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Cervical screening awareness week: Four women share their cervical cancer stories

by Amy Warnock | Personal stories

19 June 2024

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Image of Nicola with her two young sons and husband
Nicola with her sons and husband


There are around 3,300 new cervical cancer cases in the UK every year.  But we’re making huge leaps forward in cervical cancer research that are saving and improving lives right now. 

From cervical screening to clinical trials, here are four real stories of people who have gone through a cervical cancer diagnosis and their experiences. 

Nicola’s story 

In 2019, shortly after giving birth to her second child, Nicola received a letter after a routine cervical screening appointment (sometimes called a smear test) explaining that she had human papilloma virus (HPV) and some abnormal cells. She was referred to a colposcopy clinic where she had a biopsy and a month later was called back to the hospital and told she had stage 1 cervical cancer. 

Image of Nicola with her two young sons and husband
Nicola with her sons and husband

“I couldn’t believe it; my first thought was: ‘I have a six-month-old baby; I can’t die!’ All the blood rushed to my head and I couldn’t take in what was being said, including the doctor saying the cancer was only stage 1 and was treatable.” 

After an initial round of treatment during a colposcopy, Nicola was called back to the hospital because they had found cancer was still present. The doctors suggested that Nicola undergo a hysterectomy.  

“Such a life-changing operation was a strange prospect in my thirties. However, I didn’t want the risk of any cancer still being there, and I felt lucky to have already had two children. We might have tried for a third in the future, but there was no doubt in my mind that I would rather be here for the two I have already got.”   

Nicola had the operation in September 2019 and was in hospital for three days.   

“I retained my ovaries, so was not pushed into early menopause. My womb and cervix were sent off to be tested, and as the womb came back clear, they didn’t take any lymph nodes. I did not need any follow-up chemotherapy, so it was definitely the best course of action.”   

Screening is always your choice. It can have harms as well as benefits. But Nicola is glad that she chose to attend her appointment. 

“I am passionate about raising awareness about smear tests.      

“I think it is so important for women to know that cervical cancer, if caught at an early stage, can be successfully treated.” 

Cervical screening can also prevent cancer from developing in the first place, because doctors can monitor or treat any abnormal cells they find, before they turn into cancer.  

And remember, screening is for people without symptoms. If you spot anything unusual for you, speak to your doctor – don’t wait until your next screening appointment, even if you’re expecting an invitation soon.

Our role in cervical screening 

Our researchers helped pioneer some of the earliest cervical screening studies in the 1950s.  

More recently, we have also helped prove the value of cervical screening and played a central role in shaping and improving the national screening programme.    

Tara’s story 

In 2015 Tara was on holiday when she realised that something wasn’t right. Once she got back, she went straight to her GP.  

Headshot of Tara

A nurse at her GP practice tried to get a sample of cells from her cervix but was unable to as Tara began to bleed. As a result, she was given an emergency GP appointment and after various tests was told that she had stage 2b cervical cancer.  

“I was told on April Fools’ Day 2015, so that’s a date that will stay with me!” said Tara. 

“I think I was completely numb during the first few hours after diagnosis. Everything felt so surreal.”  

Tara took part in the Cancer Research UK trial INTERLACE which meant she was given a combination of two chemotherapy drugs, carboplatin and paclitaxel, before her standard chemotherapy of cisplatin and radiation treatment.

The INTERLACE trial 

We supported the INTERLACE trial, which looked at whether having chemotherapy before starting the standard treatment of chemoradiotherapy would work better than just chemoradiotherapy alone. 

The results have shown that giving cervical cancer patients a short course of chemotherapy before starting the standard treatment cuts the risk of death or of the disease returning by 35%.   

This is the biggest improvement in cervical cancer treatment we’ve seen in more than 20 years. And because the two chemotherapy drugs used for the induction treatment – carboplatin and paclitaxel – are cheap, easily accessible and already approved for use, experts say they could become a new standard of care relatively quickly.   


Initially, Tara was nervous about taking part in the trial, as it “signalled something unpredictable and scary.” But once she learnt more and read about the positive results from the previous stages of the trial, she realised that it could help her. 
 

“I felt honoured to take part in this life saving opportunity,” she said. 

“I really want to raise awareness about clinical trials. They may sound a bit scary, but I loved being a part of one. My oncology team were amazing, and I looked forward to meeting them every time I went for treatment.  

“I felt very privileged to know that I was part of ground-breaking research. 

“I’m so grateful to everyone who has supported Cancer Research UK and helped make clinical trials like mine possible.”   

Since her treatment ended, Tara has got back to doing the things she enjoys, like travelling the world and spending time with her friends and family.

Our involvement in carboplatin and cisplatin 

We were a key player in the development of many drugs that are used to treat cervical cancer, including carboplatin and cisplatin 

These platinum-based drugs have had a huge impact since their discovery and are still used to treat a wide range of cancers including lung, breast, bladder, cervical and ovarian.  

Carboplatin is the most commonly prescribed cancer drug on the NHS, used to treat more than 28,700 patients every year with a range of cancer types.

That Cancer Conversation in a white speech bubble with a dark blue background

You can hear more from Tara in our podcast, That Cancer Conversation

Listen now

Gem’s story  

Gem wasn’t sure what to expect before her first screening appointment, so she did some research online about what the appointment would involve.  

“This helped put my mind at ease. I was still nervous, but the image that you build up in your head is usually far worse than the reality,” said Gem. 

Unfortunately, in 2015 following a routine smear test, Gem got the news that the doctor had found cancerous cells. 

Headshot of Gem

Gem was referred for surgery. This included the removal of lymph nodes from her abdomen and pelvis.  

“It took me about six weeks to recover, and at a follow up appointment I was told I was clear of cancer and didn’t need further treatment. I now want to highlight the need for prevention and early detection.” 

The HPV vaccination programme was rolled out after Gem had left school. Now she’s a strong advocate that eligible people should take up the offer of the vaccine, as well as cervical screening.  

“I missed out on the HPV vaccine, but my younger sister was given the HPV vaccine in the first rollout.  

“It gives me comfort knowing my sister and others who have had the vaccine are protected against HPV and are therefore less likely to develop cervical cancer.   

“I hope one day we live in a world where cervical cancer is eliminated and hopefully with the advances in research and the HPV vaccine that will be a reality.” 

HPV and cervical cancer 

25 years ago, our scientists showed that nearly all cervical cancers are caused by HPV.  

This discovery was a key step towards today’s vaccination programme and improved cervical cancer screening. 

Recently, our research has proven the effectiveness of the HPV vaccine, which is expected to prevent almost 90% of cervical cancers in the UK.  

Pamela’s story 

For 10 years Pamela didn’t take up her cervical screening invites.  

“I just ignored them,” she recalls. “I hated the thought of having that test – I just buried my head in the sand and assumed I’d be ok.”   

In 2013, irregular bleeding that Pamela had experienced for some time became so bad that she went to hospital. Tests confirmed that she had cervical cancer.  

“They told me that it had spread into the bowel, bladder and lymph nodes. They also explained that the tumour itself was too big to be operated on as it was the size of a tennis ball.  

“It was the worst news possible. I just thought, ‘it’s all over.’” 

Picture of Pamela on holiday

Doctors arranged for Pamela to see a specialist to talk about chemotherapy and radiotherapy options.   

“I reluctantly agreed to go along but I still thought there wasn’t any point. Once the doctors had told me they couldn’t operate I just couldn’t see what else could be done.”  

However, the specialist told Pamela that he thought there was a 65% chance that chemotherapy and radiotherapy could work.  

“Hearing those odds helped to change my mind. Obviously there was no guarantee that the treatment would work but it made me realise I was in with a chance whereas before I didn’t have any hope.” 

After experiencing a severe allergic reaction to her first course of chemotherapy, Pamela was given a different type of chemotherapy which didn’t give her any severe side effects. As a result, she was able to carry on with 10 cycles of chemotherapy followed by radiotherapy every day for six weeks, followed by four sessions of brachytherapy, which is a type of internal radiotherapy.

Our research into radiotherapy 

Radiotherapy is an important treatment for cervical cancer.  

We’ve played a key role in the development of radiotherapy over the years. Back in 1923, we supported some of the earliest research into the treatment of cancer with radiation, including awarding our first grants for the purchase of radium.    

Since then, our research has helped to refine, improve and innovate radiotherapy so that it has become the precise and sophisticated treatment it is today. 


To her delight Pamela was told the treatment was working and five years on from her diagnosis, in August 2017, she was told she was in remission.
 

“It was the news I never thought I’d hear. I had all but given up hope when I first got my diagnosis but it just goes to show you should never give up. 

“I have so much to be thankful for. I have been able to see my children grow up and my two grandchildren being born. I never dreamed that would even be a possibility. But it’s all thanks to research and the fact the doctors and nurses didn’t give up on me. They kept trying until something worked.”   

 

Cervical cancer is preventable because screening can find HPV or abnormal cell changes before cancer develops. Even if you are worried about a smear test, there are things you can do to help, like asking for a smaller speculum or taking someone with you. You can find out more in our ‘Making screening work for you’ article.

If you ever spot something that doesn’t feel right for you, is unusual or won’t go away, don’t ignore it and don’t wait for your next screening invite. Talk to your doctor as soon as you can. 

Continuing our progress in cervical cancer 

We’ve made huge progress in cervical cancer research in the last 70 years, but we’re not done yet.  

With more research we can help to bring about a future where almost no one develops cervical cancer. Where people in the UK and across the world can share in this progress equally regardless of who they are or where they’re from. 

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