Most talk about cervical cancer will tend to revolve around the numbers. Around how 90 per cent of those who die from the disease have not had regular pap tests, around how 43 per cent of Australian women are not up-to-date with their cervical screening.
But behind these numbers are women. Women like Cassandra, Michelle and Maxine, three ordinary people who found themselves part of a statistic. Three ordinary people who are determined to ensure that others don’t join them.
Cassandra, 33, teacher.
"Like many women, I put off my pap smear for far too long – I lacked knowledge on why this was important, and even when I was told I had abnormal cells at the age of 17, I didn’t know what this meant. Years later, at the age of 26, I was diagnosed with cervical cancer and even then I didn’t really understand the gravity of the situation. I had previously had surgeries for abnormal cells, and simply thought this was the same thing. My now partner, but then friend, forced me to take this seriously and helped me understand the magnitude of what was happening – I think this is what brought us together.
"Life has changed so much since I had my treatment. While I’m lucky to be cancer-free, I certainly wish I knew then what I know now. I suffered nerve damage as a result of one of my surgeries, and it’s a life-long and painful thing I need to endure daily, which could have been prevented had I not put off my pap smears.
"Cervical cancer is one of the few preventable cancers if treated early. I’m frustrated that my lack of maturity led to this, but I’m using it as an opportunity to have these conversations and to encourage women of all ages to do the same. Australian Cervical Cancer Foundation’s education program is vital, and I want to inspire women to open up with someone they trust and to know their body. For women my age now, they should talk to their children – a 15 minute pap-smear or a conversation with a friend could change your life."
Michelle, 44, entrepreneur and fitness instructor.
"It’s been ten years since my diagnosis, and I am pleased to say I am living a great life. I’m more confident and focused on my inner-self, but it hasn’t always been this way - and it took a long time to get to this place.
"It all started over a glass of wine with a friend, when I admitted I hadn’t had a pap smear in seven years, about the same time frame since my son was born. She encouraged me to go and I conceded, which subsequently resulted in me requiring a minor procedure to remove abnormal cells. I asked the gynaecologist whether I had cancer - which she told me no I did not. As you can imagine, I was in shock when I received a call just two days after the surgery to advise I had cervical cancer and needed a radical hysterectomy.
"I called my husband and was completely numb, asking him to take my son out for dinner that night after work and to not come home until it was late. I knew I couldn’t face my little boy who was so young at the time.
"I had stage two cervical cancer, with a large tumour – but I was one of the lucky ones as my tumour and lymph nodes were removed with no need for further treatment. I’m now on a mission to make all women aware of the importance of regular screening tests. You can even set up the ACCF pap test reminder on your phone to make sure it doesn’t fall off your radar. Let’s not have any more children growing up without their mothers, because if caught early, it can be treated."
Maxine, 58, retired.
"The whole ordeal started about four years ago, when I assumed I was going through menopause – with my symptoms reflecting this.
"While I hadn’t had a pap test in about ten years (life was busy!) the doctor suggested I have one to be sure. To my shock, the results came back as cervical cancer. I was living in the country and the closest doctor was 25km away, so when I was asked to head in for an urgent appointment that day, I knew it wasn’t going to be good, but I didn’t expect this.
"I took my husband and my four year-old grandson with me to the appointment, and after, we stood on the footpath and cried. It was just before Christmas and that entire festive period was glum. In fact, I think it took us a few years until we laughed again. I’ve had a hysterectomy, laser surgery and brachytherapy and lots of complications – in fact, I only just got the all-clear recently even though I was diagnosed in 2013.
"It affected everyone around us for quite a long time – and I think people need to remember this. While life gets away and it can be easy to delay a pap smear, it’s important to know your body and know when something isn’t right. Resources such as the ACCF website can provide useful information, and so can your doctor. It’s vital to get a pap smear regularly regardless of your age, even if you have had a hysterectomy.
"Its sounds so simple, but will save your life."
From December 1st, the Cervical Screening Program in Australia is changing, with the Australian Cervical Cancer Foundation calling on women to chat to their GPs about how the changes to the Cervical Screening Program will affect them.
To find out how to stay ‘up to date’ and get more information on cervical cancer, or to support the work of the Australian Cervical Cancer Foundation please visit www.accf.org.au