Cervical screening: I'm grateful to be here - many people are not as lucky

Screening is the first line of defence against cervical cancer.  Here, two women talk about how it helped save their lives 
Cervical screening: I'm grateful to be here - many people are not as lucky

Ingrid Gleeson at her home in Malahide. Photograph: Moya Nolan

THE first anniversary of Vicky Phelan’s death on Tuesday, November 14, is a timely reminder if cervical cancer is detected and treated early, the prognosis can be positive.

This is why the HSE encourages women to avail of free cervical screening tests.

Dublin woman Ingrid Gleeson, who works in marketing and communications, can attest to the importance of the cervical screening programme after experiencing worrying symptoms in 2017.

“I first noticed symptoms not long after giving birth — my period didn’t settle down and I was very tired,” she says.

“Then I put my back out, which wasn’t unusual for me. It continued to bother me for a year and I kept putting it down to having just had a baby.”

In October 2018, she contacted her GP, who suggested she have a smear and some blood tests.

“The smear test was excruciating as the nurse, unknowingly, had scratched the tumour.

“I was booked in for a follow-up colposcopy, during which a lump was discovered. They took a biopsy and when I woke up, I was told that I had early-stage cervical cancer.”

Shortly after being diagnosed, the 45-year-old, who is married to Rory and has one daughter, began treatment.

“I had staging scans, PET scans, measurements, and tattoos for radiation, along with meetings with various consultants and the chemo team,” she says.

“It was a very hard time, but you have to keep going.”

Her treatment began on December 27 and consisted of radiation, chemotherapy, and brachytherapy or internal radiation.

“It was absolutely exhausting and I needed constant help with my daughter. I also had side effects, which included bowel issues, tinnitus, and I went into early menopause.”

She continues to deal with these side effects, but says she is “grateful” to be cancer-free.

“Cancer has changed me and I have a lot more gratitude for the little things,” she says.

“But I have to keep on top of my mental health, which I never had to do before.

“I am extremely grateful to be here — many people are not as lucky.”

Teresa Murray near her home in Kimmage, Co Dublin. Photograph: Moya Nolan
Teresa Murray near her home in Kimmage, Co Dublin. Photograph: Moya Nolan

Practice what I preached

Teresa Murray, 53, credits a routine smear test for saving her from developing cervical cancer.

“I had a smear when I turned 30 and then had my first child, and two years later had my second, so with all the gynaecological foothering about, it never struck me that anything might be going on down there unnoticed,” she says.

“It was only when I heard myself talking about how lucky we were to have CervicalCheck, that I realised I wasn’t signed up to it.

“So although completely asymptomatic, I decided to practice what I was preaching and register.”

The results of her smear came back - she had late-stage pre-cancerous cells, which would need to be excised. She was 40 at the time.

“I had an LLETZ treatment which, while not fun, wasn’t painful and I was very shaky afterwards,” she says.

“I’d had a shock encounter with cancer and a very intimately invasive procedure, so I needed headspace to myself to process what had just happened, as LLETZ takes time to recover from.”

The Dublin woman, who is married to Gary and has two daughters, found support from women online who had also been through a similar treatment.

She shared her story “widely” to encourage more women to attend routine smear tests and seek advice if they have any concerns.

“Two of my friends made their CervicalCheck appointments just because of my story and were also caught with pre-cancerous cells, even though neither had typical symptoms,” she says.

“A lot is lacking in Ireland in terms of healthcare, particularly for women, but CervicalCheck is a good thing and everyone who qualifies should avail of this service — it could save your life, as it did mine.”

Laura Brennan, CervicalCheck campaigner. Pic: Marc O’Sullivan
Laura Brennan, CervicalCheck campaigner. Pic: Marc O’Sullivan

HPV vaccine

Clare woman Laura Brennan, who died at 26 from cervical cancer in 2019, advocated strongly for the HPV vaccine in the final year of her life.

Her determination to prevent others from suffering the same fate has encouraged thousands of young people to get vaccinated.

Earlier this year, the HSE launched The Laura Brennan HPV Catch-up Vaccination Programme, offering a free jab to those eligible for the vaccine as part of the school immunisation programme, but did not avail of it at that time.

“We already know that HPV vaccine gives protection from cervical cancer,” says Dr Lucy Jessop, lead at the National Immunisation Office.

“But it is wonderful to now have data from Ireland for the first time, showing protection of Irish women from high-grade cervical abnormalities, since the introduction of the HPV vaccine programme here in 2010.

“I would encourage young men and women who have not yet been vaccinated, but are eligible to make an appointment to receive the free vaccine.”

Dr. Sarah Fitzgibbon, Primary Care Clinical Advisor with CervicalCheck. Pic: Denis Minihane.
Dr. Sarah Fitzgibbon, Primary Care Clinical Advisor with CervicalCheck. Pic: Denis Minihane.

CervicalCheck GP advisor Dr Sarah Fitzgibbon says it is essential to avail of screening and vaccination, for those who are eligible and to be aware of any abnormalities.

“HPV cervical screening tests for the presence of the virus in your body,” she says.

“If you don’t have the virus, it is very unlikely that cervical cancer will develop, and you will be called again for screening in either three or five years, depending on your age. However, if HPV is found, your sample will be checked for abnormal cells.”

It’s crucial to remember that screening will detect many but not all cases of abnormal cells or pre-cancers, she says.

“This is why it is so important for women to continue to look out for symptoms of cervical cancer — abnormal bleeding, pain in the abdomen and lower back — even if they’ve had a negative screening test, and contact their GP.”

By combining screening, vaccination, and access to treatment, says Fitzgibbon, “we now have a pathway to cervical cancer elimination, which means making cervical cancer a rare disease.

“It is important that boys, girls, and their parents are supported to make an informed choice regarding the HPV vaccine, and that people of screening age are supported with information.”

  • For more information and to book an appointment go to www.hpv.ie

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