Warning: Contains graphic medical detail
A woman has revealed how regularly bleeding through her clothes turned out to be a tell-tale sign of cervical cancer.
Joanne Painter, 43, from Northampton, was diagnosed with stage 2 cervical cancer when she was 38 after noticing unusual vaginal discharge and then experiencing abnormally heavy vaginal bleeding for several months.
The mum-of-two, who is the founder and managing director of a natural green burial ground and a humanist funeral celebrant, said the bleeding was so severe that it sometimes felt like “somebody had just popped a balloon or turned the tap on”.
During one embarrassing incident on a trip to Australia, she bled “for nearly the whole 24-hour flight” and it “came through to the airplane seat”.
She first realised something was wrong after noticing unusual discharge which she described as “very watery” and contacted her GP to arrange an appointment.
While she says the doctor didn't seem initially concerned, days later, she started to experience vaginal bleeding, which got progressively worse.
Having likened the bleeding she experienced at first to a “light period”, Painter was initially diagnosed as having a cervical ectropion, but when she started to bleed through her sanitary pads onto her clothing and was spending up to an hour on the toilet at times, she started to wonder if something else might be going on.
It became so severe that, during a trip to the theatre with friends, she said she “felt this ‘pop’ and there was blood gushing down [her] legs”.
“The spotting became really heavy bleeding," she explains. "I could sit on the toilet for 20 minutes at a time and it was like somebody had just popped a balloon or turned the tap on – it was just, drip, drip, drip.
“That was when I started to think, ‘Oh, this doesn’t seem right.’"
As well as the unusual bleeding, Painter says she was also feeling exhausted.
“I had a four-year-old and a seven-year-old, I was working full time, so I just put the tiredness down to that…(but) obviously, I was losing quite a lot of blood, so that led me to go back to my doctor again,” she adds.
Painter was referred to Northampton General Hospital, but her husband Neil, 48, a builder, took her to the hospital earlier, as she ended up bleeding through her clothing again while out for dinner.
After being admitted overnight to try to stop the bleeding, the following morning Painter was told by a gynaecologist consultant that she had cervical cancer.
After a biopsy, various scans and an MRI, it was revealed she had a 6cm vascular tumour in her cervix, which would require treatment rather than surgery to remove.
“I was totally and utterly in disbelief, to be honest… I remember just sitting there, just completely speechless,” Painter says of her diagnosis.
“I wasn’t upset particularly, I think it was just like, 'Is this actually happening?'
“Within about half an hour, a Macmillan nurse appeared at the bottom of my bed and I think that was the moment it sunk in."
Watch: UK woman who couldn't carry a child after cervical cancer has become a mum - after her friend was her surrogate
Painter says the news was even harder to hear as she had lost her dad to cancer nine years earlier, but despite her fears, she knew she had to stay positive.
“I was sitting there, thinking, 'I’ve got to get through this because I can’t not be there for my children,'” she explains.
“So very quickly, this overwhelming need to survive just came over me.”
Painter believes that her positive mindset was fundamental in helping her get through her treatment, which involved six weeks of chemo-radiation followed by three weeks of brachytherapy – a type of internal radiation therapy, which she says left her insides “black and chargrilled”.
While she did not lose her hair, at times she recalls feeling "dreadful" during her treatment, experiencing severe exhaustion, chronic diarrhoea, and feeling “a bit hungover, like [she had] done 20 shots of tequila”.
Even though she admits she did sometimes feel "terrified", she knew she had to push through the challenges.
“You can’t dwell on it, you’ve just got to get on with it,” Painter continues.
“You never want [your children] to see you upset and you never want them thinking you’re that poorly, so you just crack on."
Three months after her treatment, Painter had a check-up at the hospital and was given the “wonderful” news that the tumour had gone.
She now has regular check-ups every few months and wants to encourage other women who may have had a cervical cancer diagnosis to try to remain positive.
"Try not to go down that fear tunnel of ‘this is a death sentence’,” she says. “You’ve got everything to live for.”
She also hopes to help raise awareness of the importance of early detection.
“You know your body better than anyone," she says. "If something’s not right, then get screened and don’t take no for an answer.
“Obviously, the sooner you can get a diagnosis, the better chances you are going to have.”
Cervical cancer is a cancer that is found anywhere in the cervix – the opening between the vagina and the womb – and, according to the charity Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, it currently kills two women in the UK every day.
A cervical screening, known as a smear test, checks the health of the cervix and is a test to help prevent cancer, but in Painter's case, the results from her smear tests prior to her diagnosis were negative.
Cervical Cancer Prevention Week runs from January 23-29 and Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust is launching its biggest ever campaign: #WeCan End Cervical Cancer, to work towards a day where cervical cancer is a thing of the past.
You can find out more by visiting: www.jostrust.org.uk/ccpw
Additional reporting PA.