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Why one woman passed off a sexually transmitted infection for nearly two years

Pictured: Jo Murray, before she was diagnosed with throat cancer

A mother-of-five whose sexually transmitted infection turned out to be a deadly cancer has opened up about the signs she missed – and why her one and half year wait for a diagnosis nearly cost her life. 

Jo Murray, from The Oaks in Sydney’s south-west, thought she was suffering from a simple sore throat at the end of 2019, until she noticed a lump.

The 46-year-old visited two doctors before she was told she had Stage Three cancer, which had spread to her tonsils, tongue and left lymph node, and was caused by HPV – the human papillomavirus.

HPV is a common sexually transmitted infection which usually shows no symptoms and goes away by itself, but it can turn cancerous in about ten per cent of cases. 

Mrs Murray said: ‘I had no idea what HPV was. No one spoke about that at school or in my family or friend group.’

Pictured: Jo Murray with her husband Brett. They each have two children, and one son together who is 15

Pictured: Jo Murray with her husband Brett. They each have two children, and one son together who is 15

Pictured: Mrs Murray with her daughter Josephine in Sydney before her cancer diagnosis

Pictured: Mrs Murray with her daughter Josephine in Sydney before her cancer diagnosis

The former banker said when she heard a specialist in March 2020 say the words ‘I’m sorry, you have cancer’, she thought it was a death sentence.

‘I’ve had uncles, aunties, cousins and a brother-in-law die of cancer – no one in my immediate family has survived it,’ she said.

The doctor said her chances of surviving were good and urged her to stay positive.

‘That really stuck with me and I didn’t let my emotions get in the way,’ she said. 

Over the following months, Mrs Murray underwent rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, ate and drank through a feeding tube, took pain medication every four hours and needed her husband Brett to care for her 24 hours a day. 

Most of her adult children lived interstate with their partners and couldn’t visit her due to Covid restrictions in hospitals at the time, but her sisters and mother cooked and helped around the house while she was sick. 

In August, she was told the cancer had gone.

Pictured: Mrs Murray with her sisters before her cancer diagnosis. Her family helped her get through her illness

Pictured: Mrs Murray with her sisters before her cancer diagnosis. Her family helped her get through her illness

Pictured: Mrs Murray with two of her children while in hospital. She relied on a feeding tube

Pictured: Mrs Murray with two of her children while in hospital. She relied on a feeding tube

Mrs Murray underwent rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, ate and drank through a feeding tube

Mrs Murray underwent rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, ate and drank through a feeding tube

‘I’m so lucky that I had my family there to look after me,’ she said. ‘And that I trusted my gut and got a second opinion.’

The first doctor she went to in early 2020 told her she was just ‘fighting off an infection’ and gave her a prescription for antibiotics.

‘I was really angry and unsure why – I just knew that it wasn’t an infection, and I knew something wasn’t right,’ she said.

He handed her a script, but she knew she wouldn’t fill it out and threw it straight in the bin and booked an appointment to see her regular GP when he was back from holidays.  

He sent her to a series of scans and tests that eventually lead to her life-saving diagnosis. 

Mrs Murray said she did not get regular pap smears at the time, but that the virus likely would have shown up if she did. 

Pictured: Mrs Murray with her mother in hospital while being treated for throat cancer

Pictured: Mrs Murray with her mother in hospital while being treated for throat cancer

Pictured: Mrs Murray celebrating her 46th birthday while hooked up to a feeding tube

Pictured: Mrs Murray celebrating her 46th birthday while hooked up to a feeding tube

Mrs Murray said she wouldn't have been able to survive cancer if it wasn't for her family (pictured)

Mrs Murray said she wouldn’t have been able to survive cancer if it wasn’t for her family (pictured)

She is now trying to encourage women of all ages to get tested regularly and get a second opinion if they know something is not right

She is now trying to encourage women of all ages to get tested regularly and get a second opinion if they know something is not right

She is now trying to encourage women of all ages to get tested regularly and get a second opinion if they know something is not right.  

‘It’s so important to not be embarrassed about talking about HPV – sex is human, and we need more people to be aware that it can lead to head and neck cancers,’ she said. 

She is hosting her first Australia’s Biggest Morning Tea on Saturday to raise awareness and money for the Cancer Council.

The mother encouraged others to get a second or third opinion where possible, and to ‘listen to your body’.

WHAT IS THE HUMAN PAPILLOMAVIRUS? 

HPV is a common sexually transmitted infection which usually shows no symptoms and goes away by itself, but can sometimes cause serious illness.

The virus is spread through intimate contact with genital skin and can infect both men and women. 

Condoms offer some but not total protection from HPV as they do not cover all of the genital skin. 

You can be exposed to HPV the first time sexual activity occurs or from only one sexual partner. 

There are different HPV types – some are considered ‘low-risk’ and others ‘high-risk’. 

Low-risk HPV types cause genital warts and do not cause cancer. Some high-risk HPV types can cause serious illness including cancer. 

HPV is responsible for:

– Almost all cases of genital warts and cervical cancer.

– 90 per cent of anal cancers.

– 65 per cent of vaginal cancers.

– 50 per cent of vulvar cancers.

– 35 per cent of penile cancers 

– 60 per cent of oropharyngeal cancers –  back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils.

Source: Cancer Council 

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