‘Every day I wish I could have availed of the HPV vaccine’
Kim Hanly has had a lengthy journey with cervical cancer
Kim Hanly set up Cervical Cancer Awareness Ireland, a support group to help women in Ireland affected by cervical cancer and cervical abnormalities.
About 300 women in Ireland are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year. Some are successfully cured, others are diagnosed too late to avail of treatment and, as we have seen in many high-profile cases over the past couple of years, some were mistakenly given the all-clear, leaving them – and their families – to face devastating consequences.
Kim Hanly was not misdiagnosed, but she has had a lengthy journey with the disease and is very grateful to be alive.
“In 2011, when I was 25, I started to have some light spotting but as I was on the depo injection [a form of contraception], I presumed it was a side effect from that,” says the 33 year old. “I then started to experience pelvic pain and a dull ache in my lower back and although I was due my first smear test, I put it off due to embarrassment.
“By May 2012, the symptoms had got worse so I attended my GP but I was not taken seriously and my symptoms were put down to my contraception and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). However, I was very sceptical that this was the issue, so I decided to finally book in with a nurse to have my first smear test. It was actually over in seconds and I have no idea why I was so embarrassed. The nurse was lovely and really listened to my concerns.”
The Dublin woman, who has two children – Shane (11) and Evan (9) – waited a few weeks for the results but never expected to be told she had cancer. “Four weeks after the smear test, I received a letter saying that abnormal cells had been detected and I was being referred to colposcopy,” says Kim who is a computing student. “The doctor confirmed that I had high-grade abnormalities [CIN3] so she performed a LLETZ procedure [a common way of removing cervical tissue for examination and treating precancerous changes of the cervix] and took some biopsies and two weeks after that I was called by the clinic and told my results had just come back and they wanted me to come in and see the doctor that afternoon.
“I brought my mam and sister with me and they waited outside while I went in to the doctor. She first checked how I was after my LLETZ (I had told them on the phone that I was still bleeding heavily) and then confirmed I had a bad infection so she treated the bleeding and prescribed antibiotics. I thought the appointment was over but then she motioned me over to her desk and it was here she then told me that I had cervical cancer.
“My mam and sister were still outside so I was on my own with the doctor and the young nurse. It was a very surreal moment, almost like it was happening to someone else. I just sat there and asked what happens next, I didn’t know what else to say. She told me I was being referred to St James gynaecology/oncology department, but she wanted me to have an MRI first so they booked me in for the next day. Then I left the room and as soon as I saw my sister, I just started crying as the reality hit me for the first time.
A long recovery
“Once everything was sorted with the hospital, they let me go home – but then I had the job of telling the rest of my family. It was absolutely awful. I was only 26 with a four year old and a two year old. I just could not believe it.”
She underwent several tests before going through surgery which would render her infertile. “I had to have an MRI and after that I met my oncologist who explained everything and ordered more tests so we could determine what stage the cancer was at,” she says. “After a PET/CT scan and an EUA [examination under anaesthetic], it was confirmed that I had stage 1b1 cervical cancer and would need to have a radical hysterectomy.
“This was a very hard thing to deal with – it was such a young age to be losing my fertility. I was so grateful I had my two boys when I did but the choice to have more was now being taken away from me and it is something I still struggle with to this day. I had the operation, which involved major surgery and unfortunately I got very unwell after it and needed blood transfusions and a longer stay in hospital.
“Recovery took months, which was very hard to go through as my two children were so young but my family were there to help and support me through it all. Thankfully during this time I was told the operation had been successful and I was now cancer free – getting that good news was such an amazing feeling.”
It has been seven years since Kim finished her cancer treatment and while she is doing very well both physically and mentally, the journey has not been an easy one.
“I am about to have my check-up in the near future but unfortunately, the past seven years has been quite difficult,” she admits. “I suffered a lot of side effects after the surgery, some of which I am still dealing with to this day. I have had numerous surgeries and procedures, a few scares that the cancer had come back (I am actually going through one right now but all tests show that it is very likely to be something which isn’t cancer related thankfully). And I have been diagnosed with some chronic illnesses which I will unfortunately have for the rest of my life.
“I am constantly in and out of hospital, which can be hard at times and this really affects me both physically and mentally. So it’s fair to say that I have gone through a lot over these last seven years but there have been some positives – I set up Cervical Cancer Awareness Ireland, a support group to help women in Ireland affected by cervical cancer and cervical abnormalities. And I also went back to college and graduated last year with a BSc(Hons) in computing and I am now back in college doing a follow on cert in networking and security.”
Earlier this year, HPV vaccine advocate Laura Brennan lost her life to cervical cancer after dedicating her final months to encouraging people to avail of the free HPV vaccine in schools (which wasn’t available when she was a teenager). In her memory and supported by Minister for Health Simon Harris, GAA clubs across the country have been sporting jerseys emblazoned with the HPV vaccine logo to honour the 26 year old and encourage others to vaccinate their children (although recently in her home county of Clare, referees were instructed not to wear such jerseys).
Having experienced the reality of cervical cancer, its treatment and uncertainties, Kim Hanly also strongly advises others to seek advice if worried and to ensure they avail of the vaccine where possible. “It has been a difficult few years but I am grateful to be here and to have achieved what I have while dealing with side effects, chronic pain and menopause,” she says. “I have been advocating for the HPV vaccine for a few years now as every day I wish that I could have availed of it myself as it could have saved me from the heartache and pain I have gone through these last seven years.
“So I would urge everyone to vaccinate their children. I am delighted that it has been rolled out to include boys and my two sons will be vaccinated when they go into first year. It is safe and it is effective. Nobody should go through any of this. I also urge all women to attend their cervical screening. I know it is so easy to put it off and ignore any worrying symptoms, just like I did, but it only takes a few minutes and it could save your life, just like it saved mine.”