Stomach pains are common, and can be caused by everything from menstrual cramps to uncomfortable bloating, but for 46-year-old Carla Bradbury they were a sign of something more serious – cervical cancer. "I was given a Sodastream for my birthday and thought that my stomach pains were coming from having too much fizzy water, so I didn't go to the doctors straight away," she says. "I also experienced spotting between periods – which I thought was down to hormones."
After Carla's stomach pains got gradually worse, she went to see the GP who examined her and gave her a smear test. The smear came back with an abnormal result, which led to further investigations.
Abnormal smear test result
"One of the gynaecologists I saw put it down to endometriosis. I was going to have further tests, but in the meantime, they found out what it really was — and it was cancer," she says.
An MRI confirmed Carla had cancer at Stage 3B, meaning the cancer had spread from the cervix into the structures around it.
Carla undergoing radiotherapy
"My lowest point was when I read a report that said there was a 50% chance of long-term control – meaning I had a 50/50 chance of survival," says Carla. "Because my tumour was so big (I later found out it was the size of a large plum) and the way it was attached to my pelvic wall, they couldn't operate on it. Instead, I had chemotherapy and radiotherapy, which thankfully treated it."
The importance of smear tests
Five years on from diagnosis, Carla is now days away to be given the all clear. And has an important message for other women. Like so many, Carla hadn't been keeping up with her smear tests – and she's urging other women not to do the same.
"I did get regular letters to come for a smear test, but for me it was just finding the time to book in and make the appointment,' she says. 'But now I see how important it is."
Cervical screening saves thousands of lives each year
Every year in the UK, 3,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer, yet over one in four women are still choosing to avoid their smear test.
Unfortunately, there aren't always obvious signs of cervical cancer in the early stages, and for many women an abnormal result from a routine smear is the first sign that something's off.
"Cervical screening saves thousands of lives each year by detecting changes in the cervix before they develop into cancer," says Sophie Lowes, health information officer at Cancer Research UK. "Women aged 25-64, who are registered with a GP, are automatically invited for screening."
Challenge of a lifetime
Carla now describes herself as being in a better place than she ever was. She says: "I've always been quite positive and had a happy outlook on life – but I'd say even more so now.
"My cancer came as a total shock, but it has made me stronger and I'm not scared of anything anymore.
"When you've faced the fear that you may not be here tomorrow, you just live for today. If you have cancer like I did, you've got the opportunity to work out what's really important. Although it's a terrible thing, there are people that suffer a lot worse."
After losing two friends to cancer this year, one whom she went through treatment with, Carla is now preparing to take part in Stand Up To Cancer's Great Canoe Challenge, where she'll paddle an incredible marathon distance every day for five days to raise awareness and funds.
"Preparing to take on the challenge made me think about when I was going through treatment. I was so weak, I couldn't exercise, I couldn't even stand up in the shower. Reflecting back made me realise how far I've come."
If you experience any unusual or persistent bleeding or pain, it's a good idea to visit your GP. Chances are it won't be cancer but, if it is, getting diagnosed and treated early can make a real difference.
From: ELLE UK