‘I didn’t know anyone else who had abnormal cervical cells’

World Cancer Day raises awareness of cancer detection, treatment and prevention. During Cervical Cancer Prevention Week 2020, which took place in January, reports indicated the target for women aged 25-49 who attended screening in England is around 10% lower than the government’s 80% target.

Public Health England (PHE) launched the first ever national cervical screening campaign, ‘Cervical Screening Saves Lives’, in March 2019 after the number of women attending screening reached a 20-year low. The campaign focussed on eligible women under age 35, south Asian, black, and lesbian, bisexual women and those from poor backgrounds.

While cervical screening is not test for cancer, it helps prevent cancer by detecting the health of the cervix – the opening to the womb from the vagina; but there is still a mixture of fear and nonchalance towards the test, which became an NHS screening programme in 1988.

I spoke to Isha Webber, 30, from Woolwich in South London about her experience of  finding abnormal cells in her cervix and how it turned her into a gynaecological advocate, while studying for a family law qualification.

My first cervical screening test came back normal, so I was fine with the process…
I didn’t get a reminder letter but was at my doctors in June 2018 for a check-up because I was on antidepressants. While taking my blood pressure the nurse said, “Oh, the system says you’re due for a cervical screening test”, so I booked one for July.

I had the test on a Tuesday and got a call on Thursday the same week…
A receptionist told me they found abnormal cells that needed to be removed and I was booked in for the Monday.

Isha went to her previous screening test, which was the first one she was invited to as she was then within the eligible age bracket. She was shocked that her second routine test indicated abnormal cells. The NHS offers cervical screening to anyone with a cervix between ages 25-64; this is supposed to be done every three years for those aged 25-49 and every five years for those between 50-64. Those 65 or older are offered screening if a previous test picked up abnormal cells in the cervix.

Infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV) can increase the risk of cervical cancer and spreads through skin-to-skin contact. It’s a common infection which doesn’t usually cause any symptoms, so most people are unaware they have it, and for some it clears up on its own. But for those who experience cells changes, these abnormal cells can develop into cancer if not treated.

I went straight to the NHS website, but it was quite vague…
I had so many questions in my head like, how abnormal should cells be before they are removed? What are the different stages of abnormal cells? I went onto You Tube, used Google and came across Jo’s cervical cancer trust. I also found useful information from Australia, the US and some Scandinavian countries.

After the initial shock, I tried to be more positive…
I thought, OK, I’m glad that this has been found, the biopsy will be over the summer and I can just get this sorted. My mum was more stressed than me but wanted to come to my appointment. I did my research so felt prepared.

Isha speaking about her experience at BBC West Midlands 95.6 radio in May 2019.
Credit: @isha.webber

One of the nurses read through my notes, re-iterated my age, marital status, and asked if I had children…
She said I looked young which didn’t really help me feel any better about the situation to be honest. I was put under general anaesthetic before I had the large loop excision of the transformation zone (LLETZ) procedure.

When Isha mentioned the name of the procedure, it sounded a b mouthful but the NHS say, LLETZ is the most common procedure for removing abnormal cells from the cervix. It’s usually performed under local anaesthetic but Isha’s was done under general anaesthetic because of where her abnormal cells were located. 

The gynaecology department also includes antenatal services…
And some of the staff assumed I was there for a baby scan. Most of the women I saw going in for (want I assume was) similar procedures to me were older than me. They all went through the left door, and that’s the same door I was had to go though.

Some of my friends said, ‘oh don’t worry God will heal you’, it’s just a 15-minute thing and you’ll bounce back,’…
Because of reactions like that I stopped talking to people about how I was feeling before my procedure. It took me a week in bed to ‘bounce back’ – because, I think the anaesthetic still needed to get out of my system. I still had to monitor myself to see if I got a yeast infection and then wait six months for the follow up.

I didn’t know anyone else who had abnormal cervical cells…
It was tough but after everything, I decided to talk about my experience on social media and kept telling friends to go for screening.

Jo’s cervical cancer trust was one of the best  sites I found…
So, after having the LLETZ, I got in contact saying I was willing to work with them to raise awareness about cervical cancer prevention. I thought it would help others if they saw more black women featured on their site.

Isha collaborated with Jo’s cervical cancer trust after her diagnosis.
Credit: Jo’s cervical cancer trust

I realised there were so many myths around having a cervical screening test…
People don’t know there are different size speculums, some thought their male GP would do the test instead of a female nurse. When I started talking about my experience, I received lots of messages from black women my age, saying they didn’t realise cervical screening was so important and treated the reminder letters as NHS junk mail.

Some of my friends said they found it difficult taking time off work to go for screening…
Employers need to accept screening as a normal part of health management. Also, if talking about it with friends becomes as normal as talking about hair and makeup, then fewer women would be scared or ambivalent about it.

Lots of my friends who are born again Christians said they were celibate…
So didn’t think they need the test; but I was celibate before and around the time I was diagnosed with abnormal cells. Whether your celibate, monogamous, gay or straight you should go for screening and you don’t need to ask your mum, grandma or auntie for permission. Just go for the test.

I grew up in a Muslim family and was a Christian for six years
And definitely think religious groups should do more about encouraging women to go for cervical screening; it’s still a taboo subject in religious circles. I’m not following any particular religion now; after my diagnosis I really struggled and said to God, ‘I don’t really know why this is happening’. But for those who are religious, it would be a positive thing if their organisations speak about it.

I’m of Sierra Leonean heritage and think black people have some distrust towards the healthcare system…
Parts of gynaecological history was based on enslaved African women being tested on without pain relief. We’re also private people and reproductive health is a sensitive area because having children is a big part of African and Caribbean culture.

I’m feminist and focus on black women issues in this space…
I never thought of being a gynaecological advocate, but now love talking to people from different faith and sexual orientations.

Isha continues to work with organisations to raise awareness of cervical screening and across her social media. Reports last year said a DIY urine test was being piloted as an alternative to the current screening method, which scientists hope will encourage more women to test themselves by sending samples via post to be reviewed. Until this or any other alternative become reality, it’s still important for women to go for screening to prevent cervical cancer.

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