We recently had the pleasure of hanging out with Penny the founder of My So-Called Career, a small business designed to support women in early and mid career. Her knowledge and experience was fascinating and her warm openness was so enchanting we didn't want to leave!
This week is #CervicalScreeningAwarenessWeek and Penny has kindly agreed to share her personal Cervical Cancer story with us...
"I smile at strangers in the street and love to feel the sun on my face,' that was from my last online dating profile and is pretty accurate."
Can you describe your journey to your cervical cancer diagnosis?
Essentially it went 'Something is wrong, but it doesn't look like cancer… Hmmm, might be cancer after all but probably not…. Oh, sorry, definitely cancer, but probably not very bad…. Yeah, we were wrong about that too, more bad than we thought and now we're in the middle of a pandemic.'
I had a dodgy smear in 2019, followed by a colposcopy and about a zillion tests and biopsies but everything came back negative. After 6 months I had a minor surgical procedure and received a call 2 weeks later asking if I could attend an in person appointment the next day at which point I knew something was up.
My memories of that appointment are pretty hazy - lots of forms and lots of information that I didn't really take on board but that would turn out to be pretty important. Then when I was leaving, a nurse who knew I was going home to an empty flat asked if she could give me a hug even though it wasn't technically allowed. There is a very special place in my heart for that woman.
My initial diagnosis was early stage cervical cancer which could be solved with a radical hysterectomy but after a couple of weeks of scans and blood tests I found myself sat in a consultant's office at a different hospital finding out I was about to be started on an intense course of concurrent chemo and radiotherapies as the cancer was more advanced than they first thought. In the handover between hospitals, both sides thought the other had updated me.
The cancer was still very treatable, but for me the psychological difference between surgery and chemo was huge and I was completely unprepared. It felt like being caught outside in a hurricane with only a shitty Primark umbrella.
Can you talk us through the steps from diagnosis to where you are now in your recovery?
I spent the summer of 2020 in treatment, traveling to hospital 5 days a week for daily radiotherapy and weekly chemo. This would be onerous at any time, but in the middle of a pandemic and living alone it was logistically challenging, emotionally and physically draining. Pelvic radiotherapy has to go through your bladder and bowel to hit your cervix, and as the weeks progressed, the damage became more sustained and I became pretty unwell.
My chemo was pretty lightweight compared to many others, but still made me tired and nauseous and the two together meant that I was absolutely exhausted. After months of daily appointments and structure, I had a three month limbo waiting for the scan that would tell me whether it had all been a success. This was the hardest part for me as I wasn't prepared for the fact that I would feel worse after the treatment ended, and suddenly have a whole lot of time on my hands to start processing what had just happened to me and no scaffolding in place to hold me steady.
It was in this period that the reality of medical menopause hit home - one of the side effects of pelvic radiotherapy. While I was in the midst of treatment chaos, everything felt horrendous so I didn't have to think much about what was causing what, but later on I was able to recognise that acute anxiety, hot flushes, an odd sense of dread that I couldn't shake, and the inability to sleep for more than around an hour at a time are all menopause related. Physically, it took a lot longer than I thought for the effects of the treatment to recede. I had digestive problems, the bladder of an 80yr old and was exhausted pretty much all the time, but I was also incredibly frustrated at not being back to normal.
Emotionally, I reached a point where all my coping ran out and I crashed. My menopause symptoms went absolutely haywire - I was persistently anxious, paranoid, exhausted from chronic lack of sleep and I just kind of ran out of steam.What should we all know about gynaecological cancers?
There are five gynaecological cancers - Ovarian, Cervical, Womb, Vulval and Vaginal. 60 women will be diagnosed with one of these cancers every day and every day 21 will die. This is not ok. In the case of cervical cancer alone 99.8% of cases are preventable.
The Latin word for vulva is pudendum - translation 'the part to be ashamed of' - and the shame and embarrassment women feel about their bodies and society feels about women's bodies plays a huge role in the prevalence of these cancers and in stopping us being able to catch them when they are most treatable in their early stages. It probably won't come as any surprise to hear that there is no equivalent term for men's anatomy which is so emotionally laden.
Women need to know their bodies, to be able to identify what's what and what's normal and feel comfortable and confident talking about it when something feels wrong. The signs of gynae cancers are similar to some sexually transmitted infections - all things we tend to avoid talking about, in many cases until it's too late. I love to see how much better equipped young women are now to have these conversations than me and my peers, but we need to do more, and faster.
Check out the amazing work of the Eve Appeal for all gynae cancers, Jo's Trust for Cervical cancer specifically, and if you are, or know of a person in their 20s/30s or 40s affected by cancer then Shine Cancer Support are absolute legends.
What motivated you to start your own business?
I was really fed up with seeing amazing women being actively treated badly or just not being supported in the workplace in the way that I felt they should, and that I knew would be possible. I was in a stressful job in a company with overwhelmingly male leadership and was overwhelmed, under supported and incredibly unhappy. So I quit, in a glorious act of self preservation. I didn't know what I was going to do next, and wasn't really in any fit state to make any sensible decisions about my future, but gradually over the course of about 9 months I started to regain my confidence, identify things that felt 'right,' and work out how they might fit together.
Five years later, I work one-on-one with women who are usually feeling either over or underwhelmed with work, and the My So-Called Career community is a gloriously generous, active and supportive group of ~500 women who share my belief that things could and should be better. It's been a slow and steady process and as a result it feels sustainable and supportive.How have you managed running a business whilst receiving treatment?
It has really not been easy, and there have been times when I've been scared that it will all fall apart, but looking back I don't know how I would have got through the past few years in a full time job - particularly one that I didn't really care about, or that didn’t really care about me.
My business is a reflection of me and my values, and that has enabled me to be vulnerable, to explain to my clients what is going on, to be upfront about my limitations. Far from being a weakness or a liability, it feels like a true strength. At the end of last year I fell and broke both my arms, and my dad died 3 weeks later (yes, it is entirely possible I am cursed!) It felt like the biggest kick in the teeth, just as I was getting back on my feet again and really stepping into my zone everything fell apart and I felt completely helpless. I felt so many echoes of 2020, starting treatment when my business had just started to flourish and how unfair it was.
But it has been such a powerful experience. The support I received from the My So-Called Career community was, and continues to be, phenomenal and strengthens my belief in what I do and what is possible when women feel supported.
Any advice for someone in a similar circumstance?
Ask for help, and don't wait until a crisis point before you do. There will be people around you who will want to support you and not know how. Tell them what you need, or what would make your life easier, and then accept graciously. Also, don't break both your arms. It hurts like hell and you won't be able to do your bra up for a very long time - no matter how lovely it is.
Thanks for having us over! What inspired you to take part in the shoot?
My body has really done a number on me over the past few years. I went from feeling fit, healthy, confident and probably the happiest with my body that I've ever been, to feeling overweight, unattractive, suspicious of my body and uncomfortable in my own skin all within the space of a year.
When I was invited to do the shoot by a friend who had helped me mid recovery (hi Ailsa!), my first thought was hell no, no way, no how! But then I thought, do you know what, why the hell shouldn't I? If someone who takes photos of women in their pants for a living can't make me look good, then who the hell can?
And that was kind of that.
I also wanted to talk about gynae cancer because it is so important that we do. And to celebrate my business - because it's important that we do that too. And in some way I think it felt like a bit of a line in the sand for me - time to step back into my zone.
We know at a 30H lingerie shopping isn’t easy! How has your relationship with lingerie and your body developed over the years?
It's gone up and down about as many times as my bra size! Despite being the youngest of 3 girls, we did not talk about things like bras and puberty and periods in my family. My first bra was one I stole from my sister and which of course didn't fit which added to my insecurity and I went to uni in the peak ladette years, when having 'a great rack' was a point of pride but high street shops didn't cater to my size. I perfected the 'slump and hunch' - the posture common to all women who have spent years in the wrong size bra.
When I was younger all I wanted was to be able to wear the cheap and pretty matching sets from Topshop or wherever - and bikini season was a particular source of envy of all my more 'normal' sized friends. I am definitely excited to get involved in Beija's bikinis this year.
Over the last couple of years I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated by the 3 tiny tattooed marks I was left with from my radiotherapy - they use them to line the beams up each day so they do maximum damage to your cancer and minimal damage to the rest of you, but I found their ongoing presence increasingly offensive so I have started working with women tattoo artists to cover them with big bold and beautiful tattoos of flowers.
I think those marks became a conduit for all my feelings of disempowerment and helplessness. They were the only marks on my body which weren't either natural or deliberate - and their tiny-ness only made it worse. Seeing the first of my tattoos peeking out of a pair of lush Beija pants is pretty special.What are your favourite pieces from the Beija collection?
The Waves and Fortune bras are amazing and made me feel both sexy and supported - which is really not a given at my size. You usually have to pick one. Also please make everything in future in the mustard colour way because it is absolutely glorious, and matches perfectly with my bedspread.
Any words of wisdom?
My dad's words of wisdom, which I share, were 'smile often.' I smile at strangers in the street as it is such a simple and generous gift you can give and it's so rewarding to see someone catch your smile and return it.