On this episode, we are joined by Kirsty Browne, a cervical cancer survivor. She was diagnosed at age 26 shortly after requesting an unplanned screening test. After successful cancer treatments, she has been cancer-free for five years and now has a four-year-old boy! Through her story, Kirsty hopes to empower and encourage women to get their regular screening tests for cervical cancer.
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Thanks for listening to the GOSH podcast. GOSH stands for the Gynecologic Oncology Sharing Hub, an open space for real and evidence based discussions on gynecologic cancers. We'll share the stories of gyne cancer patients and survivors and hear from researchers and clinicians who are working behind the scenes to improve the lives of people with gynecologic cancers. Our podcast is produced and recorded on a traditional unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations. It is produced by the Gynecologic Cancer Initiative, a province wide initiative in British Columbia with a mission to accelerate transformative research and translational practice on the prevention, detection, treatment and survivorship of gynecologic cancers. Hi, I'm Nicole Keay, and I'm Stephanie Lam and you're listening to the GOSH, podcast.
The GOSH podcast presents a three-part series to celebrate the Conquering Cancer campaign. Conquering cancer is a global social impact communications initiative designed to celebrate the efforts made to eliminate cervical cancer around the world. While cancers are a leading cause of death worldwide, a global movement is building to put cervical cancer in the history books. The aim of the conquering cancer campaign is to propel change by supporting the World Health Organization's Cervical cancer elimination targets through a 3 pronged approach of vaccination screening and treatment. In this three part series, we interview three important women behind this campaign. Dr. Marion Saville, executive director of the Australian Centre for the Prevention of Cervical Cancer. Sue Collins, filmmaker behind conquering cancer and Kirsty Brown, a cervical cancer survivor and patient advocate. Through the conquering cancer campaign these three women are seeking to raise awareness about the prevention and elimination of cervical cancer and how by implementing vaccination screening and treatment it is entirely possible and will save the lives of an estimated 62 million people around the world.
Welcome back to the GOSH podcast today we have Kirsty Brown, a cervical cancer survivor and patient advocates joining us today on the podcast.
Kirsty was only 26 when her world was turned inside out overnight. She was completing the final year of her pharmacy degree and studying hard for the pharmaceutical intern exam when she was told that she had a rare type of cervical cancer. After that, the diagnosis Kirsty says her brain went into fight or flight mode. She forced herself to juggle treatments, steady work, and egg freezing to preserve her future fertility. Kirsty's treatment was radical to avoid a complete hysterectomy her doctor recommended the surgery known as a trachelectomy, which involved removing her cervix and surrounding structures, including the lower part of her uterus, it was an invasive surgery but it worked.
Kirsty has now been cervical cancer free for more than five years. Today she has a rewarding corporate pharmaceutical career and is a loving wife and a devoted mum to a young son named Baxter.
Kirsty can you tell us a little bit about your cancer journey. You know how did you find out? What was your treatment like? You know how was that process for you?
Uhm, sure, I so I was actually really lucky to get diagnosed. I was 26. And I just went to my General practitioner. I actually went to go and get the pill. And I asked for a screening test just randomly, so I was actually really lucky to get diagnosed at 26. I had no symptoms at all and and then for me there were a few different treatment options available all the way from full hysterectomy and and and different types of radio through to just doing a cone biopsy. So I was really lucky I actually had a Canadian oncologist who was in Australia at the time and we basically we basically did a few different things and I was able to just have surgery to remove the cancer and remove a lot of different parts of our tissue that were potentially cancerous, but that meant that I was very unlikely to have a baby. I ended up being able to have a baby which was absolutely amazing, and I really thank my oncology team for helping me, but I know that I was really, really lucky and I it was picked up early. It was an aggressive form and I had a fantastic team, so these were all. All really parts of a happy story, but it's not always everybody’s ot always as lucky.
So the surgery was. I'm guessing it wasn't a hysterectomy then, so did you have a radical trachelectomy which is the removal of the cervix?
I I did. I did have that one. It's not something that I they talk about a lot, but I can hear that you know about it, and I think it's becoming more and more. Uh, which is fantastic because I think for a long time, if you did have aggressive or advanced cancer like myself, the only option was hysterectomy, which was really devastating for on women, because you had to deal with both the cancer and the concept of an infertile future, which was sort of a real double whammy for me as I worked in fertility or IVF at the time.
So for you being you know 26 it's quite young. Uhm, what would you say? You know, I think it's a shock to anyone when they hear that diagnosis, but for you as a young person you know what were the biggest things that that concerned you or or the impacts that you felt when you heard those you have cancer words.
It's just disbelief I mean you you think cancer is for older people, you think cancer is for your grandma? Uhm, you know? Or you know, it's it's the usual thing. You just don't think it will happen to you. And and then, as I said before, the concept of the cancer and the treatment. And having to go through everything was was one thing, but then also this concept for a woman of of your fertility being in the balance as well, I think made it made it just so much harder, and I think that even after that sort of the cancer, the fertility or sort of infertility issues that you deal with for years to come. Also a huge, huge huge part of a a lot of female cancers.
Yeah, absolutely so for you now that you've moved through that treatment phase, what has life after cancer been like?
It's been amazing for me, I think that as a lucky as somebody that was quite lucky in in in my diagnosis and my team, I've just it's been I've been able to have a baby which was just unheard of it was. The first in Australia after that surgery and treatment.
Um so because of that. I've really enjoyed getting out there and telling my story and and hoping that if other girls go and get tested and and increase their chances of early detection that hopefully everybody can be as lucky as me because. Uhm, I I know that there were lots of other women who I know and other women just before me that basically had to go through much harsher treatments.
And I have a four year old little boy who's amazing and a little miracle baby. And it was amazing to have a baby in an oncology high risk team. He said he hadn't delivered a baby since since his medical training, so it was just amazing.
Yeah, that's wonderful.
Kirsty I am a little bit curious what compelled you to ask for that, some screening when you went in to see your GP.
I actually have a a medical or scientific background I was working in IVF just before for fertility and I was studying to become a pharmacist so because of that I think I was very aware of health programs and of sort of screening programs.
And so I thought, I'm probably not coming back to the doctor for a while. I I should just get it done now while I'm here. Yeah, so it was a bit of luck, but I think that people being aware, podcasts like this, talking about it is so important. And every day, just before I had this call with you guys, I said to my friend. I'm recording this podcast and my friend said to me, oh God, I'm due. So what we need to do is just make sure that everyone is talking about it are you due because, uh? Sometimes it's hard to remember, but it was pure luck that day. But if it's on your mind, you're much more likely, yeah to book it in and get it done.
Were you consistent with doing your screening?
Not sure what the program looks like in Australia, but it was was it something that you know you were pretty good about.
After I had an abnormal Pap smear, I was really good about it and I think most people are, but I think that it's those girls like everyone before those girls and women who've never had an abnormal pap smear or haven't heard of somebody that they know. And when you're younger you you, you haven't. They're the ones that are probably less consistent, and I I probably wasn't very consistent when I was younger, 'cause there's lots of other things to think about.
Yeah, it's easy to put off.
When you've got nothing to worry about for sure.
So based on the dream that you've been through, what would you tell our listeners who are currently on a journey with cervical cancer?
Uhm, I do a lot of support work and I think the two things that are really really important. Ah, first of all, uhm it does end. Nobody wants to hear that, but there are different phases and be in the phase that you're in. If you're angry, be angry. If you're upset, be upset. Find people to talk to who understand and and there's no need to be strong. Everybody talks about being strong, being strong. Be upset, cry. Umm going, you know, eat ice cream til you’re sick, be in the phase that you're in. It's totally fine, and it's really important to do that.
My second bit of advice is the complete opposite. Uhm, have cancer free time. Have time or days or whole weekends where you don't think about it and you don't talk about it so it doesn't become who you are. So get upset, eat ice cream with a friend talk about it for two hours and then have a break so it doesn't define you. You know, and if and when you're ready, talk about it as much as possible in terms of advocating for other people to get tested because I have helped several people and I've actually and now had two or three people come to me and and I've basically been that being that person that got them to go and get a get a test.
So be in the moment when you need to have cancer free time with your friends and families, so you're not talking about it all the time. And then you will get to a stage. Where you're ready to encourage and help other people?
Yeah, I love that.
I know it takes it can take a bit of time to get there, but some of the women we've had come on the podcast who are now talking about it and sharing their journey have also found that aspect to be not only rewarding because they're helping other women, but a bit therapeutic for them to have that space and that outlet to talk about it and share so. I do think you know, once you can get to that place and there's there's that double double value that takes place.
Absolutely, but I think the one thing that gets skipped over in all cancers in all conditions and all things is that ability to be in the moment. Be angry, be upset and this championing of resilience, sort of being quiet or being strong and and that's not necessarily the best thing. Sometimes being allowed to be upset is so so important and finding somebody who you can who will just listen to you. Be upset 'cause sometimes you just want to be upset about it. It is unfair. That's OK. It's OK to think it's unfair why you it's totally OK to think that you don't need to be strong. I think that we need to stop telling women to be strong. I think that's really, really important.
Yeah, I agree with you.
What is one thing that you would want to share with you know the general public who might be listening to this, who could be at risk for cervical cancer?
I think women are multitasking octopus geniuses. We are balancing a million things. We've gotta get our hair our outfit. We've got a date tomorrow night we've got a baby come on guys, it' not hard, you're going to do a gym class that's probably far more difficult to endure and organize sometimes then, getting your Pap test done. Book a Pap test in when you book your nails and get it done, it's not hard. It's not that uncomfortable, and if you find that it's uncomfortable, you're probably not a good clinic.
Talk to a friend, say hey, where do you get your PAP tests done? Talk to the clinic say hey is there someone here that's particularly good or comfortable doing PAP tests? Get it done, and then high five your friends talk about it and celebrate. It's something we should be talking about in Australia skin cancer is something we talk about a lot getting checked, and we've started shaming each other now for putting it ourselves at risk. So in Australia when people are sunbaking well, like, hey like, that's not cool anymore.
So the same with pap test people go oh I haven't gone say go here give me your phone, I will, you know I'll, I'll book it in for you, I think it's a conversation. That we need to have instead of Oh I hate it It's so uncomfortable. As women I think that we are we we can encourage each other to be better and talk about it a lot more.
I did have a kind of off bar conversation point and and this might be for both you Christy and Nicole.
We, as part of the GCI, we also have a number of providers health care providers who do listen to these podcast episodes. So you talked a little bit about how you know these getting your pap smear should be comfortable. You should feel patients should be feeling comfortable with you know the procedure that's happening. Uhm, from your experience, are there a couple things that you think that some providers do that make the experience more comfortable? That has really kind of been uhm, been really important to you when finding a provider who provides that comfort and safety for you?
Look, I think it I I think it differs for different people, right? I'm a get it done type of person. Some people really want to go to a female doctor. Some people really want to go to a Doctor who's done 50,000 Pap smears, so whatever is gonna make you comfortable, take your mum. Take your friend. Go to someone that does Pap smears all day everyday. Find out what's gonna be important to you and then get that done. So I think for for different it's it's less it's less on the provider side and I think it's more on the side of the person getting tested. Uhm, to decide if you go to a terrible dentist and you walk out of there and it was awful you don't go oh God, I'm never going to go back to a dentist. You go oh God, I might find a different dentist and so at the end of the day, I think that it's about, you know. Maybe talking about times of the month that are that are better to uh you know, if you're feeling really stressed at work, don't go. Maybe book some time before and after book yourself a manicure. As a reward, I think it's about us as women. We're really good at this Thursday night is tan night. We're planning ahead. You know we're really good at rewarding ourselves with a handbag when we when we think we deserve it. Reward yourself for doing what you should be doing, and I think the onus is really on on women to be planning around this, and I think what providers can do is just make sure they're offering information and just all the usual stuff about making women feel comfortable explaining things explaining the benefits and I think that you know uh, sort of congratulating and and and rewarding women verbally is, you know, well done for booking. You know anything that can make it easier to book anything that can remind UM, anything that can encourage Sister Hood, I think is is is is a nice uh, is a really nice way to to sort of encourage women to look after themselves a bit more.
Yeah, it's an interesting question Stephanie, like I've just never really thought of it I just it was something I had to do.
It's not the most pleasant experience, so I would just go and do it, but I would probably, you know, thinking back to it, plan something around it like meeting a few girlfriends for a glass of wine afterwards or you know, having something kind of fun to do because it was usually after work and, and so you know just try I like the idea of, you know, rewarding yourself afterwards. Uhm, the biggest thing for me was just booking them like calling and getting them booked. And you know, not putting it off and that was something that was always just a challenge for me, because I could find a million excuses as to why I was too busy or something else took priority uhm, and so just making sure that that was getting booked and I was committing to it, but I've I've never really thought about what might make it more comfortable for me.
It just was something that you needed to get done.
I mean, there's so many different things that that that that they could potentially look at that sort of gamification or Sister Hood that sort of reward element. And rewards don't have to be monetary or anything, it can literally just be. Yeah, you know women respond really well to recognition of of of of effort.
So something you know even sort of rebranding things like you know having regular empty slots where they say hey you're due there's a three o'clock slot if you'd like it, make it easy. Book reply yes. If you don't reply, yes in 24 hours, we'll cancel. So you know things like that that make it easy I think the biggest hurdle at the moment is booking, knowing knowing when you're due and booking and for young people, a message on your phone saying, you know you're you're due. We've got a three o'clock slot and we'll hold it for you for 24 hours. Reply yes or reply no. That's really easy automation, but it's the sort of thing that our generation responds really well to. It's that, oh yep, awesome. Thanks, yeah, yes I should do it, sort of thing and then like uh, [...] in Australia our blood collection service is fantastic. We've got when you go and donate blood there's you get little text messages saying your blood just went 500 miles and saved saved, saved a life and that makes you go. That's awesome. And then and then it goes would you like to book to to donate your this is when you're due, and then you sort of go yeah, so that's that that reward that well done. That gamification having your blood taken for two hours also not comfortable, but my husband is completely addicted to doing it because of that that positive recognition of the effort.
Yeah, absolutely. It's interesting because myself working in the gynae cancer space. I'm obviously very attuned to these things, so you know in BC were at you know they encouraged us to go get tested. When we turned 25 and I just turned 25 a couple months ago and I got mine done like a few months before turning 25. Just because I'm in this space and I know how import it is, but you know, even just having the provider be like, oh like you're so on top of it. Like you know, like you booked, you came so early, you know that makes me feel good and that makes you more inclined to want to, you know, continue showing up, continued booking. And another thing that was really that really got me thinking as you were talking about comfort Kirsty is just because that that time that I went I was really shocked at how well this provider was able to provide that service to me. You know she walked through every single step and she kind of checked in with me all along the way and to me that was so important and it made me feel much more comfortable getting that person getting that screening procedure done and then that in turn you know shifts how I see Pap smears in general it's no longer something that is totally uncomfortable. You know there are experiences that can be comfortable, so you know I think it's also really important to both incentivize patients to take ownership. But also, providers can really make that into a good experience and that will also then have so many consequential benefits on how patients see these sorts of procedures, right?
Yeah, I think that's true, and for most people this the the the go slow talk through works I don't know about Nicole but for me I'm uh get it done sort of person. So I think even that thing. Do you want me to go really slow and talk you through everything or just boom do you want me to just get this done? So I think being open to what people need is is important as well, but for the vast majority of people somebody that's gonna take the time. Be gentle, explain everything. Really, really uh. I think is is fantastic if most people can provide that but again, being being attuned to to the person in front of you and how they might be feeling and and and just saying to them you know what do you need, do you wanna just get this done and then we can get on with the consult or uh, do you want to do it at the end? Or you know, how would you like to do this? Is uh is a great question to be asking everybody that comes in for a test.
I also think it's important to talk about that. If something does come up in between. If something you know feels off or not, right? Not waiting until you're due for that next one and going back in and you know whether they give you the screening then or there, or just listen to you know what's going on just having that. Making sure that you're advocating for yourself and just not relying on that. You know regular check in status of something you know feels off or you're concerned about.
I think that's true for all gynecological conditions. I mean, this goes to PCOS, endometriosis, uterine cancers, all sorts of different things. Women bodies are no longer mystical places. Uhm, you will start as young women to realize what's normal for you and what's not whatnot. What's not normal, what your normal cycle feels like pre mid and post if anything is abnormal when you have sex, when you eat anything, go and ask it's OK, and if you feel like somebody is not listening to you, go and find another doctor. Even if it's a female doctor. Go and find another doctor, because if it doesn't feel right if you feel too bloated or too sore or anything I'm going to talk to somebody because your body is really good at saying, uh, this isn't normal for me and and I think it's really important that early detection of all types of cancers and and endometriosis and things like that you, you see time and time again, people being diagnosed in their 30s and 40s, then they've suffered for way too long. And for cancer you just don't have that long.
Yeah, yeah, absolutely.
So you obviously play a big role in this documentary conquering cancer. Why did you choose to tell your story as part of the documentary as well as coming to us on the podcast today.
Uhm, so I tried to tell my story as this was a pretty exciting concept. This idea of 1 cancer being completely eliminated, it seemed almost. Unbelievable, and but as we move into the future, I think that it's going to become something that we think about a lot. We're going to have interventions to both prevent and detect cancers, and this might be the first cancer to be completely eradicated country by country.
So my story is a great example of when all of these things come together. Government programs, health literacy and and patient patient all come together and I'm a really great example. UM, to really finish this story off of what we could potentially achieve for all cancers if we do the research. If we provide the interventions, the screening programs and the public health awareness.
Uhm, who knows, cancer might start to become become something that you need to think about you need to go and get your screenings done for, but doesn't need to be taking lives and doesn't need to be taking mortality and morbidity.
Yeah, there's a lot of hope. A lot of hope there in in this space like cervical cancer, but just in cancer in general, we talk a lot about different research that's going on, and there's really great stuff happening, so the future of you know where we are going and and what that holds for those who you know may be at risk or or facing a diagnosis. The outcomes for them may look drastically different from what you or I've gone through, and that's really exciting.
Absolutely, but I think the message, especially for anybody that's not in the medical field or or medical realm or scientific realm. I think everybody thinks there'll be a golden like a magic wave of a wand or a pill one day that will cure cancer. Cancer is not cured by by by one pixel. Cancer is cured by people being educated and going and getting the intervention and testing. So I think that's the most important message there absolutely is hope, but it takes each and every single person talking about what cancers they're at risk at and going and getting their screening done. We absolutely can work towards a cancer free future. But that means picking up the phone and checking what you do for and getting tested or or getting those early interventions done. So the onus is not on the scientists to come up with the magic solution. The onus is on each and every person to to to take care of their own health where we're gonna prevent and eliminate cancer if every single person works together to do that.
All right well thank you for joining us today on the GOSH podcast was really great to have you and hear your story. We're really grateful for you sharing and we look forward to seeing the documentary.
No worries, thanks very much guys.
Thanks for joining us on the GOSH podcast. To learn more about the Gynecologic Cancer initiative and our podcast, make sure to check out our website at gynecancerinitiative.ca.