All cancers are upsetting and in many cases devastating to be diagnosed with. But some forms of the disease strike at the heart of a person’s indentity - and for Jo Holmes, womb cancer is among them.
Jo, aged 44, was told she had the condition following more than a year of misdiagnoses, and wants more people to learn about the illness’ tell-tale signs as part of Gynaecological Cancer Awareness Month, which runs throughout September.
“Most women want a family, or might want to breastfeed and you need a womb to have children,” said Jo.
“When you lose things like that, it’s like losing a part of your womanhood. It does make you think, ‘Am I as much of a woman as I used to be?’ With breast cancer, it’s a physical thing that you can see from the outside, but there is still that feeling with cancer of the womb.
“It’s a rarer cancer, but there are nearly 9,000 diagnosed every year and almost 2,000 dying. It’s too many.”
Jo said she had suffered from heavy menstrual bleeding for years, and that her GP first expressed concerns in May 2011.
“I’m not the kind of person who goes to the doctor’s very often, and I’d gone over something completely different, but she wanted to run some routine blood tests while I was there.
“Looking back, I don’t think I realised how bad the bleeding had become. When they came back the tests said I was severely anaemic and my doctor said it just wasn’t right.”
Jo was referred to Chesterfield Hospital, near her home in Bolsover, where medics decided to prescribe drugs, despite her repeated requests for a hysterectomy.
Doctors carried out an exploratory operation the following November.
“They said my womb was extremely distorted with lots of lumps and bumps, but that they were all fibroids and cysts,” Jo said.
Medics at Chesterfield also tried an ablative procedure, where the outside of the womb is burned away, but were not able to finish the operation.
“Everything now was really extreme. I couldn’t stand up, I was bleeding so much and nothing was working.”
By now Jo was forced to take time off from her job as a primary school teaching assistant, and in February last year was rushed into hospital in agony. An appointment was finally made for a partial hysterectomy.
“When I came round from the operation the staff didn’t really say much. They just said it was really tricky. I got a phone call around two weeks later, asking if I could come in the next day.
“I automatically knew something wasn’t right. That’s when they gave me the news that I had got cancer. I was devastated, but went into automatic pilot mode - I thought I had to get on with it and deal with it.”
Jo was referred to the gynaecology clinic at the Jessop wing in Sheffield, where she learned that a growth had developed on the wall of her womb, but luckily had not invaded the abdominal cavity.
She was given surgery and then a course of radiotherapy, finishing treatment in August last year.
“I felt relieved, but in one way anger. Luckily enough I’ve had a good outcome so far, I’ve been in remission for nearly a year, but it’s quite scary if things are missed.
“At Sheffield, they couldn’t understand why it had taken so long. They said if I’d walked in 18 months earlier they would have given me a hysterectomy straight away.”
Jo is now part of an internet group called Womb Cancer Support UK, which offers help and advice about the condition.
“Some of the members are only in their late 20s and early 30s who won’t be able to have children,” said the mum, who has two daughters aged 22 and 19 with husband David, 51, who works in logistics.
“It does make me worry that my children will be at risk if there is a family link.”
Jo continued: “If you have any abnormal bleeding, get it checked out. Don’t automatically assume it’s just a heavy period.
“I had every sign and symptom of womb cancer, but people don’t seem to know so much about it.
“If people were more aware and went to the doctors if they recognised the symptoms, then 2,000 women could perhaps be saved.”