give up my job because it became too much for me physically and I will never be a mother.”
Louise says she has made a point of being public about her situation. “So many people know my most personal details now but it’s been so important for them to know what I have had to deal with. I have a younger sister and she went and had her test right away, friends have too.”
Louise says the lack of importance given to gynaecology health education has to change both at school and at home. “At school we had the odd sexual health lesson but nothing about these conditions. Parents also need to take a responsibility in educating their children. A 13 year old or 16 year old will do what they do, they need to understand the risk and get protected. It’s not promoting promiscuity to get your child vaccinated against HPV, its promoting health awareness.”
She also finds it unbelievable that Cornwall has one of the lowest uptakes of the HPV injection. “It’s bonkers that more teenage girls aren’t taking up that option. I would challenge any mother to have a conversation with me about it. They have a duty of care to their children. I can’t have children now because of this. Do you want your children to be in the same situation as me? It’s not like I’m old, I still have a lot of my life left. I cannot stress enough the trauma of the treatment and illness. I’m young and this happened. I’m making the best of a bad situation but if I could have the chance to not have had this, I’d give anything to have been able to have that HPV injection.”
HPV or the Human Papilloma Virus is responsible for causing cervical cancer.
Louise said: “I hadn’t heard of HPV before. I knew nothing about anything until January 4, 2013. I would probably never have been aware if this hadn’t happened to me. If I had known more about HPV and smears and what triggers it, I would have been a lot more conscientious.”
Louise says she is the walking advertisement for why it’s important to be smart about HPV and the smear tests. “I’m still here but there are life-long things I have to deal with. I will never be the old me again. I have a new normal now.”
Louise says it has been a life changing experience. “People who have known me for years see the changes. I have a new job as PANTS Operational Manager, I am probably the healthiest I have ever been, I exercise every day. I just look after myself more because it is all about management now and making sure I stay cancer free. I take each day as it comes and just march on.”
Louise says it is a weird situation to be in. “It is horrible and it does affect you. I have a constant ache on a daily basis. Before this I’d planned on travelling but had to cancel that. I’d had a physical job as a hotel manager but couldn’t keep it up. Then there are the reactions of others. There are people around me who haven’t coped with it as well as I did. It was difficult for my mum and dad – I don’t think they will ever be the same. No parent wants to think about the possibility of losing their child. The worry always surfaces when it is time to go for my cancer checks but I have to do it.”
Louise says she couldn’t wait for New Year’s Eve to come around so she could close the door on 2013. “I’m hoping I always remain cancer free. I’m looking forward to the future and my role at Pants is a chance to give something back and make a real difference. I’m just so glad I made all those calls early on and did what I had to do.
“The HPV injection and smear test are intrusive and invasive but that ten minute smear and two minute injection might just be the 12 minutes that save your life.”
Louise is not alone in missing smear tests. A large proportion of women in the 25 to 35 age group are still not coming forward to take up their smear tests.
Mr Lopes said: “Cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women aged under 35 in the UK and its incidence is increasing. It is worrying that the latest data shows almost half of Cornwall’s teenager girls have not completed the full course of HPV vaccine, which protects against cervical cancer.
“The HPV vaccines do not contain any natural virus so there is no risk of developing HPV from the vaccine. It will take several years to see the benefits of the vaccines but early data from around the world shows reductions in women developing abnormal smears and requiring treatment for potential pre-cancer changes.”
As well as cervical cancer, HPV has been known to be responsible for vulval, vaginal, penile and anal cancers but in recent years its role in cancers of the mouth and throat has become apparent with up to a third of these cancers being HPV related. As a result of these findings and the marked benefit shown in relation to genital warts there is mounting pressure to offer the vaccine for boys as well.
It is anticipated that from 2015 the vaccination programme in Cornwall will be moved to a school-based system, similar to most areas in England, to try and increase the level of uptake.
Mr Lopes says: “For now it’s important that parents recognise the safety and marked benefits of the HPV vaccine not only for cervical cancer, but reducing the incidence of abnormal smears and potential pre-cancer changes, genital warts and preventing other HPV related cancers.”