Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Not dead yet.

TODAY I had a wonderful letter. It told me that I don't have cancer.

When I saw the words 'I am pleased to inform you that your recent test was normal', I closed my eyes and sighed and let a few tears out.

It was about 14 months ago that I got a very different letter. It told me that a test had shown I might have the beginnings of cancer, and came with pamphlets and suggestions about what to do next. When I read that I sat down on the stairs and bawled, not so much at the thought I might die but at the sheer shock. I was stunned. I felt like I'd been hit by a train.

Which is silly, because what the doctors had found was nothing unusual. As my mother wisely pointed out there are thousands of such letters sent out by the NHS every day, and if there's a pamphlet about it that's a very positive sign. It would be far worse to have something wrong with you for which there is no pamphlet.

And what was wrong was this - a cervical smear test, which most women over 25 are given by a nurse every three years, had come back 'abnormal'. That's a horrible word in itself, and being told there's something screwy with your lady parts is no-one's idea of a good time. I wish they'd used the word "different" instead.

The cervix, which is the mouth of the womb, is more complex than I'd realised. The cells inside it are different to the ones on the outside, and where those two meet there is a border area of cells changing from one into the other. Smear tests take a swab from this part to see if the rate of change is normal. If it's out of kink and there's more of one type of cell than there should be, it could potentially lead to cancer say, 15 years down the road. A smear test isn't a diagnosis so much as a really early warning system.


Anyway, I pulled myself together and read the pamphlet and it said 6 in every 1,000 or so tests come back with similar results, it might mean nothing, and that I should go back for another test with the nurse in six months.

I tried to put it to the back of my mind but during the wait I found out how important my bits are to me. Perhaps because on women they're hidden away, rather than jangling around in our laps all the time, it's easy to think we are greater than the functions they perform. Well, I discovered that the possibility there was something wrong with them made me feel less female, somehow. I felt unattractive, less secure and more androgynous. I didn't want to socialise, date, or have sex. My lady bits don't just make the hormones which give me a pitch of voice, my boobs or my fertility - they are the core of what I am in a thousand different ways.

The thought they were misfiring in some way was like trying to steer a supermarket trolley with a shonky wheel - it seems minor at first but you soon want to take it back and get another.

And it's not the kind of thing we naturally want to talk about. My mum and a couple of close friends knew, and that was it. One pal cheerfully suggested 'sandblasting' as a possible cure, which as it wasn't far off what the doctors might actually do didn't help much.

The six months passed, as time does, and I went back for my second test which in the vast majority of cases shows an all-clear. A week or so later I got a second letter, telling me my cells were still 'abnormal' and now I needed to see a doctor.

Again, there was a pamphlet. Again, this happens to lots of people. Again, I had a cry and didn't really tell anyone.

I trotted off to a gynae clinic at my local hospital, and sat in a waiting room surrounded by women whose various stages of pregnancy showed their lady bits were working just fine, thank you. There were a few others like me, who weren't with a beaming husband or bulging belly, who looked a little strained because something was wrong.

I looked a lot more strained when the doctor put a camera up my fundamentals and my cervix appeared on his TV. That's not something a girl should ever have to see, or a boy either for that matter. It's a pink thing that looks a bit like one end of a sausage with a slit in it - not unlike a willy, really, but still not something which, in ordinary circumstances, needs a camera and flashlight pointed at it.

The doctor showed me where these 'abnormal' cells were, which just showed a slightly darker pink than the rest of them, and I tried not to vomit while he booked me in to have it treated. A few weeks later I was back and he used a laser to burn all the cells away, a process he said would be "painless, maybe something similar to period pains". Typical bloke. It was like being punched in the ovaries, so yes, just like period pains.

Another six months were allowed to pass, and an appointment was made for a check-up. It was cancelled and rearranged, then cancelled again, until eventually I got a third date. Each time it was put back I was given another two weeks or so to enjoy not knowing whether the treatment had worked and if more drastic measures might be needed. Each time I told myself it would be fine.

Last week I had that check-up with the nurse, and today I had a letter saying I had the all-clear. I will have another test in six months' time and if that is also fine then I will go back onto the three-year programme which the NHS has run since 1988.

And do you know, if it weren't for the blessing of anonymity I wouldn't sit and tell strangers this. I think perhaps we should talk about our bits more often. I think we should come up with a name other than 'smear test' which makes it sound like a preventative measure is dirty. I think male gynaecologists should be punched in the testes a few times so they know what "painless" feels like.

And I think £157million a year to employ 100,000 medical professionals to give three million women aged 25 to 64 peace of mind is money well spent. It also saves 3,900 lives every year, and who knows but this year mine might have been one of them.

So although it's quite literally a pain in the fanny, if you get a letter calling you to a test or you know someone who does - a friend, your wife, mother, sister, daughter - please make sure it's done. Talk to them about it and don't let anyone make them think that on the rare occasions a doctor might find something amiss they're any less beautiful because of it. If you move house, tell your doctor so you don't fall off the database.

Twenty two per cent of women who get those letters calling them in for a screening do not attend. If they had to pay for it I'm sure even more would not go. I'm damn glad I did, and even more grateful for everything which the flawed, messed-up and ultimately brilliant and free NHS has done for me.

It taught me to love my lady parts, and got them working properly too.

But that doesn't mean I like vets.