MY MOTHER died of breast cancer when I was 17 – she was 43. She was raised in an orphanage and didn’t know her family history so when I turned 40, I was advised by my doctor that I could request annual mammograms, writes army spouse Louise Simpson.

The process was difficult – I had to have counselling before the health service agreed and being forced to contemplate your mortality when you have small children is no easy thing. However, I got through it and committed to having checks on a yearly basis.

The problem was that each time we moved I had to start the process all over again – I couldn’t transfer the permission because each new location did things differently and it felt like each time I had to prepare a sales pitch for the right to have this done.

We moved four times during my 40s. Each time was the usual upheaval: leaving friends, making new friends, sorting out the houses, settling the children in and finding a new job. Let’s face it, the needs of an army spouse often come a long way down the list of priorities. And if I’m going to consider my needs then I am totally up for a facial but could really do without having my breasts smashed into a metal press!

So, I let it slide, along with the cervical smears. And once I got past the age that my mum died, I felt a little more invincible and it became easier to drop it.

Clearly this story is only going in one direction – last summer I found a lump. The NHS were truly awesome and very quickly I was diagnosed with several different breast cancers (when I commit, I really commit!) and a month later I was recovering from a mastectomy. I spent the next six months getting treatment and reconstruction and will now be on drugs for the foreseeable future.

I’m not suggesting that this was avoidable, but I do question how less severe my cancer would have been if it had been spotted earlier.

So, my advice to anyone reading this is to find the time for screening. Push through all the needless bureaucracy that makes being an army spouse just that little more difficult. It could be a game changer!

Screening what you need to know…

BREAST cancer is the most common cancer in the UK with approximately one-in-eight women diagnosed
with it in their lifetime. Screening can save lives and allow for early detection and treatment and a better chance of recovery. In the UK, women aged 50-71 are invited for breast cancer screening every three years. But there’s currently a trial offering some women aged 47-49 and 71-73 extra screening.

HIGH RISK SUPPORT

If, like Louise, you have a strong family history of breast cancer you’ll probably be identified as high risk. You’ll usually be invited for screening before you are 50. Your GP may also refer you to a high-risk clinic that may offer you genetic testing and yearly MRI scans or mammograms, but this will vary with age and level of risk. Men can also be high risk, if there’s a strong family history of breast cancer in a male or female family member.

KEEPING ON TOP OF APPOINTMENTS

As Louise mentioned, it’s not always easy to keep track of when you should be having breast screening and often it takes time to even register with a GP, so you may miss out on the invitation.

✚ If you think you’re eligible, speak to your GP;
✚ Keep any screening documentation, so you can transfer this if you move;
✚ If you’re posted overseas, it may be a different process. Defence Medical Service practices should offer you breast cancer screening in line with the NHS, but host nation provision will differ;
✚ If you’re unable to access screening overseas, you can be flown to the UK but it must be agreed by your healthcare provider first. If you have a strong family history of breast cancer or know you are high risk, discuss an
overseas posting with your GP and during the medical pre-screening process.

 

CERVICAL SCREENING 

In the UK, cervical cancer is the fourth most frequent cancer, but the most common cancer in women under 35. A free five-minute test is offered on the NHS and can prevent cancer by detecting precancerous changes. If you are female and under 25, you’ll receive a letter inviting you for screening up to six months before you reach 25. If you are 25-49 you’ll be offered screening three-yearly and five-yearly between 50-64. Results are sent within two weeks and if you’ve missed your invitation, you don’t have to wait, you can contact your GP to request a test. If you’re experiencing unusual symptoms, discuss it with your doctor.

Sinead Calvert, forces spouse and gynaecological consultant oncology radiographer for Gloucester NHS Foundation Trust, said: “Disappointingly, this year we have had the lowest uptake of women taking the cervical cancer screening test nationally. “Reasons include being scared/embarrassed of the procedure, forgetting to book an appointment or thinking the test isn’t necessary after a human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination. As a forces wife, I understand the challenges our lifestyle presents. The upheaval of a posting and the planning to ensure there’s minimal disruption to the family, is huge.

“Cervical cancer, if detected early, can be treated and cured. Book your screening test today and tell your family and friends to do so too.”

 

HPV

Sinead is also keen to raise awareness of HPV vaccination that will be extended to pubescent males from next year. Currently girls get a free NHS HPV vaccine from the age of 12 up to their 25th birthday. From the 2019-2020 school year, boys aged 12-13 should be eligible for vaccination. It is, however, important that even girls who have had the HPV vaccine access cervical screening from age 25. If you’re posted overseas, you may need to research what screening will be available before accepting the posting. This is important if you’ve had any abnormal tests or require ongoing treatment.

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