My diagnosis was the day before my 28th birthday. I had spent three years ignoring the smear test letters because I felt embarrassed and scared. All of that fear seems foolish in hindsight and I recommend to any female who is actively running away from her health responsibilities to book an appointment and get checked. As they say: don't fear the smear.
As someone always looking on the bright side of life, I never believed the words, "You have cancer", would cause such horrendous misery and struggle. But for me, the cancer itself wasn't the issue. It was caught at Stage 1 and so I was tremendously blessed to be able to fly through NHS treatment (a cone biopsy) without discussions of chemo and radiotherapy.
No, the issue wasn't the cancer; the issue was myself. I was thinking I could take on the world, thinking I could cope with cancer alone, thinking I could keep it all a secret so that I didn't have to rely on anyone's help.
Straight after my diagnosis, I returned to the office and carried on as normal. I'm still not sure to this day how I managed the drive back without crying. As an individual who sobs at any rom-com, book or tales of woe...it doesn't make any sense that upon hearing the 'C' word, I didn't shed a single tear. I somehow managed to summon the courage to tell my best friend and parents, but even upon saying the words I still felt like I was in complete disbelief.
Days went past and life was seemingly normal. I wasn't struggling, I didn't talk to anyone about the diagnosis and I continued to be the bubbly, confident woman that everyone knew. If I wasn't at work, I was volunteering, out with friends or adventuring with my dogs. That's how my life had always been; busy, non-stop and always having a funny story to tell.
Cue: the breakdown.
At some point, and I have no idea when, my brain went into shut down. Paranoia, negativity and distress took over. I couldn't have normal conversations with people. If anyone asked how I was, I tried to change the subject, wear a poker face, avoid any details and shut everyone out from the truth. My mental health declined rapidly and I chose a new life as a recluse so that I didn't have to face reality. I started avoiding texts, deleted social media and stopped going out. I lost my job, lost my house and evolved into nothing more than a wallflower.
In my own mind I was rational; "It's only Stage 1. I'll be fine. There's no need for this charade". My anxiety on the other hand, was constructing an entirely opposing reality of someone who would be ostracised, discarded, misunderstood. I've never been great at asking for help. Ferociously independent and often the go-to for my social network for help and advice, I didn't feel as though I could burden anyone with my own suffering. So I made the decision to act in self defence. Before anyone had the chance to push me away, I pushed them instead. In reality, I would have been supported and loved unconditionally, but in my head, my anxiety and mental health was telling me I would be let down and discarded.
Eventually, I opened up - because I wanted to utilise my own experience to help others. I kept hearing that cervical cancer screenings were at an all time low on the news, and I wanted to do 'my bit' to help; even for just one person. I was pleasantly surprised by how supportive and loving they were towards me. Although I lost a few friends who didn't understand or empathise with my journey and that's fine. Not everyone can come along with you on such an emotional and life-altering ride.
Looking back, I don't feel like my fight was with cancer. I feel like I was on a different battlefield entirely, where one version of me was warring against a different version of me. The everyday, optimistic and happy go lucky Francesca was somewhat drowned by the anxious, paranoid and emotional impact of cancer and mental health.
Now, I’m working for Cancer Research UK and I meet people every day who have their own insights to share and who I believe to be true representations of what it's like to live with this horrific disease. Don't make the same mistake I did. We are privileged to have cervical screening available to us - use it! It could save your life.