To help local charity Cancer Focus Northern Ireland highlight January’s Cervical Cancer Prevention Week, survivor DUP MLA Paula Bradley is urging women to vigilant and to get regular smear tests.
Paula who lives in Newtownabbey and has two grown up children, Jessica (27) and Joshua (25), is her party spokesperson on health and is a member of the All Party Group on Cancer at Stormont and supports Cancer Focus NI’s call for a new cancer strategy for Northern Ireland.
She was diagnosed with cervical cancer when she was just 24.
Paula admits she was completely ignorant of the disease at the time she was diagnosed and it was only much later that she realised how serious the condition can be. Now, she is keen to dismantle the taboos around cervical cancer and encourage young women to set their embarrassment aside and make sure they go for screening.
Paula said: “I went to my GP with really debilitating severe back pain that had been bothering me for a couple of months. I was separated from my husband and was working and looking after the children, so it was full on.
“My doctor suggested I should have a smear test as it had been a while since I’d had one. I thought, really, why would you do that for a sore back? The doctor arrived at my house a couple of days later as it was on his way home from work. He said he needed to speak to me.
“He told me the smear had come back and there was a problem and that he was going to refer me for further investigation. After more tests I found out I had cervical cancer.
“I was fine with the news – I was so young and naive I didn’t appreciate how severe this could be. As far as I was concerned I had two children and I was confident my life was going to go on.
“My mother is very level headed and made plans immediately for me to be seen privately. My parents insisted on paying for me to see a gynaecologist privately and I had an appointment within three days.
“I remember going for surgery and laser treatment – it wasn’t explained to me what was happening. It sounds ridiculous but I don’t even really know what that involved.
“I must have been going through treatment for three or four months. It was tough and I was in a lot of pain after those treatments, but it was physical rather than emotional pain.
“My illness didn’t impact on my children, I just got on with it and that was all there was to it. I’ve never been one of these people who lets things get you down. You put your head down and work on. I have that mental attitude. And, of course, my parents were a huge support.
“After it was over I never thought about it again until I became an MLA in 2011 and attended an event at Parliament Buildings around cervical cancer. I sat and listened to the speakers and other patients and that was when I actually learned about the disease. It was much more emotional for me then, speaking to the other women who’d been affected.
“My advice to women is to make sure you get your smear test when you’re called for one. It’s uncomfortable and embarrassing but it only lasts a second and is so much better than the alternative. Nurses are professionals and carry out hundreds of these tests every year. They do their best to make you feel as comfortable as possible.
“I’m also 100% in favour of vaccinations for both girls and boys. It is brilliant that there is a drug that can protect against this disease and there is still work to do in this area.”
Paula added: “If telling my story makes someone think twice about having a smear test, then that is a good outcome.
“Cancer Focus NI does excellent work providing information about the disease, educating young people on how to have healthier lifestyles, lobbying in Stormont for better health policies, caring for patients and their families when someone gets cancer and funding research. This is a cause close to my heart and I’m so pleased there is a charity like this to
help people at a tough time in their lives.
“If anyone has any worries about cancer they can call Cancer Focus NI’s free NurseLine on 0800 783 3339 for advice and support.”