I was diagnosed with cervical cancer at 24, now I use stand up comedy to raise awareness

Karen Hobbs
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I was diagnosed with cervical cancer at 24, now I use stand up comedy to raise awareness

I've always been funny, I have to say. I have a bit of a background in drama at uni, and I loved stand up, but I thought I could never do it. There was absolutely no way. I'm sure I would've been fine if I'd just gone for it, but at that time, I didn't think I had the right angle, I didn't know what to say. But when I was diagnosed with cervical cancer, all of that changed.

I found out at the end of 2014. I was going into my third year of university at Birkbeck, doing evening classes in drama. A couple of months before that, I'd been spotting a little bit in between periods, but no more than a bloody discharge. So I didn't panic, I wasn't in pain or anything. I thought, it's because I've gone on holiday, or it's my pill.

After having sex with my boyfriend, I started to bleed bright red blood, and I was worried because unlike the discharge, there was quite a lot of it. So at that point I went onto Google and typed in "bleeding after sex". I was 24. I hadn't ever had a gynae issue before, so I didn't know anything about what it meant. I didn't know anything about gynaecological health really.

There were lots of results that jumped out. One of them was STIs, and the fact that something like chlamydia could cause bleeding. On the other end of the scale was cervical cancer, which I'd never even thought about. I often say it's a bad thing for people to Google their symptoms, but, in my case, it kind of prompted me to seek better health.

I booked myself in for an STI test because the clinic near me could see me quickly, and learned that I didn't have an STI, after all. Following a pelvic examination, I was told that they could see that my cervix was inflamed and recommended going to my GP.

So I went, and they did a smear test, even though I was a bit too young but was coming up to 25. And they were just like, we're going to put you forward for a referral, we're not going to wait. Then after a two weeks, I had a colposcopy which is a procedure for looking at your cervix. At that point, with my legs in the air, I asked the doctor, what do you think it is? Lovely and assuring, she told me while it could be cancer, I was too young, the chances were so slim, and it was probably this thing called cervical erosion, something common and manageable. But then, while looking at my cervix, she said “let me just get someone more senior”.

As soon as she said that, I just knew.

It's one of those things. Like the gynae equivalent of knowing you’ve found your wedding dress. There's no other way to describe it.

When the senior doctor, a mister, came in, I asked him: Is it cancer? What do you think?

He said we'd do a biopsy, which again is a standard procedure, and that I'd get the results in about two weeks. He was reluctant to tell me anything beyond that. And then came the "but".

He said: “Listen, I've been doing this for 30 years and I'd be surprised if it wasn't cervical cancer”.

At that point, even though I had to wait for biopsy results and MRI results to confirm either way, I was convinced already. I had it.

The official moment of diagnosis not long after, was hardest for my mum. I'd taken her with me and she was hopeful. But when we found out, she was distraught. She asked questions like "what could I have done?" because I hadn't had the HPV injection. It wasn’t offered to me at school, I was too old for the vaccination programme at the time, and too young for the smear test. We didn’t know as much about it then. So, unable to cope with the randomness and unfairness of it all, my mum wanted to be able to blame herself. But by that point, I'd already come to terms with what was happening.

In the end, I actually only ended up missing a couple of classes of university, because we had a month off over Christmas. Before I had cancer, I was always petrified that I'd get into trouble for that sort of thing. And it sounds terrible, but I took a tiny sliver of joy when I finally had a real excuse. Tension is this really gorgeous, electrical vacuum isn't it? You can feel it. And I was sort of getting off on it. I couldn't control what was happening to my body, so managing social situations was easier.

I just took a tiny a bit of brief joy out of those really awkward moments when people don't know what to say. Not that I wanted to upset people, of course.

Eventually, I came back to comedy. I thought: when I can literally make it onto the stage, I'm finally going to have a go at stand-up. Because I didn't think I had a unique angle, I didn't know what to say. I'm sure I would've been fine if I'd just gone for it, it's not like I was some shy, retiring wallflower before. I always wanted to perform. But the cancer gave me something to focus on. I thought, if I bomb, I've not died.

I did a course at Soho Theatre, so it sounds a bit wanky to say my first ever gig was there, but that's because it was a showcase. Literally my first ever joke was about my vagina after surgery. The joke was:

"Hi everyone, I'm meant to have a tight opening. Luckily I do".

I was so fresh and wide-eyed and thought "I'm a star". And do you know what, they absolutely loved it that night.

I've always taken joy in finding the funny side of something so s**t. You can't control the sad, scary and upsetting stuff, but you can control how you react to it, to an extent.

Just before I found out I had cervical cancer, one of my friends came with me to the doctor when I was getting my biopsy result. She was about to get married and I was in the wedding party and didn't have a dress. So I was like: “You better get me something good, it might be the last dress I ever wear.” And that was within 10 minutes of being told that I had it. I just naturally went to that place. Life can be crap. Of course I could get really upset. But so much time is spent on dwelling on things. And when it comes to gynaecological cancers, “girls cancers”, and you’re a woman, it’s like you're this sad, dirty thing.

While most of us know that a lump in your breast is something worth checking out. I didn't know bleeding after sex is the equivalent of a lump in your breast. So I thought, if I share this through comedy, I can help people to have a good time while they learn. It's a horrible dark, scary subject. So painful, so stigmatised, so it's nice to have a laugh about it. And now people come up to me after shows and say "oh that's reminded me, I forgot to book my appointment", or, "my sister got her letter for a smear test, I'm going to tell her about this". It’s just amazing.

The first time it happened, I was just like, "oh my god, it's working".

I did a gig not long ago and it didn't go incredibly well, it was a corporate crowd full of white men Leave supporters; they did not want to hear about my cervix. But a woman in the crowd came up to me afterwards and said: "I've got terminal cancer and I thought you were great". I was so touched that someone was so lovely after a set that wasn't great, and also to share her personal story in order to reassure a comic. But talking about something like that on stage opens people up. And do you know what? If I can get more people to be aware, then that's great.

I joined the eve appeal in October 2016. I was headhunted through my blog, Quarter Life Cancer because they wanted me to be a case study. And then I spoke at a talk for them with Tracie Miles, our brilliant Ask Eve cancer information nurse, and eventually got a job as cancer information officer.

I don't always tell people that I've had it myself during my day job, but sometimes it's important to know that the person on the other end of the phone gets exactly how you feel. It's so scary and you're so vulnerable, so having someone that's been there helps. I’m just glad I can be there to remind people: If you notice something different to your normal, even if it’s a bit of spotting between periods, get it checked out.

Karen Hobbs is cancer information officer at the eve appeal