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Putting Off Pap Tests 'Isn't Worth The Risk': Cervical Cancer Survivor

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Pap Awareness Week runs Oct. 22 to 28 and Nanaimo resident Shawnna Taylor is taking the opportunity to remind all B.C. women to get a Pap test when they need it.

Taylor, 30, learned the importance of Pap testing the hard way. When she was 28, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer after having gone seven years without a Pap test.

"I knew that I was supposed to go get them but it was never really pushed to me why it was so important except for STDs, and I was with my husband so I never worried about that," said Taylor. At the time she thought the idea of the procedure and talking about sexual health was embarrassing.

It turns out that others in her family shared that difficulty discussing it. After she was diagnosed, Taylor found out five people in her family had had cervical cancer but nobody had told her.

"My great-aunt, who I'm quite close with, had had a hysterectomy because she had cervical cancer," Taylor said. "And when I asked my family they said, 'Oh, it's one of those cancers, so we don't talk about it.' That's when I knew I had to do something. This shouldn't be 'one of those cancers.'"

2012-10-20-ShawnnaTaylor.jpgUnfortunately, by the time Taylor's cancer was discovered, the inoperable kiwifruit-sized tumour required aggressive treatment. They initially hoped to avoid treatment that would allow Taylor to still have children but things progressed from bad to worse.

"I started to hemorrhage and it was the tumour that was hemorrhaging. It was my husband and I in the ER on our five-year anniversary with me trying not to bleed to death," Taylor described.

Taylor also recalled the difficulty of going through chemotherapy and radiation treatments, including internal radiation.

"I lost eight pounds in a week, I couldn't keep anything down. They finally did get the meds sorted out to make me feel okay compared to what I had been feeling, and then the radiation effects started to kick in. I couldn't leave the bathroom and I was exhausted," she said.

Internal radiation left her violently ill from the combination of sedatives and pain medication that she felt didn't even really touch the pain.

At one point Taylor was in Vancouver for a medial appointment and she and her mother were in Chinatown when she saw a pamphlet for Pap Awareness Week, run by the LACE Campaign (which stands for Live Aware, Create Empowerment), funded by the B.C. Cancer Agency.

"I grabbed it and thought, 'Too bad this wasn't around before'," she said.

Now that Taylor is out of treatment she's getting more involved with LACE and using her experience to tell other women about Pap Awareness Week and the general importance of regular Pap testing. She says she's heard from a lot of women who don't know you need to go even if you're in a monogamous relationship, or who postpone it because they think it's uncomfortable or embarrassing. Many were surprised like she was, that you could get cervical cancer at such a relatively young age.

"I want people to learn about what I went through because it was a stupid mistake and there are days when I kick myself for not going. It's the past and I can't change it but I can help others go get tested. It's only five minutes and it's uncomfortable but not nearly as uncomfortable as what you go through with cancer," she says.

Dr. Dirk van Niekerk, medical leader for the B.C. Cancer Agency's Cervical Cancer Screening Program says:"

While British Columbia's cervical cancer screening participation rate exceeds the national target of 70 per cent, there are some age groups and areas of the province where rates are significantly lower than the target. It is critical that all women be aware that a Pap test is an excellent way to prevent cervical cancer, and the only way to detect abnormal cells in the cervix which, if left untreated, could develop into cancer."

The agency recommends that women start getting Pap tests at age 21. After three annual normal Pap tests, women will be advised to have a Pap test every two years until age 69.

Taylor thinks the campaign's online Pap reminders and the fact that some participating Pap Week Clinics are offering drop-in appointments is a great idea.

"I think it's genius because so many people don't have a family doctor so they don't get them. I think the option for people to get it done even when they don't have a doctor or their lives don't conform in the regular doctor schedule is a great, great thing," she explains.

She was particularly enthusiastic about an initiative spearheaded by a group of woman residents in Obstetrics & Gynecology to establish a Rapid Access Gynecology Clinic for Paps at Vancouver General Hospital (VGH) all through the awareness week. Dr. Nicole Todd, a 5th-year resident and key organizer, is calling the event a series of "Pappy Hours."

Taylor is on the road to recovery but the side effects of the treatment are still with her months later and she hasn't been able to return to her work as a landscaper. She has damage to her hip, bladder, and bowel from the radiation and is so exhausted that she sleeps 12-14 hours per day.

She hopes talking about what she's gone through will help other women realize that they can't afford to put off their Paps. She says given what she's learned, if she hears from someone who thinks they can delay the test she'd say: "Don't. Go to the doctor right now. It's not worth the risk, it's not a waste of time, it's definitely worth it."