Leeds woman faced with impossible choice amid battle to survive cervical cancer

Facing a cervical cancer diagnosis at just 27, Jennie Barrass knew that to save her life would mean sacrificing her chances of ever having a baby.

By Ruby Kitchen
Saturday, 25th January 2020, 6:00 am

It's a decision she's had to live with for the past seven years. She is only too aware, having battled the cruelest of conditions, of the fragility of life's chances.

"The only way I can describe cancer is as a tornado coming through," the now 34-year-old says. "You realise you're not immortal."

Miss Barrass, an analyst from East End Park in Leeds, is open about what cancer has cost her.

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Leeds' woman Jennie Barrass has spoken of the impact of cervical cancer after she was diagnosed at just 27. Image: Tony Johnson.

She laughs bitterly as she wipes away the tears, talking about her childhood dreams of a large family.

She had suffered some unexplained bleeding in her early 20s, but hadn't associated the symptoms with cervical cancer, she explains.

She then missed her smear test invitations, which were sent to an old address.

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Jennie Barrass, who battled cervical cancer at 27, pictured with partner Michael Wells.

When she had her first test, aged 26, she knew immediately from the blank look of fear on the nurse's face that something was seriously amiss.

There was to follow a barrage of rushed tests, even before the first results came in. Within a week of a diagnosis, she was offered major surgery at St James's Hospital.

But it was an impossible choice, over her future fertility. A radical hysterectomy, while it may have offered better chances for survival, would also mean she could never conceive.

"It was a decision I had to make in that moment," says Miss Barrass. "To be honest, I wanted someone else to make it for me.

Jennie Barrass, from Leeds, pictured in the years before her diagnosis with cervical cancer at just 27.

"Even now, I sometimes look back and I think, did I make the wrong choice? Should I have been a bit braver? There's no guide - there's nobody to tell you how you do it.

"I'm one of the few lucky ones that survived," she adds. "You can't have children if you're not here. I had to live first."

Aftermath

Surgery, though it saved her life, was to set her on a new path. She still lives with nerve damage, and will face future operations in the years to come.

Jennie Barrass battled cervical cancer at the age of 27, having missed all her screenings when the doctor's letters were sent to an old address. Having hoped one day for four children, she is now looking at adoption. Picture Tony Johnson

And the journey to recovery, the former student at York St John University says, was harder than she could ever have imagined.

"The cancer is the tornado," she says. "Then you're healing, trying to put your life back together, trying to figure out who you are after something like that.

"Everything you ever thought you knew, all your goals in your life, they all change. You start to realise that you can't take anything for granted."

This week marks Cervical Cancer Prevention Week, and with the support of charity Jo’s Trust, says Miss Barrass, she now sees that she can still forge a future.

She has lost her chances at ever conceiving, but it doesn't mean she can't ever be a mother. Through adoption with partner Michael Wells, she hopes she can still one day fulfill her dream of having a large family.

Jennie Barrass was faced with the most difficult of choices, over a better chance of survival from cervical cancer or her future fertility. Image: Tony Johnson.

It gives her hope, she says, that she can change the world a little bit for the sake of someone that needs it.

"I'll never experience being pregnant, which I had always dreamed of," she says today. "From being a little girl I always wanted four kids.

"Now I know I will be a mum, I know that I'll adopt. Maybe this was why I was meant to have this path.

"There's a pre-cancer person and a post-cancer person," she adds. "In your early 20s, even in your early 30s, you think you've got time.

"I've never smoked, I never really drank alcohol, I was always quite healthy. I used to dance. You would never think it would be me, but it was."

A smear test is nothing, she says, in comparison to what might be missed without it.

"I know it's invasive, personal, a little embarrassing," she says. "I cannot stress how the alternative is so much worse.

"I sometimes feel that if I'd fought a little harder, when I knew I had symptoms, I wouldn't be in this position.

"You need to be aware, you need to recognise your own body. Nobody is going to do it for you."

Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust is running a #SmearforSmear campaign to dispel myths around human papillomavirus virus, which can cause cell changes which develop into cancer.

In most cases HPV infection goes away without doing the body any harm, but sometimes it causes cells to change which, if not treated, could develop into cervical cancer.

Cervical screening is changing in the UK to test first for HPV, meaning more people are being diagnosed - and resulting in a 50 per cent rise in calls to the charity.

There are still worrying levels of stigma around the virus, the charity says as part of this week's awareness drive, despite 80 per cent of people having it at some point.

At home in the East End Park area of Leeds, Jennie Barrass speaks openly of what she has lost through cervical cancer. Image: Tony Johnson.