When Laura Burlingham was diagnosed with cervical cancer seemingly out of the blue, her whole life ‘collapsed’ on her.
The 38-year-old hadn’t noticed any symptoms and had simply gone for a routine smear test when she was given the devastating news.
Her shock diagnosis on November 2 last year left her broken and wondering, "Why me?"
But in the moment the word ‘cancer’ was uttered, her worries and thoughts turned to someone other than herself – her mother.
Laura, from Knebworth, Hertfordshire, found herself apologising to her mum Rosie Burlingham, telling her "I’m sorry" and hugging her.
She says she felt "awful" for giving her a reason to worry, especially as they’d just lost her nan so Rosie, 56, was already going through a tough time.
"I walked out of the room and saw tears coming down my mum’s face," Laura, a food and beverage assistant, told Mirror Online.
"I hugged my mum and said ‘I’m so sorry’.
"We hugged each other for ages.
"My dad had been in the waiting room and I ran and hugged him and had to tell him what was going on.
"I burst into tears. I couldn’t believe it. My whole world just collapsed on me.
"I felt really bad about my mum getting worried about me.
"We had not long lost my nan and I just felt so sorry for my mum. I felt awful (for her)."
Laura, then 37, had gone for a routine smear test in autumn last year.
The letter that followed told her she had abnormalities – but at that point, she wasn’t worried, assuming that any abnormal cells could be ‘burnt out’.
Laura was sent her for a colposcopy, a procedure to examine the cervix, but the images that appeared revealed a tumour. It was then that her panic kicked in.
"When I saw the tumour on the scan and all four nurses at the Lister Hospital [in Stevenage] were holding my hand I went into panic mode," she said.
"The tumour was 4cm big. It was really hard so they could only remove a sample.
"The nurses were telling me ‘it’s OK Laura’, telling me to breathe while holding my hand and trying to get me to relax so they could get the specimen.
"They told me to look at the images for me to see what was going on."
She added: "You’re lying there and your whole life flashes before your eyes because you see this great big tumour in front of you.
"Four lovely nurses were holding my hand and reassured me.
"The tumour looked all pink and (there were) funny shapes up and down my cervix."
Looking back, Laura is glad she got to see the tumour because it made her understand her situation a bit better.
She said it was putting pressure on her bladder, which is why in hindsight she realises she was going to the toilet more frequently.
"I’d thought I might have a water infection, but it was a symptom, and the only symptom of mine – which I didn’t even realise," she added.
Laura walked away from the appointment feeling a bit shocked.
At that point, she said she didn’t have any information, with a nurse having told her she would contact her in a week’s time to let her know the outcome.
However, it was only two days later, while she was at work, that Laura received a phone call from the hospital saying: "You need to come back in".
This time, she took her mum and dad Paul, 59, with her.
"The nurse told us the news and I stared at her blankly," she recalled.
"She said ‘I’m afraid to tell you Laura the results have come back and it’s cancer’
"I said ‘pardon? What? No.’
"I sat there blank, she explained it all and told me I would be looked after.
"She gave me lots of leaflets. I think I shut down and didn’t say too much.
"I sat there thinking ‘why me’ – ‘what have I done to deserve this? I have been to all my smear tests all these years, what have I done wrong?’"
She added that she walked out of the room to find her mum in tears.
"My parents both hugged me and said ‘it will be fine don’t worry’, we will speak to the doctors and get it sorted," she said.
"I also asked my mum to phone my boss and tell everyone at work because we’re like a little family. They’ve all been absolutely amazing."
A week later Laura had a CT scan as well as an MRI. The results were looked at by a consultant gynaecologist and another specialist at Mount Vernon Hospital.
On November 2, 2017, doctors back at Lister discussed the findings with Laura – and confirmed she had grade 3b cervical cancer.
The cancer had spread to the lower vagina and tissues at the side of the pelvic wall.
Laura said she walked out of that appointment a bit more reassured because she had received more information.
But she worried about the uncertainty of what was going to happen, and she had an important date coming up which sprang to her mind.
"I asked if I was going to lose my hair because I had my sister’s wedding in April," she said.
She said she thought this would be an automatic side effect of treatment, but fortunately it didn’t happen to her.
Laura began treatment on November 22, 2017.
She had chemotherapy, radiotherapy and brachytherapy – a treatment where radioactive material is directly inserted into the affected area – at Mount Vernon.
In total, she had five weeks of gruelling chemotherapy and radiotherapy and three days of brachytherapy, which left her feeling sick and tired.
But by January 5, 2018, her treatment was complete.
Amazingly, Laura was given the ‘all clear’ on April 17, two days before her sister Vicky’s wedding, which came as a relief and put a stop to her panic.
"I was jumping for joy – or trying to with my aching legs," she told.
"And my dad surprised me during the speech and did a big section about me."
Part of her dad’s speech read: "I know it’s the job of the best man to talk about the bridesmaids but I want to talk about one if I may.
"All the bridesmaids look beautiful but one in particular shines just a bit brighter for me.
"As most of you know as a family we have had a tough time since Laura was diagnosed with cancer.
"Laura had a tough battle to win.
"I have to say I have been amazed and so proud of the way Laura approached her illness, she is without a doubt the most positive, upbeat, determined person I’ve ever met."
Laura said her dad’s speech brought tears to everyone’s eyes, as well as her own, adding that she felt "super proud" of herself.
"I have stayed as strong as possible," she said.
"Obviously there are days when you feel rubbish and really sad, but I found doing a weekly update on Facebook helped and I have had lots of lovely messages. "
"So many people don’t have their smear tests.
"I wouldn’t have known the tumour was there (without it).
"We need to save lives, it’s so important.
"Compared to the brachytherapy, I would have a smear test a million times more. "
Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust is the UK’s cervical cancer charity.
If you need information or support about any aspect of cervical cancer or how it can prevented then visit www.jostrust.org.ukor call 0808 802 8000.
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