Michelle Thomas was diagnosed with cervical cancer after a routine smear test. Caron Kemp finds out why cervical cancer, although still rare within the Jewish community, is still something we should all be concerned about ahead of Cervical Cancer Prevention Week (19 to 25 January).
While on holiday in Santorini with her fiancé, Michelle Thomas received the phone call that would change everything.
For eight years, the 44-year-old had produced abnormal results from her smear tests – a screening used to detect pre-cancerous cells in the cervix.
Yet despite baffling doctors, suffering miscarriages and enduring various operations, Michelle was always reassured there was nothing to worry about.
But then she received the urgent call from her medical team back home requesting she meet with her consultant immediately – a call that left Michelle shocked.
“I can still remember the bench I was sitting on when my phone rang,” she explains.
“It was extremely worrying. Even though the doctors had been stumped by the re-occurrence of these abnormal results despite removing the cells on a few occasions, no-one gave me any reason to be overly concerned.”
Her Harley Street consultant explained that previously missed pre-cancerous cells had been found high up in the canal and she was sent immediately to have a trachelectomy operation where her entire cervix was removed, but her fertility was preserved.
Then a week after the operation Michelle, who lives in Hornchurch, was dealt a further bitter blow.
“What he had thought was pre-cancerous was in fact cancer,” she recalls.
“I can’t describe what it feels like when you hear that dreaded C word. You just get on with it, but it is frightening.
“He inferred that if I had waited even six months more it would not have been rectifiable. I dread to think what could have happened.”
Now a year on, Michelle – who grew up in Enfield and whose family are still members of Enfield and Winchmore Hill Synagogue – is in counselling and coming to terms with her situation, but she remains philosophical.
“I suppose looking back I had a few minor symptoms, but nothing that rang alarm bells – and really how do you ever know what’s normal and what’s not?” she explains.
“I owe my life to my consultant’s decision to operate when he did. Albeit that I of course still worry, he is confident that the cancer is all gone and I have to trust him.”
Michelle was lucky. Each year almost 3,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and a third of them die. Undoubtedly it was her commitment to attend the cervical screening programme which led to the issues being highlighted early enough for her cancer to be treated.
But while there is good awareness of other cancers, cervical cancer is still not widely seen as an issue affecting many Jewish women, because of its statistically low incidence.
“We as a Jewish community often think the problem is someone else’s,” explains Andy Gaya, consultant clinical oncologist at Guys and St Thomas’ Hospital.
“Because key risk factors are smoking and the Human Papilloma Virus, which is a sexually transmitted infection, it is fair to say that we may not see it as affecting our community as greatly.
“Yet, as we become more integrated into society it’s really important not to take a lax approach. It is vital that women have the smear tests, that girls have the HPV vaccine now rolled out at secondary school age and that everyone practices safe sex.
“The fact is you could just be unlucky. So it might be an awkward conversation especially traditionally in our community, but as parents it is our duty to counsel our children wisely and as adults to do all we can too.
“Plus if you have any symptoms including blood spotting, pain in the lower pelvis, pain during sex or unusual discharge do not ignore it. Go and talk to your GP.”
Ahead of Cervical Cancer Prevention Week, which runs from 19 to 25 January, the team at Jo’s Trust – a charity supporting women affected by the disease – is focusing on encouraging more women to take part in the screening programme.
“At the moment a third of women being invited for their first smear test aged 25 are not attending and attendance of women in their 60s is at a 16-year low,” admits CEO Robert Music.
“There are bound to be a multitude of reasons why that is the case, but screening saves 5,000 lives a year, so even if you think it isn’t relevant or it is difficult we urge you to make it happen.”
It is a sentiment echoed strongly by Michelle, who has since raised £1,500 for Jo’s Trust to help other women affected by this type of cancer.
“I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to go for smear tests and to see a doctor if you have any unusual symptoms,” she stresses.
“I have to count my lucky stars that I did and that things worked out the way they did for me.
“It has totally changed my perspective on life. I know people moan about little problems, but really life is too short. You have to live for the moment. I am probably the luckiest person alive. I know I don’t have children,, but this whole experience has been an eye-opener – and frankly at least I have my life.”
For more information contact Jo’s Trust via www.jostrust.org.uk