Lletz Talk Mental Health and Cervix Care
I remember when a letter through the door used to be exciting. Such a rarity to receive something addressed to me; envelopes usually contained cards to celebrate holiday seasons or a birthday, or a brand-new library card or a certificate from a swim class accompanied with a badge to be sewn onto a towel.
As we get older, envelopes through the post usually only mean one thing. Trouble. There’s money to pay, appointments to be made or admin to be done. It is pants. So, when I received a letter in January 2021 inviting me to my first cervical smear test, I knew I had to put on my big girl pants and booked it in straightaway.
I was 5 months away from hitting 25; the age that throws you into the “Overs” category on X Factor and the world of gynaecology if you have not yet been introduced.
I prefer to let the professionals talk about the healthcare side of cervical care, so this blog is for me to air my experience of the last five months, where I have been MIA from blogging and instead, servicing my cervix. If you want information about cervical health from smear tests to diagnosis to treatment, I urge you to make use of the invaluable resources available from the NHS and Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust.
To set the scene, my first smear went smooth sailing. It was painless albeit uncomfortable, and over and done with in a matter of minutes in the comfort of the GP surgery that has helped me through coughs, colds and UTIs (you know) for many a year. Simple. I felt lucky I was in that position.
Then came the results: HPV positive, abnormal changes. I was booked in for a Colposcopy (again, I won’t explain the procedures but have added links!) This was booked in to be done in a clinic at a local hospital in four weeks’ time. Thus began a truly agonising wait. Suddenly, the thought of the appointment plagued my mind. My sponsored ads became centralised around fertility, cancer, wellbeing support and maxi pads due to obsessive searching of unfamiliar medical terms that determined my fate. It was all-consuming.
At the same time, everybody around me was telling me about their sister’s friend, or their boyfriend’s aunt, or their colleague’s mother-in-law who had also received similar results “and they were absolutely fine!” Everybody has your best interest at heart, and they simply want to reassure that so many women do receive cervical treatment and they are right; we do. I’m surprised and disappointed we don’t talk as openly about it until we meet somebody else facing the same thing, to be honest.
However, just because so many others go on a similar journey as you, doesn’t mean yours is any less valid.
Here's me the day after Colposcopy with a hot water bottle hehe.
I really had to learn to accept that I felt scared, worried, and as meek a word it is, upset.
The colposcopy itself was intrusive. I had lovely nurses, I felt in safe hands, the pain was bearable. But, it was intrusive. It is uncomfortable to have to expose yourself and be poked and prodded. I had multiple punch biopsies taken, and was told I had a large cervical ectropion.
If anybody asked me directly about my experiences I resorted to shrugging it off, “it’ll be fines!” and bright smiles. I spent more time reassuring my close circle that it was fine, and I was fine. A true beacon of positivity. I didn’t want anybody to worry or to see how worried I was. This takes up a lot of energy, and with hindsight wasn't a productive way of dealing with the situation.
Waiting for the result manifested into me becoming defensive, distant and irritable. I was emotional and whenever I looked at my torso, I hated it. I started to see a rounded belly and swollen lower region and detested the image. It housed discomfort and anxiety and I felt the physical and emotional weight nesting there. Usually, I work out, but this wasn’t advised if you felt any discomfort, harbouring the feeling even more.
The results came back as high-grade CIN and I was given an appointment for LLETZ treatment. Another agonising wait, more admin with work and coordinating transport and time off, and more applause for the medical websites with the best SEO. The LLETZ was supposed to take place under Local Anaesthetic, and I knew what to expect having spoken on Jo’s Trust forum and used their “Ask The Expert” service (support services, here).
My LLETZ treatment unfortunately didn’t go to plan. The procedure was tried under a LA, twice. However, due to the large and growing surface area my bad cells covered, they were unreachable without touching my vaginal walls – which weren’t protected by an anaesthetic. The physical pain was one thing (a tale for a glass of wine, I think), but the emotional was something else. Now months in, I was excited to have the procedure done and dusted. I wanted to close this chapter, instead I was told to wait to be referred to have it done under a general anaesthetic. I left the clinic in floods of tears and had a panic attack as soon as I reached the car. My body ached and was covered in sweat, my heart felt broken.
Amidst the disappointment, I had to try and remember this was a pause and the ball is in motion. It was going to be okay, it was just going to need more time. I took some time the next day to ring the clinic, and they were able to read me my consultant's notes. This gave me a greater understanding as to what happened and why. I definitely recommend you doing this if you have any queries, rather than try to piece together information from your appointment yourself.
As my body recovered from each section of these treatments – successful or not- you are not able to be intimate. My sex drive was shot, anyway; I didn’t want any more objects touching my downstairs, but this causes an emotional strain. I’m so fortunate to be in a really beautiful, long relationship with the kindest and most understanding man, but I have felt so angry to lose a part of us, only temporarily, as a result of my treatments. But, in return I have gained a much fuller appreciation of the connection we have and am so delighted as a couple we have taken the time to talk openly and understand and respect one another.
I was able to do it with myself too, and understand my body and its functions. Becoming more aware of not just my bits and bobs and what they do, but my cycle, helped me focus my own healing journey.
This experience has confirmed to us both that we want children. In fact, I have been craving them more than ever. Every treatment weakens your cervix and comes with risks when it comes to carrying to term and that is something I have come to accept and count myself lucky I am receiving it before the damage is extensive. This is a stark reality to face and depending on your emotions that day can be harrowing or comforting, or both.
Fast forward and I’m in a four-hour pre-op being swabbed, poked and screened before my surgery date. It's a lot to take in at once, and I had to ask for a lot of info to be repeated. I also took a notepad with some questions I wrote at home, and wrote down some notes to ground me so I wouldn't worry and forget.
Yesterday, I was admitted at 7am to a warm, friendly ward and prepared for surgery. For me, this was super scary - it's the first time I've ever had to be admitted, and with Covid restrictions I had to go alone. There's a lot of waiting around and time to psych yourself out with thoughts, but I managed to read and chat to other patients.
Then the time came and I was taken down. They elected to use a spinal block first, before I became tachycardic (a word I only know from Grey’s Anatomy!) and was put under a General Anaesthetic. In recovery, I was told I’d receive the results soon. This will tell me if the surgeons got a clear margin or if I’ll need another round of treatment.
It’s hard to sit at home and bleed out over old pjs and allow yourself time to heal. It’s easy to feel like you’re at the “prime” of your life with your age, career and aspirations and that some time out will jeopardise it all – believe me, I am battling this every day. All you can do is trust the professionals, lean on the people around you and listen to what your body and mind needs and never apologise for it.
But today I am sat on the sofa with my duvet, having fully caught up on Drag Race Down Under. It’s Mental Health Awareness Week. My back is aching like nobody’s business, my hand is bruised from a cannula, I’m tired and feel like if I open my phone and see a cute baby video I may cry. So instead, I wrote this piece.
I might have a cry later, and that'll be fine, too.
If you stumble across this, like I did with many blogs, at any point in your journey and want to chat – please reach out.