A cervical cancer survivor, who says her symptoms were “so mild” she almost dismissed them as hormonal changes has had her womb removed, recovering in time to fly abroad for her best friend's wedding.
Klodjana Aliaj, 42, from London first noticed changes in her body in October 2020 when she started experiencing spotting – light vaginal bleeding – during intercourse.
She says the bleeding was “so minor” she almost ignored it but decided to raise her concerns during a routine smear test.
It was during this check-up that doctors discovered blood in her cervix, which was not related to her period, and Aliaj was referred to Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, in London, for further tests, scans, and a biopsy.
While Aliaj, who works in finance, suspected she may have cancer, it was not until the results of her biopsy returned and she was advised to bring a friend with her to the follow-up hospital appointment that she knew it was “not good news”.
“The world crushes in on you. It’s just like a blur and you think, 'is this true?'” she says of her stage 2B cervical cancer diagnosis.
“I think it was what the psychologists would call the fight, or flight, or freeze, and I just froze in that moment.”
Despite the initial shock, Aliaj says she wanted to learn “everything possible” about her diagnosis and the required treatments, so she started reading and asking her doctors questions, refusing to “hide [her] head in the sand”.
“It gave me that boost that whatever you’re going to do to me, or whatever you’re going to say to me, I want to know the facts myself,” she says.
“I felt so empowered and I shifted from being the victim of the cancer to being in charge of my healing.”
After being referred to The Royal Marsden, Aliaj underwent daily radiotherapy and weekly chemotherapy, before then having brachytherapy – a type of internal radiation therapy – which she describes as “traumatic” and the “most painful experience”.
Following her treatments, Aliaj was given the “all clear”, however, some of the cancer cells turned out to be quite resistant to treatment and, in August 2021, she underwent robotic surgery to have a radical hysterectomy – a surgical procedure to remove the womb.
Just 10 days after the hysterectomy, Aliaj was well enough to fly out to Serbia for her best friend’s wedding, which she describes as "beautiful".
“I really wanted to go,” she says. “[I asked the doctors] ‘do you think I can take a flight?’ They said, ‘we would recommend that you rest, but you should be okay’.
“It was incredible," she continues. “I thought I wouldn’t be able to make it… no one could believe it,” she adds.
“It was amazing, we were all amazed.
“I felt so blessed to have had that opportunity [to have the robotic surgery], because the recovery was very quick.”
While she recovered from the surgery in time to attend her best friend's wedding and did not have any major side effects from her treatments, other than fatigue, going into early menopause, following the surgery, “hit [her] psychologically extremely hard” and made her feel “very sad”.
The “lack of hormones” also reduced her energy levels significantly.
“If I can use a metaphor, for me, day to night, it was like someone had switched off the light inside me, psychologically and physically,” she explains.
“I couldn’t even stand up to prepare a decent meal, I couldn’t connect; it was like I blacked out completely.”
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However, she was later prescribed hormone replacement therapy (HRT), which helped her feel more energised again.
So much so that she was later able to take part in the Royal Parks Half Marathon, raising more than £3,000 for The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity.
She said it was “physically challenging, but very rewarding”, and it was a way for her to express her immense gratitude to the team.
The charity has funded two da Vinci Xi robots at The Royal Marsden, meaning surgeons are able to conduct complex operations with greater accuracy, and for patients, this means less pain, smaller scars, a shorter stay in hospital, and quicker recovery time.
Cervical cancer is a cancer found anywhere in the cervix – the opening between the vagina and the womb – and symptoms include unusual vaginal bleeding, changes to vaginal discharge, pain during sex, or pain in the lower back.
Aliaj is now keen to stress the importance of never missing a smear test and listening to your body.
She also wants to encourage people not to be afraid of asking questions or pushing for a diagnosis or further check-ups, as she almost ignored her own symptoms.
“I’m pretty sure, in my case, if I had dismissed it, nothing else could have raised that flag,” she adds.
To find out more about The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity, visit: www.royalmarsden.org
Additional reporting PA.