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When Kirsty Browne was 26 years old she was not only faced with a shock diagnosis of cervical cancer, but she was also confronted with the fact that her treatment could make her infertile.
"I got a phone call from the GP who was a young guy and he sounded as shocked as me," Kirsty, from Sydney, tells Yahoo Lifestyle, explaining she had simply gone for a pap smear and hadn't had any noticeable symptoms that anything wasn't right beforehand.
Working in the medical field herself, Kirsty assumed that she was way too young for cancer. She had been diligent with cervical screenings and received the HPV vaccine when she was 17.
"That's why you need to get checked. I literally went to get the pill. And as a young person, I'm not at the doctor very often so I thought I'll get a pap smear," she tells us.
Kirsty was diagnosed with a rare form of cervical cancer called adenocarcinoma, however rather than undergoing a complete hysterectomy, her specialist recommended a new form of surgery.
It's called a trachelectomy and instead involved removing her cervix and surrounding structures, and then stitching up the base of her uterus. Kirsty's cancer was removed by the surgery, but it's thought it can be harder for women to fall pregnant after having their cervix removed.
"To be told, yep, so what we're going to do, we'll do a quick IVF cycle to preserve some eggs. And then it's all systems go. So yeah, it was very, very surreal and sort of almost unbelievable for me," she remembers.
"I had a boyfriend at the time but [being a mum] wasn't something that I was thinking about at all."
She says it was sheer luck that she was offered this fertility preserving surgery and within two years she met her now husband Murray and incredibly fell pregnant naturally.
Only a handful of Australian women have delivered babies after having the surgery and Kirsty's doctors had not treated anyone like her before.
"I worked in IVF previously as well, so I know a lot about all of the trials and tribulations of trying to have a child when you have a fully-functioning system," Kirsty, who is now 33, says.
"The fact that I managed it very easily in the end is why it's an amazing story. But it also almost doesn't, doesn't teach the lessons.
"I was very lucky to be able to have a baby. A lot of women, even with a partially damaged cervix can have very early terminations and pregnancy failure. So the fact that I managed to carry a baby, I mean I lived in the hospital, I sat in bed, nobody expected me to be able to carry a baby to a viable pregnancy."
Today Kirsty has been cervical cancer free for more than five years and is a loving live as a mum to young son, Baxter.
She also knows that without a pap smear her future could have been much different, and hopes her experience shows how important testing is, even for younger women.
"If one more person went and got a pap smear that potentially saved them from going through what I went through, the angst of it all, of thinking you'd be in fertile, then that's worth it," she says.
She also stresses to have children vaccinated against HPV, saying "vaccination is an absolute gift to a child".
Kirsty's extraordinary journey is currently being featured in a new documentary film called Conquering Cancer, which sees Australian filmmaker Sue Collins interview women who have faced cervical cancer head on.
The film also looks at the possibility of eliminating cervical cancer. Since the introduction of Australia’s National Cervical Screening Program in 1991, the incidence of cervical cancer and related mortality rates in our country have halved.
And Cancer Council NSW research revealed that Australia's current Pap smear program - which started in 2017 - will halve cervical cancer rates by 2035.
Women over 25 should be getting a Pap smear every five years now instead of two, this year's National Cervical Cancer Awareness Week 2021 aims to also build on last year’s message and encourage women aged 25-74 that it is “Time to Catch Up”.
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