August 25, 2008

A Check-Up Saved My Life, and It Could Save Yours Too

By Adam Morris

Cancer screening helped Sharon to beat the disease, and now she is backing a school campaign to protect others

WHEN doctors told Sharon Watt that she had cancer, time just stood still.

At 27, and never having had any health worries to speak of in her life before, Sharon found herself having to come to terms with the idea her life might soon be over.

The doctor's words - "The tests were positive, you have cervical cancer" - were almost impossible to take in.

As the student teacher found her life going into freefall, her first thoughts turned to her loved ones.

Going home to tell her mother was the hardest part of all.

"When you hear the word cancer you automatically think the worst. I just thought at first, 'That'll be me then'," she says.

"Although I was shocked, I decided I had to be strong and not let it upset me because it would just make everyone else more unhappy.

"I remember going to see my mum in Tranent and she could tell there was something up. She asked if I'd had a fight with my boyfriend and I just thought, 'I wish that was the problem'.

"Then I told her and she said she wished she had been with me when I found out."

Having done everything that the health campaigns urge - getting regular smear checks, leading a healthy lifestyle and not having an irresponsible sex life - she had every reason to think, 'Why me?'

"I know so many people, some much older than me, who have told me they've never even been for a smear," she says.

"I've always gone for mine and everything had always been okay.

"I just couldn't believe it. I'd always been to get checked, always been really healthy and not done the things you would associate with getting this kind of thing, but it still happened to me.

"I was bitter at first, but then the doctor explained that it was a difficult type to detect. It just shows you that anyone can be affected by this."

The first signs that anything might be amiss came in March this year when Sharon noticed abnormal bleeding.

Relatively unconcerned, she booked a GP appointment just to be on the safe side.

At the consultation, she waited patiently for the doctor to tell her what was wrong, and what to do to put it right, but that straightforward advice never came.

Instead, she was told to go for further hospital checks, where she was told she probably had cancer, a diagnosis confirmed in a phone call two days later.

"I was stunned and, to be honest, I lived in a bubble for about a month afterwards," says the 27-year-old, who lives in Leith.

Her experience has led her to lend her support today to a campaign to persuade every secondary school girl in Scotland to be immunised against the human papilloma virus (HPV) - easily the most common strain of cervical cancer.

Although it felt different at the time, Sharon is far from alone.

Between 250 and 300 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer in Scotland each year. If it is diagnosed in the first year, the chances of survival are excellent, above 95 per cent in 15 to 44- year-olds.

However, this drops year on year, to around 80 per cent in the same age group, if the cancer has been there for ten years.

Although the survival rates are relatively high, there can be other dreadful consequences.

When the cancer was confirmed Sharon was given two stark choices - a hysterectomy, or a relatively new style of treatment, known as a radical trachelectomy, in which surgeons use a microscopic instrument to literally scrape away the cancer.

"If I'd had the hysterectomy it would mean I couldn't have children, so I was eager to explore the other option," she says.

"I had to go to London for it, and you can only have it if the cancer is at a certain stage, so in that respect I feel really lucky that I was able to be treated for it."

Within two months of diagnosis, Sharon travelled to London where she spent a week in St Bart's hospital undergoing the treatment, which was a success.

Sharon has now been given the all-clear and knows she will still be able to have children, albeit she has been warned of slightly heightened risks of miscarriage and premature birth.

She has also managed to get her life back on track. Next month, she will resume her studies at Moray House to recap on what she missed from last academic year. She also regularly logs on to the Jo's Trust website - a support group for cervical cancer - where she advises other people with concerns on what steps to take.

"I still think about it every day and have things to remind me of it like scars, but other than going back for checks every few months I'm clear of it," she said. "I've persuaded all my friends to go and get checked."

She has, of course, seen Big Brother contestant Jade Goody's very public experience of being diagnosed with cervical cancer last week and feels for her fellow 27-year-old.

Sharon has also been stunned to discover just how many of her friends and acquaintances have until now felt they were too busy, or simply too embarrassed, to be screened.

Since her diagnosis, she has been evangelical about the issue. She knows she was simply unlucky, as the particular type of cancer she contracted is hard to detect and wouldn't be picked up by a routine smear.

"I couldn't tell women enough to go and get checked," she says. "I can't believe how blase some people are about it, saying they have too much on or they don't fancy people looking or examining down there. It sounds crazy to me, it takes five minutes, if that, and you just get on with it.

"When women are having babies they don't say, 'Actually, can it just stay in because I don't want people looking down there?' They just do it, and that's how it has to be with this, too."

HELP AT HAND: HPV immunisation advice will be given


FOURTEEN thousand schoolgirls in the Lothians will today be handed letters to take home explaining the benefits of the cervical cancer jag.

All the girls, aged between 12 and 17, will be offered the vaccine, which will be administered at school as a course of three jags over six months.

The letters will explain the jag will virtually ensure they do not contract types 16 and 18 of HPV, which accounts for 70 per cent of cervical cancer cases.

The consent form goes home today, and although technically the choice is that of the child, NHS Lothian want the decision to be a family one.

Health chiefs are optimistic that hundreds of lives will be saved thanks to the campaign, which they expect to have around a 95 per cent uptake.

Concerns have been raised that some girls will feel more confident about being sexually active after receiving the jag, feeling they have some kind of protection against the risks.

Leaflets will be given to 16 and 17-year-olds warning that the jag will not protect them against other STDs. It will also warn that if they are already sexually active, they may already have HPV, but urge them to have the jag anyway.

Dr Lorna Killocks, consultant in public health medicine for NHS Lothian, who is co-ordinating the scheme across the area, says: "Types 16 and 18 are passed through genital contact, and it is important that females are immunised against it before they become sexually active.

"It is part of a wider message about sexual health, but most importantly it is an anti-cancer jag.

"We've worked hard with various organisations to produce the pack going home to pupils."

She added that there was some concern about myths circulating around playgrounds about the jags.

"We don't want HPV to be confused with HIV, and we have to make clear that this very much protects against a common strain of cervical cancer," she says.

"We also urge women not to be complacent about screening when they do get the jags, it only protects against HPV, which causes around 70 per cent of cervical cancers, but there is still the possibility of getting the other [30 per cent]."

The facts

The HPV virus accounts for around 70 per cent of all causes of cervical cancer

* The vaccine all but guarantees immunisation against the infection

* 42 women in the Lothians were diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2005, the last full year for which figures are available

* That year, it killed 18 people

* Women who live in deprived areas have double the chance of contracting the HPV virus than those in wealthy areas

* Studies also show they are twice as likely to die once the infection is detected

Originally published by Adam Morris Health Reporter.

(c) 2008 Evening News; Edinburgh (UK). Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.