"He told me I had cervical cancer, but then he said - you will be okay"
"I kept saying to the oncologist: 'This is my fault.'"
HPV, or Human Papillomavirus, is a sexually transmitted disease that is passed from one person to another through intimate skin-to-skin contact.
The STI is incredibly common, infecting approximately 80 percent of people at least once over the course of their lives, and yet, research has shown that the vast majority of Irish people don't think they will ever contract it.
Most HPV strains are low risk, meaning that they will not cause cancer and the infection will simply clear up on its own. High risk HPV strains, however, can cause cancer.
Michelle O'Leary was diagnosed with the most common cancer caused by HPV, cervical cancer, in February of 2020. Towards the end of 2019 Michelle, a mother of two, started getting pains in her leg. As the months progressed, she discovered she couldn't put any weight on it.
She was limping, and she was also spot bleeding after sex. "It wasn't too much bleeding, so I wasn't really paying attention to it," she tells Her. Michelle was aware of cervical cancer, but she didn't know any of the symptoms. Eventually, she ended up going to see her GP.
"I told her about my leg but also mentioned I was having heavy bleeding outside my period," she says. "She took one look at me and said 'I don't want you to panic, but I need you to go to A&E. Don't even stop for a coffee, just go straight there.'"
"My husband hadn't even known anything about it," Michelle goes on. "They brought me in and examined me and by then I was bleeding a lot more. The next week I went back for an emergency colposcopy. The nurse in the cervical cancer centre was telling us all about the different abnormalities, and we were like 'Grand, whatever this is, it's easily treatable.'
"When you're there, there's all these cameras above you. I'll never forget it, the nurse pushed one of the cameras out of my view so I couldn't see it. Then she called the consultant in."
Michelle was told she would have her results in one week. A few days later, she was called into the hospital. After Googling her consultant's name, she saw that he was a gynaecological oncologist, and she knew the news wasn't good.
"He told me I have cervical cancer, but he said 'you will be okay.' And that was all I heard - you will be okay. I rang my mam to tell her and she was crying on the phone and I just kept saying: 'He said I'll be okay.' We hadn't a clue what was ahead of us."
A week after having a third biopsy of her bladder, uterus, and cervix, Michelle woke up to find she was haemorrhaging. She rushed to the hospital where she stayed for five days, undergoing a blood transfusion to stop the bleeding. Coronavirus has just arrived in Ireland, meaning that she was admitted alone and could not have any visitors.
Michelle requested a radical hysterectomy when PET and CR scans showed shadows on her lymph nodes. "The consultant wanted me to do chemo," she says, "but I wanted this. I wanted all of it gone, I needed that reassurance.
"I was in survival mode, I wasn't thinking about what it meant for afterwards. So I went in, I had to sit in a lobby by myself for ages, until I was moved to a ward on my own. The surgeon came in and explained they were going to take my fallopian tubes, my ovaries, my uterus, my womb, and part of my vagina. Everything.
"Thankfully it all went well, but when I was recovering that's when the surgically induced menopause started and it all hit me. We were never going to add to our family, I was never going to hold a newborn baby that was mine again.
"Those were dark days. No one can come in to visit you, there's no one beside you to talk to. You're left alone thinking about what happened. I'm so lucky, I've already got two great kids. We're so blessed we had them when we did. We wouldn't have them if we waited."
One week later, Michelle went home. Thinking it was all over, she was dismayed when her surgeon told her that although they had successfully removed all of the cancer, they wanted to do 25 sessions of radiotherapy to prevent recurrence.
Five days a week for five weeks, Michelle's dad brought her to the hospital for treatment. "I was feeling guilty," she says. "I kept thinking I could have prevented this. I was called for a smear in 2018 and because of life and the kids and work, I put it off.
"I kept saying to the oncologist: 'This is my fault.' He said, 'There's no point in beating yourself up, this is where we are now.' In a way it was a good time too, because I got to chat to my dad in ways I never would have otherwise. I take that as a positive out of it."
In September, Michelle was declared to have no evidence of disease. She currently has a 10% chance of recurrence, but after two years that risk will reduce again. She's on HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy) for the early menopause, she's having issues with her bowels, and on some days, she suffers from serious fatigue.
But right now, she says, her prognosis is great. "As much as I feel relief, I will always worry," she says. "It's always going to be in my head that something else could happen. That's something I'm going to have to learn to learn with.
"Irish women, we want to put everyone else first, but then sometimes we end up hurting the ones we love. My family have been through hell and back, and that could have been prevented. You need to make your health a priority. If not for you, then for the people who love you."
HPV causes 99% of cervical cancers, but it can be prevented. The Marie Keating Foundation is currently seeking clarity surrounding the reinstatement of the HPV vaccination programme in Ireland to ensure young people across the country are afforded the opportunity to avail of this life saving vaccination. You can learn more about the HPV vaccine here.