With the new day comes new strength and new thoughts

- Eleanor Roosevelt

Michelle O’Leary

Michelle was a busy Mum of two, fit, healthy and just 36 when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Read her full story below.

In November 2019 I start spot bleeding after sex, it wasn’t much so I really didn’t think anything of it. I didn’t know anything about the symptoms of cervical cancer back then so it being a possibility never even entered my head. I had been called for my smear test about a year before but as I was a busy full time working mam I had put it off. I was working 60/70 hours a week and rushing home in the evenings to bring the kids training and do homework, weekends were filled with housework and matches. I just didn’t have the time for a smear test and if I’m honest it really wasn’t a priority for me. It is now something I will forever regret.

Between November and February I’d been experiencing a lot of pain in my leg, to the point where I was walking with a limp. On the 5th February 2020, I could barely put any weight on my leg and had a very heavy bleed which given that I’d only finished my period the week before caused me concern. I booked in to see my GP just to have it looked at as I was due to fly out to Canada the following week with work and didn’t want any medical emergency whilst there. My GP examined me and told me to make my way to the A&E in the Coombe immediately, I’ll never forget her words ‘don’t even stop for a coffee, go straight there’. I went back to work and told my boss what the GP had said and made my way straight to the Coombe ringing my very surprised husband on the way. My husband wasn’t aware what had been going on as I really wasn’t too concerned about it so hadn’t told him. He agreed to meet me in the Coombe. I was examined again at the Coombe and an emergency colposcopy was arranged for the following week. The possibility of it being cervical cancer still didn’t hit home as I was 36 and healthy and sure that stuff only happened to other people right?

At my colposcopy the nurse explained the different abnormalities, CIN1, 2 and 3 beforehand and the treatments for same. Once she examined me she turned the cameras away from me and called in the consultant, this wasn’t good.  The consultant explained that he was going to take a biopsy. Afterwards there was no further talk about the different CINs and I was told I would have the results of the biopsy within 7 days. It was then I start thinking that cervical cancer was a possibility. When I received a phone call a couple of days later asking me to come in to meet the consultant, I knew it wasn’t going to be good news.

On the 26th February, three weeks to the day that I first went to my GP I was diagnosed with cervical cancer. My first thought was how was I going to tell my kids. I immediately felt an overwhelming sense of guilt that I could’ve prevented the heartache that my husband, parents and loved ones were going through if I’d just kept up to date with my smear tests.

A week later on the 3rd March I went in for further biopsies under general anaesthetic. On the 10th March, I woke up and was bleeding so heavily that I actually struggled to stand up, my consultant told me to go straight to A&E where he would meet me. It took five days and a blood transfusion to get the bleeding under control. Whilst I was in hospital they were able to do the CT and PET scans which would determine my treatment. The country had just been put into the first lockdown when I was in hospital, schools were closed and all visitors banned from the hospital so the five days I spent there were very lonely and terrifying.

On the 31st March 2020, I underwent a radical hysterectomy removing my womb, uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, cervix, part of my vagina and several lymph nodes. I immediately went into surgical menopause at the age of 36 years old. I spent a week in hospital and thanks to coronavirus I was totally alone, there were no other patients in the bed beside me to chat to, to help pass the long hours. There were no visitors with fresh clothes or yummy food and magazines. At what was probably the darkest days of my life I was totally isolated and alone, just me and my thoughts. It was tough. Whilst I fully recognise that I am so lucky to already have two amazing children, it still hurt greatly that my choice to add to our family was now gone forever. My body was now that of a scarred menopausal woman and no longer a 36 year old in the prime of her life.

The histology of the hysterectomy showed that the cancer had spread into localised blood cells and although I was assured that they had removed all of the cancer cells it was decided that I would also undergo 25 sessions of radiotherapy as an added assurance to prevent recurrence. The radiotherapy was tough going particularly during a global pandemic when I was totally alone, there were no support groups or friendly chats with other people going through the same thing in the waiting rooms. My friends and family could only support me, my husband and young kids via technology, there were no home visits, hugs or days out to distract the kids. My husband had the full responsibility of supporting me and the kids through everything. It was a hell of a lot to ask from him but he was amazing. It was incredibly tough on him watching his wife going through the same disease that had robbed him of his mother only ten years previously whilst trying to maintain some normality for the kids amidst a global pandemic.

I am thankfully now classified as ‘no evidence of disease’. I am still suffering from side effects of the treatment six months on, the fatigue caused by the radiation is still debilitating some days. I have problems with my bowels which are being investigated. I suffer from sore joints and walk like a person triple my age first thing in the morning. Having to sit down and tell my 11 and 10 year old that their mammy had cancer is a conversation that will forever haunt me and is not something any parent ever wants to do. I think I will forever worry about having a recurrence and not being around to see the milestones in my kids lives such as them finishing school, graduating college or getting married. I have never been an anxious person but nowadays I just can’t help it.

I will forever live with the regret and the guilt of not going for my smear test when I was called. I never had abnormalities in my previous smear tests. I now have to live with the consequences of not attending that smear test forever so I would urge anyone reading this to make it a priority because your health effects all those that you love. The heartache and worry my loved ones have been put through over the last ten months could’ve been prevented.

For anyone on the fence about getting the HPV vaccine all I will say is that the effects of cervical cancer are far more life changing and long lasting than any side effects from a vaccine, I wouldn’t wish cervical cancer on my worst enemy and I’m one of the lucky ones with a good prognosis.