Happy New Decade, 2020!

It’s the roaring 2020s. My god, let this be a better decade for me and for everyone. Don’t you think this planet has had enough grief for the foreseeable?

Normal service will resume next week, along with my work (and blog!) routine and what I hope will be a better year ahead. The last few years for me have been utterly disastrous, both in my personal life and my health. My new year starts off with an appointment to review some MRI results, which I’m nervous about. MRI scans are standard for me; I’ve had many, many scans. This one is to determine if a little lump near my pancreas/bowel is anything scary to worry about. Please keep me in your good thoughts and I’m sure, in some way, the universe will send me your well-wishes.

From me, I wish you a very Happy New Year and a great decade ahead. May you be happy in life and love, may your health be rosy, and may your creativity blossom like daffodils in May (and may your clichés be as strong as mine, especially).

I hope to do a lot more writing and reading this year; my Christmas book haul of children’s classics, which I wanted to catch up on, will be a fantastic start. I’ve made it my mission to read all the amazing classics that I never read as a child, because I was too busy swatting up on Jacqueline Wilson and Darren Shan, who were all the rage and deservedly so.

So Happy New Year everyone! I’ll be back next Wednesday as usual to share whatever quirky bits and bobs I want to talk about next. I never started a blog for anything other than to keep a regular hobby, and to force me to show off any creative successes.
Towards the end of 2019, I was accepted into an NHS poetry anthology by Michael Rosen and invited to their book launch, which is an amazing start. I hope this is a sign of more creative conquests to come!

Have an amazing 2020!

My poems ‘Only The Cleaner’ and ‘In This Room’ to appear in NHS These Are The Hands with Michael Rosen

The NHS anthology named after this 60th anniversary poem by Michael Rosen will be available in March 2020

Well! It seems I have more good news on the poetry front!

TWO of my poems will be appearing in an NHS anthology by Fair Acre Press, called ‘These Are the Hands’, with a foreword by Michael Rosen (up top!). This will be published widely in book shops around the UK and online, and all proceeds will be going to NHS Charities Together.

The book will be published in 2020, and I have been invited to the snazzy book launch at The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries in London. Eek!

I thought today’s blog post could be all about how I got involved:

I happened to be scrolling Twitter – which is a platform I never used until recently – when I found a post from The Bigger Picture, talking about an exciting anthology by the same editors and press who brought us the #MeToo anthology with the Jess Philips MP foreword, called ‘These Are the Hands’.

Well, I bloody-well know that poem, I thought – that’s Michael Rosen!

And yes, there he was – one of the judges for this new anthology competition. Regardless of the outcome, I absolutely knew I wanted to enter something – anything – just to be a part of things.

As it happens, the anthology called for people who were either currently working or had worked for the NHS for contribute poems – thus making up the body of the book, with NHS employees all working together for one common goal – just as they do in real life – with the caterers and cleaners being as crucial as the nurses and the consultants.

In my final year of uni and for some time after, I did in fact work as a Domestic Assistant at Southend University hospital – it’s still one of the most rewarding jobs I’ve ever done, and I loved it.

Let me tell you a bit about the poems

So during my lunch break at work, I got scribbling in my special notebook (the one with the butterflies) and came up with two very different poems.

One is a slightly-rhyming poem called ‘Only the Cleaner’, which focuses on the idle chit-chat and avoidance of the obvious when interacting with patients – the idea being that they could talk to me because, unlike anyone else, I wasn’t there to administer any scary treatment. I was just there to change the bins and chat and pretend they aren’t dying, which sometimes they were.

The other is a more serious piece called ‘In this Room’, which is about the time I cleaned The Butterfly Suite at Southend University hospital, which is a room where women go when they’re very sadly losing the baby. This poem takes you full-circle, describing how I tried to imagine the woman who had been in that room and what she was going through, only to be in her shoes 9 years later.

I can tell you, I was gobsmacked to find they wanted to use both – I’m surprised, but certainly not complaining!

Since my time working at the NHS, I have been a patient more times than I can count (seriously, I lost count of my hospital stays) and I have relied on them to save my life. I’ve also, sadly, relied on them to take care of another life I lost. These are difficult truths, but they are my truths, and I have the NHS and its wonderful staff to thank for the fact that I got through those times safely.

So that’s why I’m incredibly proud to be a part of this; not just because I’m a big fan of Michael Rosen (as a poet and as a person, honestly), but because I’m an enormous fan of the NHS. It needs to be protected at all costs. While surely one anthology can’t solve all its problems, this can go towards the solution in some small way – and besides, didn’t a certain young woman once say that ‘one book and one pen can change the world’?

I can’t wait to share the finished book with you all.

P.S If this teaches you nothing, let it teach you this: have a go at writing some poetry! I always thought I was hopeless at poetry but, in spite of that, I always enjoyed writing it – and that’s all that matters. Art should be for the enjoyment of art first and foremost and, you never know, you might get the bonus of seeing it out there one day!

If you enjoyed this blog post, please subscribe – I put up a new post every Wednesday.

Best wishes,
Ashleigh

2017, artery lines in the ICU – I was the only conscious patient!

What Happens When You Have an Abnormal Smear Result

Welcome (or welcome back!) to my blog. I put up new posts every Wednesday.

Something happened recently which shook me up a little bit, and I thought it would be helpful if I passed on some of my own learning from the experience. You never know who you might be helping by sharing your thoughts, so here goes.

No sooner than I had shared on Facebook about the importance of attending your smear tests did I find my result in the mail.

It was a scary, abnormal result.

Even though I somehow *knew* I would get a bad result this time, it still hurt to have it confirmed right there in front of me, in black and white.

My letter – which repeatedly assured me this was not a diagnosis of cancer – told me I had borderline low-grade dyskaryosis (abnormal changes in the cells of my cervix) and the HPV virus, which can often contribute to these cells lingering.

You can learn more about the cell-grading system here, and about HPV here.

These cells may or may not be pre-cancerous, and over time – if left untreated – may grow into cancer cells over a roughly 10 year period.

Low-grade cells with HPV, however, can usually go away on their own.

The letter said an appointment for a Colposcopy, which is a more in-depth look at the cervix, would be forthcoming.

How I reacted

I’m ashamed to say that I instantly felt terror erupting through my body and I went off and cried about it. The fact is that while I know how I would reassure somebody else with the same letter (and even though I knew low-grade/borderline meant the lowest risk cell changes), I still could not reassure myself.

This is because I have had an enormous lot of grief concerning my health in the last 2 years – some of which I’m willing to talk about, and some I’m not ready to. I plan to blog about these subjects in the future in the hope that somebody else can benefit from my experience. When you’ve already had an enormous amount of medical intervention, countless hospital stays, operations, and appointments resulting in nothing but bad news, you massively appreciate your freedom when you have it. You realise more than most just how much you have to lose.
I associated this letter about minor cell changes with those enormous fears, so naturally came the tears and the worry.

How I dealt with it

Firstly, I shared my disappointment and upset with those closest to me – I told my mum (who I blubbed to), my dad and brother, my boyfriend (who immediately became head researcher at Ashleigh Condon Towers and set about reassuring me), and my co-workers. A problem shared = less of a burden on you.

Secondly, I called the appointments line – my appointment was 26 November, which was over a month away at the time – and asked to go on their cancellations list.
This made me feel like I was being proactive and facing the problem head-on. There was no way I was going to wait a month, worrying myself sick, if I could help it.

By the following Monday, I received a call to say that an appointment had been cancelled, and could I come in at 2 O’clock? Yes, I could – and I brought my mum with me.

What happened at the appointment

I attended the Nightingale Women’s Clinic at Southend University Hospital.

I’ve been here a few times before for various reasons, and I’ve always felt well looked after. This time, I really needed that – and they did not disappoint.

Two extremely loving, down-to-earth, calming, reassuring, intelligent and professional female nurses explained what was going to happen and that they would gently take me through every step of the process as it occurred.

One of them said she’d even had the exact came procedure – and had the exact same low-grade cell changes and HPV virus – and I felt instantly more at ease.

I was asked to strip my bottom-half of any clothing (obviously) and sit in a wonky chair with my legs up in the stirrups. This is always great fun.

Next went in the speculum – again, always a hoot.

Then a camera on a robotic arm was placed in front of my opening – not inside it, or anywhere close to it actually – just between my legs.

The nurse offered to show me the wonders of my insides, but I declined – I’m usually fascinated by this stuff, but for some reason I just didn’t want to see my cervix. At this point, I was still too afraid of seeing something scary, such as a cancerous mass, however unlikely it was. In the end, I did end up seeing it anyway – it looked like a big pink blob with lots of pixels over it, as if someone was shopping it in Microsoft Paint (I’ll explain).

The nurse doing the procedure used a long instrument to swab my cervix, because I’d had a bit of blood spotting (typical) that day, and it was obscuring the view. I’ve described this feeling as someone tickling your guts with a feather – it’s very weird and slightly uncomfortable, but not painful.

After that, she explained that she was going to douse my cervix with a solution which would highlight areas of my cervix in red and green pixels on the monitor. She said this would sting slightly and have a vinegary smell. As well as her well-trained eyes, the camera would be looking for any abnormalities – double protection there.

The solution did indeed smell like vinegar and felt a bit strange, but no worse than a smear test or swab – we’re talking a quick splash here. Then we waited a moment while it developed (your cervix is essentially a Polaroid at this point).

As the solution got to work, it did indeed pick up pixels in red and green – and there were just a couple that were white. These were the cells with borderline changes.

The nurse told me she was very happy with that, and that they were agreeing with the result of the smear. These looked like low-grade, borderline cells which would hopefully go away on their own. I was so relieved.

However, she told me they usually still liked to take a biopsy just in case.

Gulp.

Of course, I agreed to it – but if I hadn’t been too uncomfortable before, I certainly was now. The nurse produced a long, scary Victorian-looking instrument with a clipper on the end – however, she didn’t look bothered and so I tried not to let it bother me either. I held the second nurse’s hand while she chatted to me about what I was going to have for lunch (key distraction techniques at play here!) and assured me I was going to be absolutely fine.

And I was.

The nurse with the instrument took the tiniest biopsy in about 0.2 seconds and I barely even felt its presence there, let alone any pain. It was no worse than your standard smear test and it didn’t hurt a bit. I promise you, if that wasn’t the case, I would be honest about it here – there was zero pain.

They told me I’d get my results in about 3 weeks, but they expected it to be a clear result. I left feeling warm, reassured, well looked-after, and confident that I had received amazing care.

Did you know that not all hospitals offer these in-depth checks on low-grade borderline changes to the cervix? I now feel very lucky indeed. I’ve been given the gold standard of treatment.

Before leaving, I promised them I would tell my family and friends about the experience and assure them that a Colposcopy and a cervical biopsy are nothing to be afraid of.

The key thing I took away was that these are preventative measures. If you keep up to date with your smears and take your health checks and examinations seriously, then you should never ever find yourself suddenly diagnosed with cervical cancer.

They will have found any problems well in advance, way before they could develop into something nasty – and they can deal with them. A brief check online will show you that removal of pre-cancerous cells usually results in a 100% cure of them – as in the cells are gone and, therefore, the risk of any cancer is gone. If cells return, they can remove them again.

Before leaving, I asked the nurses if – theoretically – someone already had cancer on their cervix, and they went for a routine smear test, would that test show up cervical cancer?

They said yes, it should.

This means that if you get a “scary letter” about abnormal cells, then remember: that is all they are. Abnormal cells, not a death sentence and definitely not cancer. You absolutely have control of this and you can ensure your health stays tip-top by attending the recommended appointment and having any treatment if necessary.

Whatever happens, you have got this, you’ve taken control of it, and you will be looked after by the professionals.

Aftercare

The advice for me was to not have sex for a day or so and to use condoms if you do. If you needed cell removal treatment, then obviously your cervix needs to heal, so follow the advice they give you.

I was told to expect a bit of tail-end period-style blood (which I have had) and maybe some gentle cramping (which I’ve not had).

Ultimately, what I do have is a feeling of control and relief that I could face this head on, and that I didn’t get any nasty surprises. I am beyond grateful to the staff for making an uncomfortable procedure so bearable – and honestly, it wasn’t even that bad at all.

If you need to attend a Colposcopy and if you need to have a biopsy, you have absolutely got this. Don’t run away from your smear tests or your follow-ups – you can do it. You will feel like a boss afterwards, I promise.

So there you have it. All’s well that ends well. I hope you found that useful and, if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask me.

If you enjoyed my content, please subscribe – I put up a new post every Wednesday! I write about creative pursuits and life in general.