My initial diagnosis of cervical cancer came almost too late. I undertook a routine pap smear in 1996 in my then home in New Zealand. When the results came back showing abnormal cells, this wasn’t followed up as it should have been by the specialist I saw.
Were it not for my persistence in seeking another pap smear and a second opinion, my life would have most certainly ended there. As it was, the abnormal cells were high-grade precancerous cells (CIN3) and a tumour had developed in my cervix. When I was diagnosed with the cervical cancer, I knew nothing about it. I didn’t even know what or where my cervix was. This was a crucial lesson for me, and I hope for other women – if you are still not happy with how you are feeling – keep hunting, keep searching. CONSTANTLY ask questions.
Surgery to remove the tumour was done via a radical hysterectomy. Though I was not married at the time, my sudden inability to have children left me shattered. Being told I couldn’t have kids felt like the walls were crushing me. The only saving grace was that I got to keep my ovaries.
I was determined to have children by other means. Together with my husband John (who had proposed when he found out I had cancer and we married in October 1998), we decided to explore surrogacy as an option now that the cervical cancer was behind us. Tragically for us, in 1998 the cancer had come back. What was shocking about it was the way it had come back. I had undergone a laparoscopy years earlier to investigate pelvic pain. It was this procedure that had transferred a cancerous cell from my cervix to my stomach muscle. It was extremely rare I was told. I was immediately operated on to remove the tumour and was set on a path of intense radiotherapy and chemotherapy. I was told that my chance of survival was 50%. The treatment sent me into early menopause, and although my ovaries were still there and nicely tucked away under my rib cage (the gynaecological oncologist moved them to the rib cage to protect them from the radiotherapy), they were no longer working.
John and I attempted surrogacy with my sister and a friend (using my sister’s eggs and friend’s womb). We tried five times but each attempt was unsuccessful. It was two years of trying to have a family.
Three years after going into early menopause, the most extraordinary thing happened to me. In a medical first, my ovaries, like a rusty old lawnmower, started to work again. Miraculously, I was ovulating. The condition of my eggs was not the best (not surprising given the amount of battering my body had received) but those ovaries were releasing eggs. It was surreal, but it meant another chance at the family we desperately wanted. Via a surrogacy arrangement in the USA, we were able to find a surrogate for our embryos (which were fertilised in Australia). The second attempt resulted in the pregnancy of identical twin boys – Joshua Francis and Lucas Kristopher.
Today my family is settled into an ordinary yet crazy life that comes with having kids in school. Some days I feel invincible, while on others I feel vulnerable. I’ve never lost what I call the ‘cancer hangover’. I worry constantly about dying young.
While it is a bad luck story, it is a story of hope, especially for women who are unable to have children as a result of cancer treatments. There are other avenues, the dream of being a mum is not over. Explore your options.
My advice to women is to avoid suffering the consequences of not looking after yourself (and I don’t mean appearances). We worry too much about the exterior and don’t bother with the rest. Get a routine pap smear, get a second opinion if you’re still not feeling right, be persistent and be aware. Another piece of advice is to not forget to nurture your partners and husbands as they are suffering alongside you if you are unwell or so unfortunate to be diagnosed with cancer.
The AGCF website provides vital information about the actual cancer, the relevant anatomy, prevention (ie, getting pap smears), early detection, treatment, clinical trials and the crucial research being done in this space. I really wish that this information had been so readily available when I was going through my experience with cervical cancer.