Or, at least, how I dealt with a health scare. Which is to say, not that well at first.
This post is going to get a little personal.
Maybe a lot personal actually. But I think it’s an important story to share, because nobody talks about it, and this makes it feel weird and scary. Anyway, if you can’t deal with some vagina talk, then you should stop reading now.
Back in January of this year I went for my scheduled smear (pap) test at the doctor. I remember being pretty truamatised by the amount of glitter the doc was wearing on her eyelids; seemed indecent for so early in the morning, and even less so for where she was about to have a look (and also WHO WEARS GLITTERY EYESHADOW??). Apart from that, it was a pretty normal appointment; you strip off the bottom half, they have a little rummage around, and you go about your day as usual, albeit feeling a little violated.
A few weeks later, I got my letter from the NHS. Not thinking about it, I tore it open, expecting it to say “you’re cool, come back in a few years”. That’s not what it said though.
Instead there was a leaflet from the ‘Cancer Screening Programme’ and words like dyskaryosis and and cervical intraepithelial neoplasia flying around. Essentially, I had low grade changes to the cells lining my cervix, and a high risk strain of HPV (don’t judge, “all adventurous women do”), meaning that they needed to do some further tests to assess whether or not I needed treatment.
I was freaking out. Did I have cancer?? Did I need to have treatment? Why was my body failing me like this? I’m supposed to be young and healthy. WTF??? What was this thing inside of me and how do I get rid of it?
I remembered that my best friend had been through something similar, so I called her and we kinda freaked out together. She lives in a different NHS trust from me, so her experience was a bit different. When she went for her assessment appointment, they gave her treatment there on the spot. And well, it sounded pretty effing terrible. I was glad to have someone else to share with, but I wouldn’t exactly say it made me feel any better.
Then I told my mum. She reminded me that it was good that they had detected it now and that was the reason why they do these screenings in the first place. In other words, the system worked. Another thing she reminded me of was how treatable cervical cancer is. I more or less knew all of these things already, but it was good to have a reminder. Still, it didn’t really make me feel any better.
Literally weeks and weeks went by without any word about my colposcopy appointment – colposcopy being the exam where they assess to see if you need treatment. And then when it did come, I was due to be in the states for my brother’s graduation; I had to push it back another week, making it almost 4 months after my original appointment.
I could rationally understand that this wasn’t something pressing for the NHS, like a heart attack or a broken leg – and they didn’t need to see me immediately. But I was going out of my mind. I wanted to know what exactly the extent of the damage was and if I’d need treatment, and they were going to make me wait what seemed like forever to find out.
That’s when I decided not to let this get the better of me and to take back some control.
So, being the nerd that I am, I cracked open a few text books to find out what the science had to say. Turns out, nutrition has a pretty big role to play in all of this and one recommendation from the World Cancer research fund stood out in particular.
Eat mostly foods of plant origin.
That made me feel better.
What else did I find out? Well eating diets high in folate, vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta carotene can also reduce the risk of developing cervical cancer.
And then I came across this pretty cool video.
“Long story short – antioxidants appear to suppress the activation of critical segments of the virus’ DNA”
“Phytonutrients, like lutein found in dark green leafy vegetables, and lycopene, found in tomatoes, may decrease viral load”
In other words, eating more veg may help the body clear the virus more quickly, and lower the chances of it developing into cancer.
Interestingly, vegan women have lower risk of all female cancers combined, including that of the cervix.
All this research helped me realise that I was already on the right lines, but also gave me a little motivation to up my game. Where could I sneak in more veg?
I started juicing a ton of veg from fresh green juices in the morning, and ate all the sweet potatoes and carrots I could find. I made a LOT of the soup I’m sharing here, and just generally tried to get in lots more veg.
This at least made me feel like I was doing something proactive, instead of just waiting around, letting this thing get the better of me, while I waited for my appointment.
The colposcopy appointment wasn’t pleasant. I’m not great with hospitals at the best of times, and not sure if it was the prospect of what was about to happen, or the pepto bismol pink walls in the colposcopy area, but I felt hella nauseous the whole time. Major props to Dave for coming along and taking the piss out of absolutely everyone else in the waiting room under his breath to take my mind off things. He was totally amazing and supportive throughout my many meltdowns during this whole experience. Anyway, they took a few biopsies; made your worst period cramps feel like a dream. And it was still sore a few days later. They didn’t really tell me anything at the appointment, apart from I would get my results in around another six weeks. Cool, more waiting.
FINALLY, a full six months after my smear test, I got the letter with my results.
The biopsy showed low-grade changes (CIN 1), and they would only need to see me again in another 6 months to make sure I’m still doing OK.
Essentially, my body seems to be fighting the infection of its own accord, and they’re not too worried that it will develop into anything bad, they’ll just keep an eye on me to make sure.
Anyway, I thought it was important to tell this story because I know it’s something a lot of people come up against. And it’s frightening, and no one really talks about it because it’s in the vag and there’s a weird stigma around it. But the reality is that 1 in 20 women have an abnormal screening, so that’s a lot of ladies keeping it to themselves. I wanted to share my experience and some of the things I found useful, not because I’m trying to claim that plant based nutrition saved me and cured my cancer or anything like that (I’m not that girl). But because taking positive steps helped me feel like I was being proactive in a situation that I didn’t have any control over.
I’m sharing this recipe for curried carrot and sweet potato soup with polenta croutons, a recipe I adapted from Vegan With A Vengeance, and one that’s a fave in my family. It’s high in beta-carotene, folate, and vitamin C, all of them are associated with lowering the risk of cervical cancer (and cancer in general tbf).
- 3.5 Cups of vegetable broth
- 1 Cup polenta
- 1/4 Cup nutritional Yeast
- S&P to taste
- 1 Red onion, chopped
- 4 Cloves garlic, minced
- 5 Cups vegetable broth
- 3 Medium sweet potatoes, peeled and roughly chopped
- 4 Carrots, roughly chopped
- 1/2 tsp. chilli
- 1/2 tsp. turmeric
- 1 Can coconut milk
- S&P to taste
- Hot sauce for the top
- Heat the vegetable broth over a medium high heat until it reached a boil. Slowly whisk in the polenta, making sure you stir it really well so you don't get lumpy bits. Lower the heat, and stir often until all the liquid has been absorbed, around 5 -7 minutes. Mix in the nutritional yeast and season with S&P. Pour mixture into a lightly greased baking pan or casserole dish and smooth it out on top with a spatula. Let it set until it's completely cooled, about and hour.
- While you're waiting on the polenta to set, start making your soup. Heat a big soup pot over a medium heat, then throw in the onions. No need for oil, they'll brown on their own, just keep stirring them so they don't burn. When the onions have started to turn brown, toss in the garlic and heat for another 30s. Add in the chilli and turmeric and mix to coat the garlic and onions. Add in the carrots, sweet potatoes, and the veg broth and bring up to a boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for around 20 mins until the carrots and sweet potatoes are soft. Let the mixture cool and then blend it up until it's really smooth. Pour back into the pan and stir in the coconut milk.
- Once the polenta has cooled and has firmed up, loosen the edges with a knife, and turn it out onto a chopping board, cut the polenta into little squares and then arrange them on a baking sheet. Grill them (at 250°C) for 12-15 minutes, until they're nice and brown and crispy. You'll need to turn them two or three times as they cook. Set aside to cool.
- Serve croutons on top of a bowl of carrot and sweet potato soup, with lots of fresh black pepper and Cholula
If you’ve had a weird smear or are waiting for colposcopy results, and are looking for ways to be proactive about your health, why not start by adding in more plant foods? I mean, once you’re done freaking out.
Just wanted to give a shout out to my mum, boyfriend and friends who were super supportive during this whole ordeal.
Now on to more important things. Today officially marks the start of BIRTHDAY WEEK and (yeah it’s a thing, screw you!) we’re off to Scotland this weekend for a wedding!