Lanarkshire woman tells how cervical cancer robbed her of her fertility in her 20s

A Lanarkshire cervical cancer survivor has issued a stark message for young women to get your regular smear tests.

Nicole Crossan was halfway through her orthodontic therapy diploma course at the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh in October 2019 when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer.

And in a frank and emotional testimony, she told Lanarkshire Live how she grieved for her fertility at the age of 28.

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Helping to mark Cervical Cancer Prevention Week, she told us: “My story might be different to some.

“I started having smear tests at the age of 21 and was among the first to be offered the HPV vaccine when I was younger.

“I’m lucky, because my mum said to all her girls that a smear test was a really important appointment to attend. She had drummed it into us, because she had a history of needing treatment for pre-cancerous cells.

“We were brought up to know that you just go and get it done.”

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Nicole managed to smile through the pain of her treatment

Nicole was 22 when cervical screening first detected cell changes, for which she had cold coagulation treatment to destroy the abnormal cells.

Following another abnormal result in 2019, she had a biopsy and underwent large loop excision of the transformation zone (LLETZ) treatment – a type of surgery that removes a small part of the cervix.

Two weeks later came the diagnosis of cervical cancer – and she had a tortuous two-week wait thereafter to establish how far advanced her cancer had become.

Staged at 2b, Nicole was then to embark on six weeks of gruelling radiation and chemotherapy treatment.

“Before starting the treatment for cancer, I had IVF and had my eggs frozen at the fertility clinic at Glasgow Royal Infirmary to try to preserve some sort of fertility, as the option to have children naturally had been taken away from me,” explained Nicole, who’s now aged 30.

“Having kids was something I saw in my future, but my partner and I still felt we had lots of time for this. Unfortunately, cancer doesn’t care about your plans.

“I felt really bad about getting the IVF, really selfish. Here am I getting this done in a rush on the NHS, when couples have been waiting years and years.

“I felt like I was jumping to the top of the queue. The nurses told me not to feel that way, saying that I simply couldn’t wait.

“IVF was difficult, with daily injections, and you’re in and out of appointments every few days. The mental aspect is hard too, as you’re aware that the choice has been taken away from you.

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Nicole received outstanding care at the Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Centre

“The worse thing for me was putting my mum and dad through it. I probably did not process it all at the time because I was too busy trying to put a face on it.

“I have three sisters and I am the youngest. I have always been the baby of the family. I knew it wasn’t my fault, but that was awful. I hated that part of it.”

As well as the Macmillan and Cancer Research Scotland websites, Nicole sought information about her condition from charity, Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, whose resources she can’t praise highly enough.

Patient coordinator at Wishaw General, Fran O’Brien, was also a pillar of strength for Nicole, who would on occasion call her for advice or just a shoulder to cry on several times a day.

“Everyone who goes through this needs a Fran – she was my guardian angel,” said Nicole who, towards the end of her treatment at the Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Centre, underwent brachytherapy – a type of internal radiotherapy.

She told us: “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to put my body through, mentally and physically.

“The nurses who looked after me were so good. I’ve never experienced anything like the care they gave me.

“The side effects are something you don’t expect – it was the tiredness that affected me the most. Going about your daily life is much harder, even walking up the stairs felt like a marathon.

“Sometimes I didn’t even have the energy to wash my hair.

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Nicole drew strength from her partner, John Muncie

“Even though I was always active, went to fitness boot camp classes and ate healthily, it can still happen to you. If you’re young, fit and healthy, you usually think, ‘I’ll be fine,’ but cancer doesn’t care about your future plans.”

Nicole says her partner, John Muncie, got her through the worst days.

“When I felt rubbish, he would pick me up and keep me positive, or sometimes just let me have a big, ugly cry all over him,” she said.

“He is a fixer. Being positive was the only way to get me through it. I didn’t want my family to see me upset. It was really tough.

“People who have had cancer and go through treatment say it’s a roller coaster and you take a dip halfway through. After treatment, I didn’t have any focus anymore. I’d had appointments every single day – and then, it just stopped.”

As she struggled with menopausal symptoms, including night sweats and sore, stiff joints, the pandemic hit.

“When the lockdown was announced in March 2020, I was gutted,” said Nicole, of Eddlewood, Hamilton, who was prescribed with HRT a year ago.

“The only people I’d seen since January were my family, who took me to appointments. When I finished treatment, I had all these plans.

Nicole had radiotherapy and chemotherapy at the Beatson

“For everyone who said they wanted to take me to lunch, I had a long list of restaurants I wanted to go to. I had plans for nights out, holidays, spa days – all cancelled.

“I’d never struggled with my mental health before, but nothing was normal anymore. Some days were really dark. And it was horrible not being able to cuddle the people you love when you are going through something like this.”

Two weeks after her diagnosis, Nicole’s partner, John, bought her the Rhodesian Ridgeback puppy they’d always dreamed of. Remi, who was a great distraction to Nicole during lockdown, was her saviour.

Nicole has since added a second Rhodesian Ridgeback, Nova, to her family – followed only weeks ago by the couple’s Rottweiler pup, Madi.

“In August 2020, I was given the all-clear. It is a term I take with a pinch of salt, and probably people who have had cancer will say the exact same thing,” she continued.

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Nicole with Remi and Nova

“You do not feel you are ever always clear. I feel much more healthy now, but there is always a niggling doubt. I’m concentrating on getting myself back to normal, back to a good place, and focusing on enjoying myself and my dogs.

“I used to be quite glamorous. Now, I am cutting about in welly boots with my dogs, and I couldn’t be happier. My dogs are my whole life just now.”

Because she felt that many of the available resources she encountered were aimed at older women, she has chosen to mark Cervical Cancer Prevention Week by sharing her story as someone who was diagnosed with the disease in her 20s.

“I hear too many younger girls saying they haven’t been for a smear,” said Nicole, who graduated last year.

“It is stuff they do not really care about. They think, ‘it will never happen to me.’

“It’s my hope that by putting my story out there, it will persuade younger girls to go. They don’t realise the impact this horrible disease can have on your fertility.

“I think the loss of fertility may have hit me harder than having cancer. I’ve been robbed of the experience of being pregnant. I know I have options in the future, like adoption.

“I like the idea of giving a child a second chance, as I feel like I’ve had a second chance to live. For now, though, I’m focusing on myself – and being well.”

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Nicole rings the bell to signify that she’s cancer-free

New research released this week by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust shows thousands of women in the UK know little or nothing about cervical cell changes prior to being diagnosed.

Following cervical screening, around 220,000 women every year are diagnosed with cell changes caused by Human Papillomavirus (HPV), with many having treatment. This is not cancer, but could go onto become cancer if not treated or monitored.

Over a quarter of the 1086 surveyed by Jo’s, the UK’s leading cervical cancer charity, said they felt ashamed when diagnosed – a figure that was particularly pronounced in 25 to 29-year-olds.

High numbers expressed feelings of guilt, confusion, and anger or concerns about relationships and infidelity as a result of a diagnosis of HPV. A third said it made them anxious or worried and 35 per cent spoke of shame, embarrassment or feeling dirty.

In its new report, the charity is calling for greater education and conversation about HPV to reduce the impact a diagnosis can bring.

Samantha Dixon, chief executive of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, told us: “It should not be the case that shame is connected to cervical screening results in 2022.

“HPV stigma is something that needs to be tackled and it’s up to all of us to remove the stigma attached to having a diagnosis.

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Jo’s Trust chief executive Samantha Dixon

“Far more needs to be done to ensure everyone attending screening is fully prepared for different results and has the information they need to deal with them, because cervical cancer prevention doesn’t stop at cervical screening.”

A fifth said they felt isolated following their diagnosis, with many not wanting to tell others. The charity warns that the pandemic is exacerbating this, with many attending appointments by themselves.

The charity is highlighting that the impact of the pandemic means cervical screening uptake is at its lowest in decades.

National statistics show almost one in three is not attending when invited. The charity is urging women and people with a cervix to book an appointment if they are overdue, while calling for greater action to increase understanding and reduce anxieties of potential results.

Samantha continued: “Cervical screening can help stop cervical cancer before it starts, so we cannot afford to let attendance continue to fall in such worrying numbers.

“Please remember the NHS is well and truly open, so if you are overdue screening or have a colposcopy appointment we urge you not to put it off.”

If you have questions or need support, call the Jo’s Trust free national helpline on 0808 802 8000.

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