Cervical cancer patient Jenna-Lea Clark interview: 26/08/2015
Our daughter, Summer, was seven weeks old when I was first alerted to the fact that I may have cancer. At 28 years old, and a new mum, this was the furthest thing from my mind at the time, but how quickly life can change.
When I was pregnant and attending regular appointments at RPA, I can remember walking past Lifehouse, looking in through the glass and thinking how all of these everyday people were likely going through such a hard time. Yet, I also recall thinking it looked like such a nice, warm and welcoming place. I couldn’t believe it when seven weeks after giving birth I was on the other side of that glass myself.
I have always been very diligent with pap smears. I was due for one when I was eight months pregnant and advised that we would need to delay it until after the birth. When I took Summer for her six-week check-up, my GP said, why don’t we do that pap smear now? Luckily I agreed, if I had put it off for six months it would have been a whole different story.
My GP called me in a few days later. The results were bad. Before I left she had booked me in to see Professor Carter at Lifehouse. Everything happened so fast and over the next few weeks I had some pretty severe tests and procedures. Due to my body still recovering from birth, there were some complications and I ended up in Emergency twice. On the second occasion, I remember it was a terrible rainy, stormy Saturday night. I could hear Unine, one of Professor Carter’s team, talking to the nurses in Emergency. I found out later she’d just finished a shift and driven home when she got the call that I was in Emergency. She came all the way back to see me, which was just amazing.
Throughout the evening my condition deteriorated and Unine informed us that I would need to have surgery first thing in the morning. At 7am the next day Professor Carter walked through the door. I remember saying, what are you doing here on a Sunday morning? And he said, “You think I wouldn’t be here?!”
A week later, on December 18, my husband, baby daughter and I met with Professor Carter again and were given the results from all the tests. Unfortunately, it was worse than expected. I was diagnosed with cervical adenocarcinoma. I had a tumour growing in the glands behind my cervical wall. The tumour was an extremely rare type of cancer, which is definitely not commonly seen in people my age (28). My pregnancy had hidden all the warning signs.
Everyone was sitting by the phone waiting to hear how it went, then people were coming over one by one; everyone was crying, except me at this stage. It was such an odd feeling, it was as if it had registered with everyone around me, but hadn’t set in for me yet. I remember comforting everyone, saying “it’ll be fine” but feeling a complete numbness. Once my husband and I were alone, and Summer was asleep, my tears came, my fear came. It certainly didn’t feel like a very joyous Christmas, but I was surrounded by my family which was all that mattered to me. The support and love from them kept me going.
In January, Professor Carter gave us all the options. I could have a full radical hysterectomy or a newer type of surgery called a radical trachelectomy, which would save my fertility. I spent a lot of time talking to my husband and family about what I was going to do. Do we want to preserve fertility and risk my health? Or have a full hysterectomy and accept that we wouldn’t be able to have any more children naturally and be thankful to have been blessed with our beautiful Summer? We always wanted a big family; the hardest thing was having to let go of everything I thought my life would be.
I had the surgery in February, a radical trachelectomy. During previous hospital stays, I was admitted into the maternity ward as I was breastfeeding Summer (now five months old); however, this time I had to go to the oncology ward for recovery because of the extent of the operation. Professor Carter had a cot brought up from Maternity so that Summer could stay with me. The Professor and his team were so good about Summer all the way through. I couldn’t believe the amount of help and support I received to ensure that we were never separated and that I could continue to breastfeed her.
I visited the clinic a week earlier than expected for a quick check up. Usually the whole clan would be with me for my appointments, but that day I was on my own, thinking it was nothing significant. I got my results back early though – it was all clear! I felt the most amazing rush of relief. Jane, the nurse who saw me through it all, started crying, then I was crying (happy tears this time!). She said, “It’s moments like these when I realise why I love my job.”
Now that my treatment is over, I’ve had time to think about everything we’ve been through. It terrifies me to think how close I came to not seeing my little girl grow up. It’s still difficult to confront, hopefully it will get easier over time. Cancer changes everything forever.
The biggest thing for me now is getting back to normality. I’ve just been spending lots of time with Summer, I’m so happy to be able to do normal mummy stuff. We’re also planning a big overseas holiday for next year. Summer will be eighteen months old, and we want to get away, relax, have fun together as a family. When we get back we want to try for another baby. Falling pregnant and carrying again will be more difficult but at least there’s a chance.
In a way, through this whole journey I’ve felt like I’m the only person in the world with cancer – I’ve had a whole team of knowledgeable, gentle, supportive doctors and nurses, so many people working on me, all there at the drop of a hat, as if I was their only patient. It completely blew me away. I just felt so safe. Yes we had hard decisions to make but we felt supported each step of the way. We had complete confidence in Professor Carter and his team – they saved us, he allowed us to have a family.
I think all the time about Summer and what environment she’s going to grow up in. I don’t want her to grow up in a world where cancer is such a big problem. I feel like Lifehouse is working towards that goal, providing a safe haven for patients with the best treatment, support and research.
Having cancer has changed us from saying ‘one day’. I never thought we would go on an overseas holiday with a toddler but now I think, yes we can! We can do anything!