A mum who was suffering pain in her bum cheek was told she had terminal cancer – just six after she’d been given the “all-clear”.
Gemma Denham, 29, from Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, had already had treatment for cervical cancer after being diagnosed in March this year.
The mum-of-two went through 11 rounds of chemotherapy and 28 sessions of radiotherapy among more invasive treatments.
The treatment went well and on 5 October her MRI results came back clear of cancer, leaving Gemma and her partner Elliot, 31, “over the moon”.
But in the weeks that followed she started to experience a pain in her bum cheek and leg, which caused her to limp.
Knowing something wasn’t right, Gemma called the hospital and was booked in for an MRI of her cervix.
In a cruel twist of fate, the results found the cancer had spread across her pelvis and lower spine – with doctors unsure if something was missed in the earlier scan, or if it had grown back rapidly in the weeks that followed.
Thankfully the cancer has not spread to any organs.
But Gemma was still told she had only a few years left, possibly months, on November 7.
Gemma said: “When they broke the news to me, they did say that there is nothing to offer me going forward – not even chemo as it wouldn’t work.
“My whole body felt like it was on fire when the consultant told me the cancer was back.
“I had a panic attack in the surgery and just couldn’t understand why this was the outcome.
“They told me I had months-to-early years left to live – devastated was an understatement.
“I wasn’t going to be there for my babies after all. We had so many plans for our future and I was so scared I would miss their life – they are still babies.”
Gemma hasn’t broken the news of her terminal diagnosis to her older child, Faith, seven.
She said: “I hope to be around for a very long time for my children – and I will stay as positive as I can be to fight this with all my being.”
SMEAR TEST DIAGNOSIS
Gemma, a dental receptionist, went for a routine smear test in August 2020.
She had been experiencing ongoing leg, pelvic and back pain – which can be symptoms of the cancer.
Gemma, who is mum to Faith, seven, and one-year-old Ellison, had been prescribed painkillers and her symptoms were believed to be due to postnatal depression.
During the smear test the nurse spotted a growth and Gemma was referred to her GP.
They allegedly said she had a “healthy cervix” but had cervical ectropion – which occurs when cells that line the inside of your cervix grow on the outside.
A smear test looks for the presence of HPV or abnormal cells – neither are a cervical cancer diagnosis, but markers that a woman needs to be followed up.
My main worries were I wouldn’t be here for my children – they are my absolute world and everything I do is for them.
Gemma’s results for HPV came back positive, which is not unusual but means a woman needs another smear test soon.
She was told to wait another three months for a repeat smear as there were not enough cells on the swab to detect abnormalities.
In November 2020, three months after Gemma’s original smear, doctors then found high-grade cells.
An ultrasound showed a mass in her cervix and, in early March 2021, she was given the diagnosis of cervical cancer.
Gemma claims she had previously asked doctors if she had the disease but had been “assured she was too young” for it.
Cervical cancer is most commonly diagnosed in those aged between 30 and 34, and Gemma was only just under this bracket.
After her diagnosis, Gemma said: “A part of me felt relieved as crazy as that sounds – I knew I wasn’t going mad.
“I definitely knew my own body and knew something more severe was wrong.
“My main worries were I wouldn’t be here for my children – they are my absolute world and everything I do is for them.”
Gemma immediately started treatment to fight the cancer, including chemotherapy, radiotherapy, brachytherapy (internal radiation therapy), blood transfusions and platelet transfusions.
She also had a nephrostomy bag fitted to drain blocked urine while being treated at University College London Hospital.
The brave mum said: “I ended up losing over five stone in weight and due to rapid weight loss I ended up with gallstones.”
ROLLERCOASTER OF RESULTS
Gemma was thrilled to find out her cancer had gone in October, saying: “I was completely over the moon.
“I couldn’t quite believe it but felt a sudden edge of bravery – I was finally going to be okay for my children.
“The results came back from the PET scan and they confirmed the cervical cancer had gone – however I had a slight glow on my right pelvic lymph node.
“My consultant had reassured me that she was pretty much certain that it was the radiotherapy still working in my body so will repeat the PET scan in six weeks.”
But during that wait, the pain in her bum cheek and leg signalled something was wrong – later confirmed with tests.
Gemma said: “Since finding out the bad news, they think there may be a clinical trial available for me which will be immunotherapy.
“I’ll be undergoing tests to find out if I’m a good candidate to participate.”
Now the mum is focusing on making memories with her children and hopes to take them to Disneyland, with a GoFundMe page having raised more than £17,000 to aid the special trip.
She said: “[My biggest worry] is not being the best mum I can be for my beautiful babies, and not being able to guide them through the most important journeys in life.
“My children growing up without the one person that loves them the most, more than anything in the world – their mum.”
“[Going forward] my life will be very different, but I will not let cancer define me.
“I need to defy the odds and not be labelled ‘terminal’.”