There’s one thing that keeps coming back to Sandie Lloyd-Hughes as she reflects on what she’s been through over the past few years.
Putting off a test that lasts just a few minutes caused her months of worry, stress and heart break.
For eight years, Sandie had ignored all reminders to go for a smear test. Like lots of women she found the idea of having a sample of cells taken from her cervix embarrassing and intrusive.
But if she’d been through the routine test – designed to pick up on the presence of pre-cancerous cells at the earliest stage – she would definitely have been spared the horrors and intrusion of what came next.
Instead, ignoring the simple test resulted in her having a full hysterectomy and her ovaries removed, taking away her chance to conceive more children in the future.
Now 31 – and with two more years to go before she’ll be given the all-clear from cervical cancer – she knows the consequences could have been a lot worse.
‘A smear test that lasts a minute would have spared me from all this,’ she says. ‘In hindsight I don’t know why I didn’t go sooner.’
Sandie’s not alone in putting her health at risk by failing to go for a smear test.
It’s Cervical Screening Awareness Week and experts say 20 per cent of women in the UK are still making the same mistake.
Sandie’s own battle with cervical cancer began in the summer of 2008 when she finally booked herself in for a smear test.
In England, all women aged between 25 and 49 are invited to attend screening sessions every three years. Screening continues every five years for those aged between 50 to 64.
Yet despite having had a smear test before – and receiving reminders through the post – Sandie put the risk to the back of her mind.
It was only after she experienced a much shorter than usual period that she booked herself in for the test.
‘For some reason I booked myself in for a smear,’ she remembers. ‘That was in June. It was really bizarre, I can’t really explain it. I hadn’t been for a smear in eight years so to do that then was quite out of character.
‘I just kept putting it off, there were reminders but it was stupid because it takes a minute and I just didn’t go.
‘It was stupid. Why didn’t I go? If I had have been it would have picked up the pre-cancerous cells.’
Sandie, from Crookhorn, had the test and was recalled for another one within three weeks.
Abnormalities had been found – but it still didn’t occur to her that anything was wrong.
Sandie, who has a 13-year-old son, Jordan, went on holiday but returned to find the doctor’s surgery had been calling and writing to her. St Mary’s Hospital needed to do more investigations.
Sandie needed a more detailed examination, called a colposcopy, followed by a loop procedure to cut out abnormal tissue.
‘Both my aunties on my dad’s side had had cervical cancer,’ adds Sandie. ‘One had died from it. I just thought in the back of my mind “It won’t happen to me” but I knew I was in trouble by now.
‘I went to the hospital to get my results and I went in alone. I didn’t want my mum to worry. When I saw the oncology nurse it gave it away.’
Sandie had stage one cervical cancer. A bioposy was sent to the Royal Marsden Hospital, in London, because two types of cancerous cells had been discovered – including one very aggressive strain.
She was given the choice of having chemotherapy or a hysterectomy and decided to go for the hysterectomy, hoping it would give her a better chance of getting rid of the cancerous cells completely.
At the same time, Big Brother star Jade Goody was also fighting a very public battle with cervical cancer and Sandie saw her own struggle played out in front of her on TV and in magazines.
‘It really affected me,’ she remembers. ‘I cried more over Jade than I did myself at first. I think for a while I saw myself in her because she’d had her operation. At that stage they’d told her that she was at stage one and then she wasn’t. They found that it had spread and for me I was thinking “What if that happens to me?”.
‘I can remember saying to my mum “We had a fantastic holiday and we didn’t know I had cancer.” That’s when it hit me really.
‘My worst thing was telling my little man and my mum. That scared me. The reality of the hysterectomy didn’t hit me at first but I had nightmares for months and months afterwards. I just had that fear that this could have killed me.’
After eight gruelling hours in surgery she was told the good news that the cancerous cells hadn’t spread but the whole experience had been emotionally draining.
Complications after surgery also left her in excruciating pain. She was worried the cancer had returned but doctors found that her ovaries had been damaged and would also need to be removed.
Now Sandie says she’ll never miss another screening test again and says everyone should learn from her experience.
‘Just go for test,’ she adds. ‘It takes a minute and what happens if you don’t go is far worse.’