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'If only one person gets a smear test after reading my story, then it’s worth sharing'

Leah Shafi, Founder of Calico Clouds, shares her story of battling Cervical Cancer for Cervical Cancer Prevention Week.

I’m Leah. A mid 30’s middle England dweller who for the past 14 years has been busy climbing the blue chip ladder. It’s been a blast, I earned a lot of money, spent some, travelled the world,got married... then divorced... then 6 years ago my life took an unexpected twist, I was 29, at the start of a new relationship and over the festive month of December, I lost track of opening my post. I finally got around to it on the 29th December, only to find that I’d missed an urgent letter from the women’s hospital telling me to go to the hospital on the 21st December following my smear test results. I’d opened my letter 2 weeks too late. I’d never had a call back from my doctors, never mind a hospital visit, but as someone who takes health pretty seriously, I called them straight away. They said all the right things (giving very little away) and said ‘Leah, we have booked you in for 8.30am on the 4th January, that’s our first day back.’ Being pretty relaxed, I didn’t over think it, and after speaking to my best friend and Mum they both reassured that most women get changeable cells and not to worry. Which of course I didn’t. I continued my New Year’s Eve party plans with my new boyfriend. The 4th came around pretty quickly, I didn’t think twice racing out the door piece of toast in my mouth wondering how quickly I could get in and out of the hospital and back to work. My mum had given moral support and offered to come with me, but I had muttered something about being a grown up and it would all be fine. I remember snatching a ticket from the machine at 8.22am, finally found a parking space and ran up to the towering big grey block building, thinking it looked more like a women’s prison than a hospital, but reminded myself it’s a happy place where babies are born. Whizzing inside finding the floor and room, I felt relieved sitting in the the waiting room at 8.29am tapping my foot promising myself that I would never be late again (again). I was called in promptly still slightly out of breath. I met the Doctor who explained who he was, and thanked me for coming in as early as possible. The doctor then said ‘The smear results weren’t very good, and they had found cancerous cells’. He used words like ‘this is very serious’, and ‘they are going to have a closer look at the lesion’ 'But it’s ok. We caught it early'. To be honest, I heard no words after cancerous cells. All the words after that just jumbled around inside my head like worms. I felt a pang at the back of my throat, and hot tears hit my cheeks. Was I going to loose my hair? Had it spread? Was I going to die? How has this happened? What is going on? I could see he was trying to explain but my ears weren’t working. The next thing I felt was the nurse put her hand on my arm and she pointed at the door. Confused, I asked why and she replied back with sympathetic eyes and a soft voice that said 'go change into a gown, the Dr just needs to have a look’. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror as I pulled off my clothes, my eyes were totally shot, and my chest and neck bright red. I just told myself they have made a mistake. I am totally healthy. I went over to the chair, and lay down, they put my legs up on those weird rests and I closed my eyes. The strangest part of the next 45 minute ordeal was that the Doctor addressed the nurse with all his instructions and she then relayed them to me. It was as if he was speaking a foreign language and she was his translator! He tried to direct me to watch on the screen, but I just looked at the nurse whenever I could open my eyes, the pools of warm salty tears swirling in my sockets, mixing with Mascara to create a little more sting. But it nothing compared to the what he was doing. After fiddling and poking he said ‘Nurse there it is, do you see it?’ I blinked at her and watched her wince and then force a smile ‘It will be ok, your doing great’ she reassured. The Doctor then announced ‘We are going to have to do a womb biopsy’ I knew then it was bad, he had obviously seen something, I just sobbed then for the next 40 minutes. The womb biopsy with no sedative, the iodine rinse, the adrenaline with local anaesthetic which made my legs shake uncontrollably and my heart race, then the loop wire. I was given a pad to wear, and told to not have sex for 2-4 weeks. They would be in touch with the results. I left the room and called my mum, she told me very clearly to go straight home and she would meet me there. I don’t remember driving home. My mum found me curled in the dogs bed sobbing, she made me tea, and gave me some pain killers and put me to bed. I think I woke about 2 hours later and explained what I had heard. Mum called the hospital and they confirmed what I had told her, and she booked another appointment for me (which I hadn’t done) 2 weeks away. In those 2 weeks, after initially telling the new boyfriend I had cervical cancer, I didn’t hear from or see him. I blocked him out. I knew after he hadn’t rushed to see me after delivering the awful news he wasn’t a keeper. I later found out his mum (a nurse) had told him that I wouldn’t be able to have kids after having cervical cancer... so that was obviously over. I had been back to work, eat, sleep and repeat until the 14th day. Mum & I sat in the waiting room waiting for the doctor, we shuffled in, he repeated what he had seen, a small lesion on the outer side of my cervix, and that the cells from my smear had shown both skin and gland cells affected. He advised the next best course of treatment would be a cone biopsy, this would remove the area effected. As he wasn’t satisfied that the first treatment had removed them. He said that the results from the womb biopsy were fine, it hadn’t spread. He then asked when I would like the next operation, I looked at my mum and replied “tomorrow” he laughed and said “the next appointment was 3 weeks away” so I took it. I remember feeling like whatever this bad stuff inside me was, I just wanted it out. Three weeks later I was back, nervous, and relieved at the same time. The procedure was over in an hour and due to some complications during surgery, I was kept in over night. I made all the ladies on my ward laugh. I was the youngest by about 15 years, and it’s suitable to say I was totally mothered! The next morning after I’d come down from the drugs, I was told the surgery was a success, and that I’d need to go back in 6 months. Since then I have had smears at the hospital every 3-6 months. I’ve had 3 totally clear results in 6 years and dozens of inconclusive (which is my least favourite word!). If only one person goes and gets a life saving smear test after reading my story then it’s worth sharing.

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