KAREN Hobbs was on vacation when she noticed a small amount of brown discharge in her panties.
She put it down to the fact that she’d taped their pill packs back-to-back – which is safe to do – and she knew it wasn’t normal for her, but wasn’t overly concerned at first.
Karen, 33, from London, says: “I thought my body was like, ‘Oh, we’re usually going to have a little withdrawal bleed now, let me out!’
“I wasn’t in pain or uncomfortable.”
She was 24 years old when her symptoms began in September 2014.
In November of this year, Karen was diagnosed with cervical cancer – a diagnosis that more than 3,000 women in the UK are diagnosed with every year.
As she sat down with her doctor after a biopsy, Karen recalls, “I urged him to just tell me [if it was cancer].
“He said, ‘We’ll have to wait for the biopsy results, but’ — as soon as I heard ‘but,’ I thought about my funeral.
“I already planned it, what would I wear in the coffin?”
Karen shares her story in aid of The Eve Appeal, the leading gynecologic cancer charity that raises money to fund the research.
It is behind Get Lippy, an annual campaign in May to encourage discussion about gynecology.
Coming home from vacation, Karen noticed bright red blood after having sex with her then-boyfriend: “I thought one of us had been cut.”
The comedian felt even more blood when she went to the toilet afterwards.
Googling “bleeding between periods and after sex” brought up a whole list of possible conditions: problems in early pregnancy, untreated STDs, pelvic inflammatory disease — and cervical cancer made the list.
In general, the symptoms of gynecological cancer tend to be something less serious than cancer, but the symptoms should always be evaluated by a doctor.
“It’s still kind of weird to say, but I had my fingers crossed for chlamydia,” Karen recalls. “I thought out of all those things I took chlamydia.”
However, an STI check ruled that out, so she went to the family doctor.
At 24, Karen was too young for cervical cancer screening – these are offered by the NHS every three years from ages 25 to 64 – and was too old for the HPV vaccine when it was first introduced, so she had it not had a speculum exam before.
Karen says: “The doctor said it’s probably something called cervical erosion or cervical ectropion — when the delicate cells inside the cervix protrude and can bleed easily when disturbed, like during sex.
“It’s fairly common, especially in premenopausal women and women who take hormonal birth control.
“The doctor said I would most likely just have to change my birth control to fix it – it’s not related to cancer at all.
“She took one look and said, ‘Okay, the cervix does look bright red and angry, so we’re going to send you for a colposcopy.”
Anyone who has ever had an abnormal cervix screening is sent for a colposcopy so the experts can take a closer look at the cervix.
“At this point I was hoping it’s still that cervical erosion, but when you go from a sex clinic to the doctor’s office to the hospital, you obviously have a sense that things are getting worse, even if they’re not necessarily the case,” says Karen.
“The doctor looked at my cervix and after a few minutes said, ‘I’ll just get someone older.’
“Then you think it’s getting more and more unlikely that it’s a pack of pills.
“A senior medical specialist came in, checked and did a biopsy, which is quite common.
“He said, ‘Get dressed, come and sit down’. I panicked. I sat down and asked, ‘Is it cancer?’
“He rightly said that we would have to wait for the biopsy results, which could take a couple of weeks.
“He added, ‘But I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I’d be very surprised if that wasn’t cancer.
“That was the worst moment because it had gone from nothing to cancer.
“The next worst moment was the wait time between realizing it was cancer and realizing how much cancer I had.”
Cervical Cancer: Signs and Symptoms
According to The Eve Appeal, signs of cervical cancer to look out for include:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding
- Changes in vaginal discharge
- pain or discomfort during sex
- Unexplained pain in the lower back or between the hip bones
If you experience any of these symptoms, make an appointment with your GP.
Karen had advanced cervical cancer and underwent surgery to remove her cervix and part of her vagina.
Luckily, she didn’t need chemotherapy or radiotherapy.
She says: “It’s so strange to say I was really lucky because I wasn’t, I had cancer when I was 24 but I’ve been to funerals of people in their 20s because of it.
“I feel lucky because I was sick, but I wasn’t as sick as I could have been and that’s only because I went to the doctor a few weeks after I had symptoms.”
“I was diagnosed early because I didn’t have barriers,” she adds, acknowledging that not everyone is in the same situation.
Experiences of sexual violence or abuse, a physical, mental or learning disability, issues related to parenting and speaking English as a second language are among many reasons that can delay or prevent people from seeking medical help early.
“My grandma taught me how to insert my first tampon.
“I used to wear my mother’s pads because I wanted to get involved—we were a very nice family,” says Karen.
“I felt comfortable booking the appointment and was diagnosed early because I was able to see the doctor early.
“There is no shame; You are not a worse person, you were not a worse cancer patient if you were diagnosed later than me.”
Karen may not have experienced barriers to medical care, but she has faced stigma.
She remembers a colleague asking what was wrong with her health.
“I was obviously scared of the surgery but I had no qualms about sharing what was going on because why should I?
“In my head there was nothing to be ashamed of.
“So I said, ‘It’s pretty annoying, but I have cervical cancer.’
“She said, ‘Oh my god, I’m really sorry. How did you get it?’
“And I thought, would you ask that question about any other cancer?
“Because it’s between my legs and in my pelvis, right? You wouldn’t ask that if it was testicular cancer.
“There’s still a stigma when there’s something wrong with the anatomy of your gynecology or the female reproductive system — some people think that if you have a problem in that area, there’s something wrong with you. Which is just ridiculous.
“I was a little taken aback but explained that it’s caused by a virus called human papillomavirus HPV, which is very common and transmitted through sexual contact.
“I said that, thought nothing of it, and then she said, ‘I thought you had a boyfriend.’
“I thought you were asking how I got something in my body gynecologically and then questioning my lifestyle and sexual activity?!
“People don’t realize how common HPV is, they assume if you have HPV you are not practicing safe sex, even though condoms don’t completely prevent HPV.”
HPV can be transmitted through any sexual contact or touch, not just penetrative sex.
“I found it absolutely ridiculous that I had to defend the kind of illness I had.”
Karen believes HPV was historically seen as a problem for girls – the vaccine was initially only available for young girls, which has increased the stigma and misinformation surrounding the virus.
“Now the vaccine is being offered to all children ages 12 to 13, which I think has really changed the conversation,” she says.
“The misinformation, assumptions and stigma and the questions people are asking about gyno issues versus other types of cancer is quite a bit first-hand.”
IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT
She wants people to know, “If you have a gynecology problem or cancer or any other health problem, whatever it is, you haven’t done anything wrong.
“I want people to know that HPV is incredibly common. Most people who have had some kind of sexual dabbling will get it at some point in their lives.
“If you’re told you have HPV, it doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong sexually, and it doesn’t mean your partner has cheated on you.
“If you’ve had the vaccine, that’s fantastic. I’m so happy and jealous!
“But please go to your cervical cancer screening anyway, but if you have any symptoms, don’t wait for your next screening – symptoms are separate from screening!
“Cervical screening is not designed to detect cancer. It was designed to detect HPV, which could cause cancer.
“If you have any symptoms you don’t need cervical cancer screening, you need to speak to your GP and get referred for further testing.”
And on the subject of shame, Karen says enough is enough: “I want people to know that there shouldn’t be any shame, but I can’t stop people from feeling it.
“I’d like to wave a magic wand to make everyone feel better, but I understand it’s a really difficult thing to pull through.”
Get Lippy is asking everyone to share their ‘younger selfie’ – what they wish they knew about gyno health.
Visit getlippy.org.uk for more details.
For more information on gynaecology, see The Eve Appeal at eveappeal.org.uk.