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Like Marina Wheeler, I was diagnosed with cervical cancer in my 50s

 Marina Wheeler
Marina Wheeler, 55, the estranged wife of Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has spent the summer having surgical treatment for cervical cancer Credit:  Sarah Lee

When 52-year-old Joanna Edwards received the all-clear from cervical cancer in January, she wept with relief.

“It was the only time, despite needing a radical hysterectomy, that I cried the whole time," explains Edwards, who runs her own marketing agency in London, I was just so grateful.”

Edwards’s stoic attitude to diagnosis and treatment matches that of 55-year-old Marina Wheeler, the estranged wife of Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Wheeler has just revealed that she spent the summer having surgical treatment for cervical cancer, including a hysterectomy, and is now in the same position as Edwards: cancer-free, although regular monitoring will be needed for the next five years.

The experience has made Wheeler appreciate, she told the Sunday Times, “the incalculable value of holding close those who you love and trust”.

For other women, her experience may have the additional benefit of reminding everyone how indiscriminate the disease is, and that it is likely to affect older women as well as those in their twenties and thirties.

The disease is associated mostly with younger women - especially after reality star Jade Goody died from it in 2009 at age 27.

But while the NHS warns that most at risk are sexually active women aged between 30 and 45, regular cervical screening is still considered important up to the age of 64.

Wheeler admitted that she had missed a cervical screening prior to becoming ill. “Something else always seemed more important,” she said. “If you are basically healthy, active and energetic, it is easy to think you are immortal.”

She now wants other women to be more vigilant. "I know the take-up of smear tests is way down,” she said, “I know they can save your life.

In fact, there is real alarm about falling numbers of women having screenings.

Professor Anne Mackie, director of screening at Public Health England, said last month she is “concerned about the fall in the number of women taking the test” as about three million women across England haven't had a cervical screening for more than three years.

And a million women aged 50 to 64 haven't been checked for at least five and a half years.

Women need to be vigilant, says Robert Music, Chief Executive of the charity Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust. “While cervical screening does not prevent against all cervical cancers,” says Music, “it provides a high degree of protection against the disease.”

He adds: “Through using her experience to highlight the importance of the test, Marina may prevent others from going through the same as her.”

Jo’s Trust has warned that cervical cancer incidence over the next 20 years will be dominated by women currently in their 40s and 50s.

This is due to the success of the vaccine programme which was introduced in 2008 which protects against almost all strains of HPV, the virus that causes most cases of cervical cancer.

For women born after 1999, eradication is firmly on the horizon with deaths predicted to fall to just six a year by 2040.

HPV can be passed on through any type of sexual contact with a man or a woman and may lie dormant for years before causing changes to the cells on the cervix, which is the entrance to the womb. It affects men too, in whom it can cause brain, throat, anal or penile cancer, hence the imminent roll-out of the vaccination programme to teenage boys, starting next month. Anyone who is or who has been sexually active can contract it, whether or not a condom has been used, and the NHS estimates that most people will have some type of it at some point in their lives.

Although there are high success rates for cervical cancer if caught early, survival rates for 10 years or more are only 63 per cent and nearly 1,000 women will die of the disease every year.

Joanna Edwards’s own grandmother died of cervical cancer in 1981 when she was aged 62. Because of that, says Edwards, screening has always been a priority.

“I’ve always been a healthy person,” she says. “I do a lot of jogging and charity runs. I’ve never needed hospital treatment before for anything.”

Her cancer was picked up when she agreed to have a screening early in November last year: “The nurse was available, so I just thought, let’s get on with it.”

For many women, a potential problem is only detected when a sample of cells taken during a test is examined and changes to cell structure are recorded.  But in this case, the problem was more obvious.

“When she carried out the procedure,” says Edwards, “my cervix began to bleed. The GP came in and examined me before referring me at once to the gynaecology clinic at the Royal London Hospital that same week.

“The GP was reassuring but phoned me the night before I was due to remind me to go. I think that helped me understand that there could be a problem, but I was not too worried.”

Edwards knew she had none of the classic symptoms which can include unusual vaginal bleeding, pain or discomfort during sex, vaginal discharge and pain in the area between the hip bones (pelvis).

Wheeler with her estranged husband, Boris Johnson Credit:  JANE MINGAY

During her appointment, a sample of cervix was taken during a biopsy and the consultant in charge warned her almost at once that they were “very concerned”.

Ten days later, Edwards was told that she had a two-inch tumour on her cervix. “I was diagnosed on my birthday,” she says.

“It was a shock, of course, but I am a practical person. I focused at once on what I knew and how I would have to fix the problem. I didn’t dwell on the cancer. And I did a lot of research, turning to the charity Jo’s Trust, which was really helpful.”

In December, Edwards went into hospital to have a radical hysterectomy – where the womb is removed with all associated organs including her ovaries and cervix to make sure that no cancer cells had the chance to get left behind. Lymph nodes were also taken to check for spread, but tested negative.

After five days, Edwards went home to recover, only learning in January that she was clear of cancer. “The relief was huge,” she says.

Since then, she has concentrated on getting fit and healthy again, and was able to take part in the 10km Two Castles run in Warwickshire in June.

The only lingering issue is with the menopause as her doctors are not keen on her having hormone replacement therapy (HRT) although she is now trying oestrogen patches to control the symptoms which include hot flushes.

And while Edwards knows she is lucky to have had a successful operation, she does warn that the experience didn’t really hit home until later. 

“If I could warn other women - like Marina Wheeler,” she says, “I would say, be aware that you can suffer a sort of post-traumatic stress [disorder]. I could be out walking the dog and suddenly it hits me that I have had cancer. It can take you to a dark place or a depression.

“You have to remind yourself not to dwell too much.”

She adds: “It’s important to remember you’re alive. And focus on the positives.”

For more information on cervical screening or cervical cancer, contact Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust. The free and confidential helpline is 0808 802 8000