At just 23 years old Sorcha Glenn is battling cervical cancer - here she tells her story and urges other women to make sure to get screened.
Wednesday was a good day for 23 year old Sorcha Glenn. She was able to get dressed, put on some make up and even go into town to meet some friends for lunch.
There is nothing, apart from perhaps the crutches she uses to help her get around, which distinguishes Sorcha from any other young woman of her age.
But for the last year Sorcha has been facing the fight of her life - after being diagnosed with cervical cancer at the age of just 22 - and despite her ordeal she remains steadfastly positive and determined to share her story to raise awareness of her condition.
“I had gone to my doctor last June to ask for a smear test, due to a family history of cervical cancer” Sorcha said. “I was told that smears aren’t routinely done until a woman turns 25, so I was happy enough with that. I assumed there mustn’t be a risk - and I wasn’t having symptoms at that stage.”
But just two months later, Sorcha started to experience abnormal bleeding between periods and suffered from pelvic cramping.
“So of course I went back to my doctor - who did a smear test there and then.”
While the test was being carried out Sorcha’s GP noticed a mass on her cervix and while she thought it may just have been a cyst, Sorcha was sent for a biopsy.
“When I went to book the biopsy, the doctor had a look. Then called two other doctors in to have a look and all of them took biopsies. I suppose I knew then that something was wrong - and I had to start preparing myself for the news that it could be cancer.”
After a long week, Sorcha and her boyfriend Matt went to meet with the gynaecologist at Altnagelvin Hospital.
“We had to wait for over an hour, but they were very keen we stayed and waited to see the doctor. And when she arrived we were taken to a wee room with a couple of chairs, and a box of tissues on a table and I knew then that it was cancer. I just started crying.”
But while Sorcha said she was upset, she didn’t become hysterical. “We didn’t know how bad it was, and we had to wait for more tests - so I suppose I was probably in shock. I just set about getting the other tests, telling people what was happening and all. I was up and down to Belfast for tests and as a young couple we were also faced with tough choices about our future.
“We had to decide what to do about my fertility. We knew the treatment would mean I would never carry children of my own so we had to decide whether to freeze my eggs, or try and freeze an embryo.
“It wasn’t even something we had discussed and we were left with very little time to make that decision. We were a young couple, unsure of what the future would bring. It was tough.
The couple decided to freeze some of Sorcha’s eggs and her gruelling treatment began.
She underwent six rounds of chemo, 30 radiotherapy sessions and brachytherapy.
“The first week, I was very sick,” she said, “But I didn’t lose my hair and I was happy about that. As the weeks went on I felt as if I was getting better - if I was getting stronger and then when my treatment was done, I thought that was it. I had done it.”
However a scan in January revealed 12 swollen lymph nodes -so Sorcha underwent surgery to remove some of them and test them. “They came back clear, so that was good news,” Sorcha said.
But then in March, a PET scan revealed the lymph nodes were still enlarged.
“At that stage I was told my best option was a full hysterectomy and full pelvic lymph node clearance.”
The news came as a shock to Sorcha, who had just celebrated her 23rd birthday and was feeling as if she was “getting back to herself”.
“But if that was what it was going to take to take the cancer away, then I was going to go for it. Nothing worked down there any more anyway!” she smiled.
So she underwent the surgery, plunging her body into early menopause. Of all her hurdles, this she said was the toughest. “No one can prepare you for surgery like that,” she said. “That was the one time I got really, really down about. I could barely move. I couldn’t eat. I lost two stone.”
But she said with the support of the medical professionals around her - and her mammy, she was able to get herself back on an evening keel.
But cancer was not done with Sorcha yet - and in June of this year she started another course of treatment. Just weeks later however it was found that her kidneys were enlarged and the cancer had reappeared in her lymph nodes.
Sorcha faced further treatment and the insertion of stents in her kidneys.
And her next bout of chemo almost cost her her life. “My daddy had been with me all day,” Sorcha said. “And he had just gone home when I was given my chemo. I went into anaphylactic shock - I couldn’t see. I couldn’t breathe. I felt like I was dying. It was terrifying.”
Thankfully doctors acted quickly to stop the treatment but it was a set back for Sorcha as doctors tried to find a suitable treatment to go forward with - and just last week she started her most recent cycle of chemotherapy.
The future remains uncertain, but Sorcha is unfailingly positive.
“There are only so many times you can ask why?” she said. “And then you have accept you are never going to know why and just get on with it,
“Perhaps the why was just so that I could help other women - to talk about cervical cancer and urge women to go for their smear tests.
“There is no fear in it - if you can get a bikini wax, you can get a smear! There’s no pain in it, and there’s no embarrassment in it.
“Ten seconds of being uncomfortable is so much better than going through what I am going through,” she said.
Sorcha is determined to do all she can to help others. This latest round of chemo will see her hair fall out - and even then she is determined to make a difference.
“When it starts to fall out, I’ll put it in a plait, cut it all off and donate it to the Little Princess Trust to make wigs for young girls with cancer. Better that than put it in the bin or wash it down the sink.”
She also wants to campaign for a change in the law to revert cervical cancer screening to the age of 20.
“If anyone has any concerns at all, regardless of what age they are, insist on a smear. In my opinion if a woman wants a smear she should have one - and she shouldn’t have to fight for it.”
While Sorcha impresses with her strength of character, she does not hesitate in paying tribute to all those around her who are supporting her. “My mammy and daddy ask me where I get my strength from but the truth is I get it from the people around me, from them and my sisters and brothers, Matt and my friends. You have to have bad days to balance the good, but they keep me going even when it is tough.”