A woman who lost half her cervix after being diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, and yet still became a mother against the odds, says she is only alive today due to her insistence on getting a pap smear.
Pharmacist Kirsty Browne, 31, who lives in central Sydney, showed none of the usual symptoms associated with cervical cancer during a routine visit to her GP in 2014, but still requested a pap smear.
After being diagnosed with the cancer as a result, the then-26-year-old Ms Browne had a large part of her cervix removed and faced the likelihood of never becoming a mother.
However, less than three years later and after undergoing a new type of operation that made pregnancy viable, she defied the odds by welcoming a healthy baby boy, Baxter, now two.
Ms Browne, an awareness advocate with the Australian Cancer Council, said her story was an example to all women to be vigilant about their cervical health and get both vaccination and regular pap smears.
Sydney woman Kirsty Browne was just 26 when she was diagnosed with adenocarcinoma, a rare and aggressive form of cervical cancer (pictured during treatment in 2014)
Ms Browne, a pharmacist and cancer awareness advocate, underwent a partial removal of her cervix and defied the odds to welcome a healthy baby boy, Baxter, in 2017 (pictured together with her partner Murray)
In her early 20s, Ms Browne had a pap smear which detected abnormal cells but annual follow up checks cleared her of any cancer threat.
‘In 2014, I went to the GP for a new pill prescription and requested a pap smear even though I wasn’t due one,’ she told FEMAIL.
The test revealed glandular abnormalities, which are associated with a substantial risk of cervical cancer, and Ms Browne was referred to a specialist.
‘I worked as a pharmacist in a fertility clinic at the time, so I made an appointment with one of the specialists I knew and he told me they needed to do a cone biopsy, which is essentially cutting out a large section of the lower cervix,’ she said.
Devastatingly, Ms Browne was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cervical cancer called adenocarcinoma.
What is a trachelectomy?
A trachelectomy is the surgical removal of the cervix, upper vagina and surrounding tissue. Pelvic lymph nodes may also be removed. It can be used to treat some cases of early stage cervical cancer who wish to keep their fertility and ability to carry a child.
‘I was given a booklet on cervical cancer and adenocarcinoma was on the very last page. It actually said something like ‘don’t worry, you probably don’t have this form because it’s so rare, there’s a remarkably low chance’,’ she recalled.
Ms Browne was given three treatment options, including high-risk surgery to cut out the cancerous growths or a full hysterectomy which would have instantly kick-started menopause.
She was also offered a relatively new form of treatment called a trachelectomy, which involves a partial removal of the cervix and the creation of a new uterus closure, to give her the chance of having a baby.
Ms Browne was offered a full hysterectomy which would have instantly sent her into menopause, but opted for an experimental trachelectomy to give her the chance of carrying her own baby
What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer is the growth of abnormal cells in the lining of the cervix, the organ connecting the uterus and vagina.
It is usually a slow-growing cancer without symptoms, but can be diagnosed with regular Pap smears.
The most common cervical cancer is squamous cell carcinoma, which accounts for 70 percent of cases in Australia.
Adenocarcinoma is less common and more difficult to diagnose because it starts higher in the cervix.
Source: Cancer Council Australia
‘In my case, they told me the trachelectomy was not the most conservative thing to do for my cancer, but it was the only option that gave me the possibility of carrying a child,’ she said.
‘But there hadn’t been anyone in Australia who had done it – nobody at the hospital knew of any cases where women had delivered a baby after a trachelectomy.’
Despite the odds being stacked against her, Ms Browne opted for the partial removal followed by rounds of radiotherapy.
‘There’s a lot of people who have this notion that if you didn’t go through chemo and lose your hair, then you didn’t have cancer,’ she said.
Once the cancer is gone, the fertility stuff hits you like a tonne of bricks.
‘I was 26 years old, I had my womanhood cut out and had to reconcile the fact that I may never have children.
‘Once the cancer is gone, the fertility stuff hits you like a tonne of bricks. I think I would have rather lost my hair.’
Although the trachelectomy was successful, Ms Browne experienced severe complications to her pelvis and bowel and spent weeks in intensive care for a series of infections and lymphatic cysts.
In 2016, after two years without relapse, doctors gave Ms Browne permission to try for a baby.
‘They said, ‘just go for it, there’s never going to be a good time’ – I was such a complex case,’ she said.
‘My partner Murray and I went home, and two weeks later, I was pregnant.’
What are the causes of cervical cancer?
According to the Australian Cancer Council, almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by persistent infection with some high-risk types of the human papillomavirus (HPV).
Roughly eight in ten women will become infected with genital HPV at some point in their lives. Most women who have the HPV infection never get cervical cancer, and only a few types of HPV result in cervical cancer.
Smoking is another major risk factor.
Other risk factors include a weakened or compromised immune system, and exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES), an artificial form of the female hormone oestrogen.
Source: Cancer Council Australia
What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?
– Vaginal bleeding between periods
– Menstrual bleeding that is longer or heavier than usual
– Bleeding after sexual intercourse
– Unusual vaginal discharge
– Vaginal bleeding after menopause
While uncommon, advanced symptoms of cervical cancer include:
– Excessive tiredness
– Leg pain or swelling
– Lower back pain
Source: Cancer Council Australia
Despite her horrific health history, Ms Browne’s pregnancy passed without complication and she delivered Baxter at 35 weeks gestation
She said the fertility aspect of cancer diagnoses is often overlooked, and admitted the thought of never carrying a child hit her ‘like a tonne of bricks’ once she received the all clear (pictured, Ms Browne’s son Baxter as a newborn)
Incredibly, Ms Browne’s pregnancy passed without complication.
‘The whole thing was very unexciting – it was surreal, there was nothing scary,’ she admitted.
‘I had scans every Tuesday, and was put on bed rest at 25 weeks – but it was all fine, I couldn’t believe it.’
In 2017, Ms Browne, then 29, delivered her miracle son Baxter at 35 weeks gestation.
Next week, she has her final remission appointment which she is both ‘excited and scared’ about.
‘The only reason I’m still here is because I was so vigilant and pushed for a pap smear when I wasn’t due for one – I’d probably be dead if I hadn’t,’ she said.
Ms Browne believes she is alive today because of her decision to push for a Pap smear, even when she wasn’t due to have one
She stressed the importance of attending regular screening and vaccinating young people as early as possible
‘I had the HPV vaccination, but I had it at 18 and had already had a sexual partner. I also went for screening – I’ve had 15 pap smears, so it’s not that I’m negligent.
‘It really highlights the importance of getting vaccinated and checked at the recommended time.’
Dr Megan Smith from the NSW Cancer Council said great progress has been made in vaccine coverage over the past 12 years.
‘The HPV vaccination program was introduced in Australia in 2007,’ she told FEMAIL.
‘Until 2017, the plan offered protection against 70 to 75 percent of cervical cancers, but improvements in the vaccine mean we now provide 90 percent protection.’