A North Devon nurse who was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2016 is sharing her story as part of a new national campaign.

Rhea Crighton, 36, was diagnosed with cervical cancer at the beginning of December 2016 after developing symptoms while she was pregnant.

She was five months pregnant when she began bleeding and developing pain when opening her bowels.

“I initially thought the bleeding was due to an issue with the placenta and after doctors excluded this, I put the symptoms down to ‘one of those things’ that sometimes happens in pregnancy,” she said.

“Eight weeks after giving birth I was still having symptoms and I was referred by a GP to gynaecology for further investigations.

“After several tests, I was informed that I had locally advanced stage 2b grade 2 squamous cell cervical cancer, I was not surprised as I had been told at coloscopy that it was most certainly a malignancy.

“However due to my pain and symptoms, I had diagnosed myself with stage 4 and so the news of stage 2b was actually a relief as the prognosis is much better.

“The oncologist explained that the cancer I had was too advanced for surgery but one that generally responds well to treatment, which would include radiotherapy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.”

Symptoms of treatment

Rhea Crighton in hospital receiving treatment for cervical cancer. Picture: Rhea CrightonRhea Crighton in hospital receiving treatment for cervical cancer. Picture: Rhea Crighton

The treatment Rhea underwent meant visiting the hospital daily for over a month and severe side effects such as painful and urgent diarrhoea, fatigue and painful burring when urinating.

Chemotherapy treatment caused her to experience nausea and vomiting, burning and tingling, pins and needles in her feet.

Now Rhea, a clinical nurse specialist in the pain team at Northern Devon Healthcare NHS Trust (NDHT), is urging women to attend their routine cervical screening.

It comes as part of a major new campaign by Public Health England launched today (March 5).

Around 275 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer in the South West each year and around 62 women die from the disease.

It is estimated that if everyone attended screening regularly, 83 per cent of cervical cancer cases could be prevented.

Rhea added: “My advice to women is to please attend cervical screening, if you are scared, anxious, have previous trauma talk to your GP/practice nurse/gynaecologist and they can help support you to find ways to have this screening test.

“Yes, it’s uncomfortable but not as uncomfortable as chemoradiation, a hysterectomy or death.”

Rhea Crighton in hospital receiving treatment for cervical cancer. Picture: Rhea CrightonRhea Crighton in hospital receiving treatment for cervical cancer. Picture: Rhea Crighton

A 20-year low for screening

New research from PHE shows that nearly all women eligible for screening (90 per cent) would be likely to take a test that could help prevent cancer, and of those who have attended screening, nine in 10 (94 per cent) would encourage others who are worried to attend their cervical screening.

Despite this, screening is at a 20-year low, with one in four eligible women (those aged 25 – 64) in the UK not attending their test.

The screening rate for the South West is 73.7 per cent, below the national standard of 80 per cent.

The new PHE campaign provides practical information about how to make the test more comfortable and gives reassurance to women, who may be fearful of finding out they have cancer, that screening is not a test for cancer.

Regular screening, which only takes a few minutes, can help stop cervical cancer before it starts, as the test identifies potentially harmful cells before they become cancerous and ensures women get the right treatment as soon as possible.

The PHE research shows that once women have been screened, the vast majority of women feel positive about the experience, with eight in 10 (87 per cent) stating they are glad they went and that they were put at ease by the nurse or doctor doing the test (84 per cent).

‘Stop putting it off’

Dr Julie Yates, lead consultant for screening and immunisation at Public Health England South West, said: “We know that cervical screening rates are at a 20 year low with one in four women in the UK not attending for their cervical screening.

“About 2,500 cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed in England each year and in 2014 -16, we know that 275 of those diagnosed were women from the South West.

“It’s important to understand that cervical screening isn’t a test for cancer, it’s a test to check the health of the cells in the cervix.

“Most women’s test results show that everything is normal but for around one in 20 women the test shows some abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix.

“Most of these changes won’t lead to cervical cancer and cells go back to normal on their own but, in some cases, the abnormal cells need to be removed so they can’t become cancerous.

“I want to reach out to all those women who may have not responded to their screening letters, or who may have missed a previous appointment, to arrange a screen now and stop putting it off.

“Regular screening means that cancer is usually detected early, which means that the outcomes for women are much better and the cancer is often much more treatable.”

For further information about cervical screening, click here.