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19 August 2011

High price of cervical cancer

'Nicki' beat cervical cancer, one of South Africa's biggest cancer killers. This is her story…

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'Nicki' beat cervical cancer, one of South Africa's biggest cancer killers. This is her story...

Some years back, a young woman went to a perfectly normal event: her close friend's baby shower. After an afternoon of laughing and chatting and watching the beaming, heavily pregnant woman open her presents, Nicki drove home. "And on the way, I cried and cried and cried."

At 32, Nicki knew she would never be able to have a child of her own. She had just undergone a hysterectomy due to cervical cancer; her womb had been removed to save her life, but the price she paid was high indeed.

"For a few months I'd been going to my gynae and saying to her, something's not right," Nicki says. She was suffering from a textbook case of cervical cancer symptoms: a thick, mucus discharge, which had turned into bleeding which came and went, but got steadily worse. "There was no pain," says Nicki. But the symptoms worried her.

Nicki had been responsible. She'd had regular Pap smears (in which a doctor takes a swab of cells from the cervix and checks for unusual cells which might indicate changes that lead to cancer). Her gynaecologist had told her there were some odd cells, and she'd taken a cone biopsy, which involves the removal of a cone-shaped section of flesh from the cervix and cervical wall, which is then tested for cancer.

Shortly thereafter Nicki decided to see a second doctor who happened to be in partnership with one of the top experts in the field of cervical cancer. "It was 16 December, so I didn't think I'd get an appointment, but as luck would have it, I did. While he was examining me, he consulted his partner, so I had the benefit of a third, expert opinion too!

"They managed to catch the cervical cancer in time: after the hysterectomy, I didn't have to have any further treatment, although they monitored me very carefully for a long time, and, of course, I still have regular check-ups to this day."

No babies

The price paid was high - not too high for a long and healthy life, of course, but high enough. "At the time, I was involved with a long-term boyfriend - we'd been together for seven years," she remembers. "When I told him about the hysterectomy, he burst into tears. Then he left me. He couldn't cope with the fact that I wouldn't be able to have children."

Nicki's strong circle of supportive friends and family saw her through the operation and recovery, and her mother was a nursing sister, so she had expert care during her convalescence. Today Nicki is in a good, long-term relationship with a man who already has a child.

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"Shortly after my operation a colleague confided in me that she had been experiencing the same kind of bleeding for some time. I told her to see a doctor immediately – however, she had left it too late. A few months later I heard the news that she had died…"

Over the years, Nicki has chatted to women informally about her experience. Recently, she's been asked to give some talks about cervical cancer, and they were, she says, quite cathartic. Nicki was reminded quite painfully of the stigma that's become attached to cervical cancer - because it can be caused by the human papillomavirus, which is sexually transmitted, cervical cancer may be more likely when a woman has had a number of sexual encounters. But this, as Nicki points out, is not necessarily the case: "I had had limited experience, and was in a seven-year relationship at the time."

Because cervical cancer is horrifyingly common in South Africa, Nicki would like to get the message across to every woman: have Pap smears done regularly, insist on getting the results, and if you do experience worrying symptoms, see a doctor immediately. And get a second - or third - opinion if you're not satisfied with the first.
- (Health24, March 2008)

Read more:
Cervical cancer Centre
HPV Centre

- Last updated: August 2011

 
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