Real Stories
18 June 2024

CancerCare client, Emma, helps raise awareness of ‘taboo’ cancers

Real Stories
18 June 2024

The importance of a cervical screening for Emma, 30, from Lancaster, proved to be invaluable, as she has since been diagnosed with vulva cancer.

Emma went for her first smear test when she was 24, and received a letter to say that the she had tested positive for HPV with CIN 1, 2 and 3, which is essentially mild to severe cell changes. Following a colposcopy, Emma underwent LLETZ treatment, to treat the cells, and was advised that she should have a smear test every year for the next 10 years to monitor the cells.

In 2019, during the pregnancy of Emma’s 3rd child, she started to notice some unusual and concerning changes to her vulva; she had some discolouration to her skin, some lumps had appeared and the area was swollen and itchy. “The symptoms were embarrassing, and I didn’t know if it was normal during and after pregnancy, so I didn’t rush to my doctors”, said Emma. “I finally mustered up the courage to go to get checked and the doctor first suggested it was herpes, so prescribed some medication. However, I still didn’t feel this was what I had, so decided to go back to my GP. Due to my cervical screening history, I was referred for a fast-track gynaecology screening” Emma explained.

The screening and several biopsy tests resulted in a diagnosis of Stage 1B HPV related squamous cell carcinoma. “In essence, it’s multifocal cancer of the vulva” Emma said.

It was a huge shock for Emma as she had not heard about that type of cancer before, or that it was possible for ladies under the age of 30 to be diagnosed. Emma under-went several operations in Sept 2023, including an anterior vulvectomy and a clitoridectomy. Emma has had more cell screening tests, and results have shown that these are pre-cancerous, and will therefore continue to undergo some treatment with the vulva specialist at Preston Hospital. She is waiting to hear whether chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy will be beneficial to her treatment.

Emma received some help from the community mental health team, as she felt extremely lonely. The mental health nurse recommended CancerCare to her, and she helped Emma to refer herself. “When I came for my assessment with Georgie I immediately felt at ease” said Emma. “She explained all of the choices of therapy, and recommended I had some aromatherapy massages as my body was constantly tense from worry. I couldn’t relax or escape my mind.”

Emma attended a course of sessions with therapist Susannah, who really helped Emma not only to relax, but to build her confidence with talking about her cancer. Emma was worried about a couple of moles on her face and was worried to go and get them checked, but with Susannah’s advice and support Emma went to the GP and was relieved to learn they were not cancerous. Emma even felt that she did not need her final massage appointment, so decided to cancel and free up the space for someone more in-need.

“It's been exactly 1 year since I had the cancer diagnosis and a lot has changed. I'm still trying to come to terms with the new changes to my body and accepting that this is the new me now. It's a lot to digest” said Emma.

Vulva cancer is very rarely talked about in the media, and Emma is keen to ‘normalise’ these types of cancer, which can be embarrassing and difficult to talk about. Emma said, “I just hope that in time there will be more awareness raised for these types of cancers.”

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