Mother, 24, is diagnosed with cervical cancer after doctors wrongly assumed her tell-tale symptoms were caused by chlamydia
- Mum-of-two brushed her symptoms off as a period before they became painful
- Now she is campaigning to lower the HPV screening age from 25 to 21
Courtney Gibbons, 24, was just 22 when she started to notice some strange symptoms, including spotting and pain
A single mother deemed too young for a smear test has told of her agony at being diagnosed with cervical cancer.
Courtney Gibbons, from Leyland, near Preston, started to find spots of blood in her underwear in August 2021, when she was just 22.
Assuming she was too young for cancer, the mother-of-two initially brushed off her strange symptoms as being down to her period.
Ms Gibbons, who works at a care home, was working part-time but quickly found her symptoms made everyday tasks unmanageable.
By October 2021, she started to bleed every time she lifted something heavy or coughed and developed an ‘unfamiliar’ pain in her stomach — all symptoms of cervical cancer.
She even struggled to pick up her three-year-old son Kamiy and daughter Ariah, five, without pain rippling through her stomach, prompting her to seek medical opinion.
Ms Gibbons’ GP wanted to test for chlamydia, even though Ms Gibbons thought it was unlikely. Her test results were negative.
Medication prescribed to help control the bleeding and pain didn’t work.
Recalling her ordeal pre-diagnosis, Ms Gibbons – who had been vaccinated against HPV, the main cause of the disease – said: ‘The constant stomach pain was making it hard to keep up with my busy life.’
Doctors told her it could be a 10 month wait to see a gynaecologist for answers on the NHS.
Her GP told her there was a nearby private hospital that occasionally had space for NHS patients.
Courtney Gibbons pictured (centre) with her children Ariah (left) and Kamiy (right), thought she was ‘too young’ to get cervical cancer
Desperate for answers, Ms Gibbons rang up and begged for any free appointment. Luckily the hospital had a cancelation and she was able to go in the following week for tests and a cervix scan.
As Ms Gibbons was leaving, the doctor told her: ‘I’ll see you again in a few weeks.’
Yet she was hopeful that it ‘might just be nothing’, adding that she was ‘too busy’ to worry about the reality.
She was given the heartbreaking cervical cancer diagnosis a few days later while out with her two children.
Recalling the moment she was dealt the news, Ms Gibbons said: ‘For a few seconds, I couldn’t process her words.’
Her doctor reportedly told Ms Gibbons before her operation the cancer may have been developing for years
Ms Gibbons pictured (left) after her operation to remove her her uterus, cervix, fallopian tubes, appendix and lymph nodes. Ms Gibbons, pictured (right) showing her scar, says her diagnosis was a ‘wake-up call’ and she believes if she was screened in her early 20s, medics might have caught the cancer earlier
Unable to bring herself to tell Kamiy and Ariah the agonising truth, she instead told them that she had a ‘little man called Frank’ living in her stomach who was ‘making me feel a bit poorly’.
Doctors found the cancer had spread to Ms Gibbons’ fallopian tubes and appendix a month later.
WHAT IS CERVICAL CANCER?
Cervical cancer affects the lining of the lower part of womb.
The most common symptom is unusual bleeding, such as between periods, during sex or after the menopause, but other signs can include:
- Pain during sex
- Vaginal discharge that smells
- Pain in the pelvis
Causes can include:
- Age – more than half of sufferers are under 45
- HPV infection – which affects most people at some point in their lives
- Smoking – responsible for 21 per cent of cases
- Contraceptive pill – linked to 10 per cent of cases
- Having children
- Family history of cervical or other types of cancer, like vagina
Source: Cancer Research UK
She was reportedly told the cancer ‘must have been developing for years’ – but she explained she ‘didn’t have time to worry about it’.
Ms Gibbons had her uterus, cervix, fallopian tubes and appendix removed in a four-hour operation in September 2022, a year after first spotting symptoms.
Doctors wanted to take a ‘less invasive approach’ but because the cancer had spread so far it was ‘no-longer an option’, she said.
Before treatment, the surgeon remarked that Ms Gibbons was the youngest person they had ever seen with this condition.
Ms Gibbons said: ‘When I woke up, there was no one by my bedside. My family were all busy with work or looking after my kids.
‘Though I was groggy and sore, the medication dulled the pain.
‘I had to remain in hospital for a week, followed by bed rest for another six weeks.’
Back at home her children helped her with households tasks, but she still struggled to rest.
She said: ‘I was meant to be on bed rest for two months, but that was a tough rule to follow.
‘In just over a week, I was cleaning my house and cooking breakfast pancakes for the kids.
‘Though there were tears of pain in my eyes, I knew I had to keep going.
‘When the time came for the school run, I wrapped my stomach in clingfilm for protection.
‘What was usually a 20-minute walk was now an hour’s painful trudge.’
But gradually she started to improve, her scar healed and her doctors told her she was in remission.
During Ms Gibbons’ recovery her children helped her with households tasks, but she still struggled to rest and walk her cildren to school. But gradually she started to improve, her scar healed and her doctors told her she was in remission
The 24-year-old is now campaigning to lower the HPV screening age to 21 from 25
Ms Gibbons said: ‘Over the next few months, I came to terms with my new body. I had to learn to love my scar and accept that I could no longer carry children.
‘It really impacted my sense of femininity, and I didn’t want to rule out more kids one day.
‘Fortunately, the NHS offer some support with egg-freezing and surrogacy.’
Her diagnosis was a ‘wake-up call’ and she believes if she was screened in her early 20s, medics might have caught the cancer earlier.
Now, almost a year since her operation she has started a campaign to lower the HPV screening age to 21.
Women aged between 25 and 64 are invited for regular smear tests under the NHS Cervical Screening Programme. This is intended to detect abnormalities within the cervix that could, if untreated, develop into cervical cancer.
WHAT IS A SMEAR TEST?
A smear test detects abnormal cells on the cervix, which is the entrance to the uterus from the vagina.
Removing these cells can prevent cervical cancer.
Most test results come back clear, however, one in 20 women show abnormal changes to the cells of their cervix.
In some cases, these need to be removed or can become cancerous.
Cervical cancer most commonly affects sexually-active women aged between 30 and 45.
In the UK, the NHS Cervical Screening Programme invites women aged 25-to-49 for a smear every three years, those aged 50 to 64 every five years, and women over 65 if they have not been screened since 50 or have previously had abnormal results.
Women must be registered with a GP to be invited for a test.
In the US, tests start when women turn 21 and are carried out every three years until they reach 65.
Changes in cervical cells are often caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV), which can be transmitted during sex.
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