“We are not invincible” a young woman's brush with cervical cancer
Every 60 seconds, someone’s mother, wife, sister, aunt or daughter is diagnosed with cervical cancer somewhere in the world, with over 800 cases diagnosed in Australia each year.
Australia is on track to be the first country to eliminate cervical cancer by as early as 2028. A game-changing step towards elimination is the federal government’s expanded self- collection program, now available to all women aged between 24 and 75 years old.
Previously women had to be 30 years old to be eligible. This expanded program has the potential to remove some cultural and personal barriers that may discourage some women from screening.
Before self-collection, women had to endure an uncomfortable procedure whereby a healthcare professional inserted a large speculum device deeply into the vagina, which many women found intrusive, awkward and at worst, painful.
Now, the process is much simpler. Women obtain a swab (like a long cotton bud) from a GP or other health professional, go to a quiet, private room in a clinic and gently insert the swab into their vagina (similar to inserting a tampon). They then give this to their GP who sends it to the lab for cancer screening.
Caitlin’s story is a cautionary tale of the importance of screening – especially for younger women, illustrating how confronting it can be to receive a cervical cancer scare. It’s hoped the new program will be a game-changer to encourage more women to get screened, as studies show a direct link between higher screening numbers and lower incidence of cervical cancer.
Caitlin Rose, now 27, was just 21 when a cervical cancer screening returned an abnormal result as HPV (Human Papillomavirus), C-16 and C-18 were detected.
“If I am being honest, I hadn’t thought much about getting a cervical screening test done. It was one of those things that was in the back of my head to do but it just didn’t feel like a priority.
“My GP said, “You really need to look into having a cervical cancer screening as you haven’t had one before.” It was only when I went home to my partner at the time he encouraged me to follow up with the doctor’s advice “You should do it, if you don’t do it, you will never know,” he expressed.
“I had this GP since I was 12 and we knew each other very well. She explained the process and that it could be painful or uncomfortable, ensuring I knew what to expect. I don’t want to use the word ‘embarrassing’ because it isn’t, it was more about being self-conscious.
“I was at work when my doctor called with the results. I was anticipating ‘all good’ results. It never crossed my mind to be worried because there’s an assumption of “I’m young, there is no way anything could be wrong.” I was up to date with my vaccinations, so it was a huge shock when I got the call telling me that I had HPV and it was important to follow this up as it can lead to cervical cancer. I was horrified as she explained it was a sexually transmitted disease.
“I was initially very quiet about my diagnosis, only sharing with my mum, sister and partner because there is a stigma attached to HPV because it is an STD. I initially felt this sense of shame.
“If I could speak to my younger self about what I would do differently it would first say “Listen to the health advice and experts”. There is this kind of invincibility idea when you’re young, like “It’s not going to happen to me”. I would say “We are not invincible, bad things can happen and we need to take responsibility for ourselves and our actions.”
“A lot of my friends were hesitant to go for their first screening and I wonder if this would have been different if we had the self-collection option. I think why wait? It’s a quick and relatively easy thing that could change the trajectory of your life.
“Now that we can self-collect, it makes it a lot easier and stress-free.”
Australia’s leading supplier of the HPV test, Roche Diagnostics has confirmed their tests are more widely available across the country in line with the expanded program, so women in areas like Western Australia and some regional and remote areas will have better access to the new Cervical Cancer Screening Program.