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by Zoe Atkinson

I did not know much about the HPV virus growing up. Being 48 years old now, I was not offered any routine vaccination from HPV. I recall noticing young people were being offered this vaccination some years ago, but I did not pay a lot of attention to it until December 2019.

I have never missed my cervical screening tests every 3 years. In December 2019, I was surprised to receive a letter saying that I had tested positive for the HPV virus at my most recent exam. The letter was the first time I became aware that testing positive for HPV led to a greater risk of developing cervical cancer. I was reassured that the virus usually cleared itself without any treatment, and my result did not show any signs of cancer developing. I was asked to return for a repeat cervical screening in 12 months’ time.

HPV Doesn’t Always Clear Up

At the time, I did a bit of reading about HPV, and I was not unduly alarmed. When I had my repeat screening in December 2020 I believed the virus would have cleared but unfortunately, it had not. Once again, I was told that I had tested positive for HPV, but there was no sign of any pre-cancerous cells, so I was asked to return again in 12 months.

In early 2022, following a further cervical screening exam in late 2021, I was told that not only was the HPV virus still present but that I did now have pre-cancerous changes and I needed to attend for a biopsy. During that examination, I was again reassured that they were not looking for cancer but for precancerous changes. Unfortunately for me, the testing revealed that I did have cervical cancer. At that moment, my life changed forever.

I was admitted to the hospital for a hysterectomy in July 2022. The surgery removed my cervix, womb, ovaries, and appendix. I was in hospital for about 4 days after the operation, and then I was able to recover at home. Thankfully, I had good family support during my period of recovery.

From HPV Positive to Stage IV Cancer

In August 2022, I met my oncologist for the first time and was told that my cancer was already at stage IV. The samples taken during my surgery showed the cancer had spread from my cervix to my right ovary, my lymph nodes, and my right lung lining. I was informed that I needed chemotherapy, and it was likely this would be needed for the rest of my life. 

My first chemotherapy happened in August 2022. I was very scared before going and really worried about how I would feel afterward. There was a lot of information to take in about the treatment, medication, the side effects, and the impact on my daily life. I was frightened also about losing my hair and generally never being the same person again. I was told what I could and could not eat, activities and situations to avoid, and how to live with compromised immunity.

Chemotherapy is hard. It is tiring with different side effects that can happen each time. My main side effects are nausea and absolute exhaustion afterward for a few days. I have to take steroids the night before chemotherapy and for 3 days afterward, which causes sickness, lack of appetite, and terrible night sweats.

A cold cap has fortunately meant that I have kept my hair, and although it is thinner, I don’t need scarves or wigs at the moment. I have also had a PICC line fitted into my arm this year, which means that I don’t need to have a needle and cannula inserted into my hand every time I have treatment or have my blood taken.

How HPV Has Changed My Life

I am lucky in some ways as I have been able to return to work, and my employer is flexible around my hospital days. I try to lead as full a life as possible, and I recently had a holiday in the USA with my family. I still socialise with my family and friends when I can. I have just needed to adjust to one week in every 3 being taken over with hospital appointments and treatment. 

I have just had my 19th chemotherapy treatment. I will remain in active chemotherapy treatment for the rest of my life. Although I have had good results from my treatment, unfortunately, it does not appear I will achieve complete remission. I have intravenous chemotherapy every 3 weeks. My life has completely changed because of this virus that I knew very little about.

Had I been of the right age, I would have been vaccinated against the HPV virus at school quickly and easily. Unfortunately for me, it was not introduced until later years when I was too old to receive it.

Please take up the offer of HPV vaccination. Living with an easily preventable cancer is not something I would wish for anyone.

Zoe Atkinson is a 48 year old family solicitor living in East Yorkshire, UK. Her story, like all others on this blog, was a voluntary submission. If you want to help make a difference, submit your own post by emailing us through our contact form. We depend on real people like you sharing experience to protect others from misinformation.

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