A cancer survivor who suffered severe vaginal bleeding that made her feel like “someone had just popped a balloon”, before undergoing grueling treatment to remove a large vascular tumor in her cervix, wishes to send the positive message to other women that a diagnosis of cervical cancer is “not a death sentence”.
Joanne Painter, who lives in Northampton, was diagnosed with stage 2 cervical cancer aged 38 after noticing unusual vaginal discharge and then abnormal and heavy bleeding for several months.
The mother-of-two, founder and executive director of a natural green cemetery and humanist funeral celebrant, said the bleeding was so severe that at times it felt like “someone had just popped a balloon or to turn the tap on it”.
The now 43-year-old said doctors repeatedly told her they weren’t worried and that they were initially misdiagnosed as having cervical ectropion – when cells from inside the cervical canal are growing outside the cervix – but Joanne knew her symptoms shouldn’t be ignored.
After pushing for a diagnosis, in February 2018 Joanne was told she had cervical cancer and said she was ‘stunned’ – but now, as a survivor looking back on the last five years, Joanne wants to raise awareness of the importance of early treatment. detection and “remaining positive”.
“You know your body better than anyone, and if something is wrong, then don’t be fooled by any practitioner or doctor, or anyone who says ‘oh, you’re fine’…go on and get tested and get vaccinated, if you can, and don’t take no for an answer,” Joanne said.
“Obviously, the sooner you can get a diagnosis, the better your chances.”
Cervical cancer is cancer found anywhere in the cervix – the opening between the vagina and the uterus – and, according to the charity Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, it currently kills two women in the UK every day.
A cervical screening, known as a pap smear, checks the health of the cervix and is a test to help prevent cancer, but in Joanne’s case, her previous smear results were negative before her diagnosis.
After noticing an unusual discharge at the age of 38, which she described as “very watery”, Joanne contacted her GP to make an appointment.
She said the doctor “wasn’t very worried at all”, but a few days later she started having vaginal bleeding, which gradually got worse.
Joanne initially compared the bleeding to a ‘light period’ and was initially diagnosed as having cervical ectropion, but when she started bleeding through her sanitary napkins into her clothes and passed sometimes up to an hour in the bathroom, she knew “it’s not good”.
It got so bad that, on a theater outing with friends, she said she “felt this ‘pop’ and there was blood running down (her) legs”.
On another occasion, during a trip to Australia, she bled “for most of the 24 hour flight” and it “went through the seat of the plane”.
Joanne said: “The spotting turned into very heavy bleeding; I could sit on the toilet for 20 minutes at a time and it was like someone had just popped a balloon or turned on the tap, and it was just, drip, drip.
“That’s when I started thinking, ‘oh, that doesn’t look good,’ and at that point I felt really, really tired.
“I had a four-year-old and a seven-year-old, I was working full time, so I just blamed fatigue on that… (but) obviously I was losing a lot of blood, so that drive me back to see my doctor.
Joanne was referred to a genealogist at Northampton General Hospital but her husband Neil, 48, a builder, took her to hospital early because she ended up bleeding through her clothes again then that she was going out for dinner.
She said doctors again initially ignored her symptoms, but after spending the night trying to stop the bleeding, Joanne was told by a consultant gynecologist the next morning: “I’m so sorry, that doesn’t look good.”
She was informed that she had cervical cancer and after a biopsy was taken and she underwent various scans and an MRI, it was revealed that she had a vascular tumor of 6cm into her cervix, which would require treatment rather than surgery to remove.
“To be honest, I was totally and utterly in disbelief…I remember sitting there completely speechless,” Joanne said.
“I wasn’t particularly upset, I think it was just like, is this actually happening?
“Then, within about half an hour, a Macmillan nurse appeared at the bottom of my bed and introduced herself, and I think that’s when she sank – the reality of, oh my god, I actually have a Macmillan nurse sitting on the end of my bed, that’s not good news.
Joanne explained that the news was even harder to hear as she had lost her father to cancer nine years earlier, but despite her fears she knew she had to stay positive.
“I was sitting there thinking, my dad died of cancer, now they’re telling me I potentially have cancer, and I have a four-year-old and a seven-year-old, and I have I have to go through this because I can’t not be there for my kids,” Joanne explained.
“So very quickly, this irresistible need to survive invaded me.”
Joanne believes her positive mindset was fundamental in getting her through her treatment, which involved six weeks of chemoradiotherapy followed by three weeks of brachytherapy – a type of internal radiation therapy, which Joanne says left her with the “black and grilled” interior.
The mum-of-two explained that she hadn’t lost her hair, due to the type of chemotherapy she had undergone, but felt “awful” at times.
She said she suffered from severe exhaustion, chronic diarrhea and was ‘a bit hungover, like (she’d) had 20 shots of tequila’, and although she was ‘terrified’ at times , she knew she had to meet the challenges she faced, especially for her children.
“You can’t dwell on it, you just have to keep going,” Joanne said.
“You never want (your kids) to see you upset and you never want them to think you’re that bad, so you crack…
“I never felt like I needed advice, I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me; I never wanted to be defined as ‘Jo who had cancer’ so I was really like, just keep going with this, get through it, it’s not that bad.
Three months after her treatment ended, Joanne returned to the hospital for a check-up and received the ‘wonderful’ news that the tumor was gone.
Although Joanne said it took her “a long time to recover” and described the aftermath of her treatments, such as menopause, as a “train wreck”, she stressed the importance of having a good network support, exercise, and “being kind to yourself” during rehabilitation.
Joanne is also a “true believer in the Law of Attraction and spreading it out into the universe”, and she says writing affirmations has helped immensely.
“These things take time, so people probably need to know that they’re not going to bounce back and feel 100% afterwards and life will go back to normal,” she said.
“I think there’s a bit of adjustment in life and just accepting the new you; it’s ‘the new me’ now, and I’m different from what I was before, but that’s not a bad thing, it’s just a little bit different.
Joanne has regular check-ups every few months and although she has had “a few wobbles over the years” she wants to encourage other women who may have been diagnosed with cervical cancer to “try not to go down that tunnel for fear of ‘this is a death sentence’, adding, ‘You have everything to live for.
Cervical Cancer Awareness Week runs from January 23-29 and Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust is launching its biggest ever campaign: #WeCan End Cervical Cancer, to work towards a day when cervical cancer the uterus will be a thing of the past.
You can find out more by visiting the website here.