Cervical Cancer: A young mother's journey

Fall 2012

When 32-year-old Nicole Padfield was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cervical cancer just six short weeks after giving birth to her third child, both she and her family were in shock.

The diagnosis would bring to light a lot of common preconceived notions that many people have about what cancer looks like. How could she have just given birth to a healthy baby boy if she had cancer? How could she have cancer when she didn’t look sick and was only in her early thirties?

The sobering reality is that cancer can happen to anyone. For cervical cancer alone, the Canadian Cancer Society estimates that there will be 1,350 new cases diagnosed in Canada this year.

“You never think it will happen to you, so it’s easy to brush off the signs as something else,” says Padfield. “Looking back now, I know that if I hadn’t been pregnant, I probably wouldn’t have gone to the doctor as early as I did and I might not be here today.”

Padfield’s journey first began a little over two years ago as she was nearing the end of her third trimester.

She had begun to experience some bothersome symptoms – minor spotting, pain, discomfort and an ongoing throbbing. To her, they were like nothing she had experienced during her last two pregnancies. After bringing her concerns to her doctor, an examination was performed and she was reassured that the baby was perfectly healthy and safe and her symptoms were most likely the result of benign cervical polyps which could be removed after delivery.

Still, she couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something seriously wrong with her that didn’t have to do with her pregnancy or the baby. It would be another couple of months before her gut instinct would be confirmed when a routine Pap smear at her six-week post-partum check-up revealed that she had cervical cancer.

“Once the initial shock wore off, I decided to not think too much about it,” says Padfield. “I knew how much cancer varied from one type to another and from one person to another; so until I had more to go on, I was just going to keep going about my regular life. With a newborn and two other kids, I had more than enough to keep me busy.”

For Padfield, learning more would quickly come through a referral to Dr. David D’Souza, a radiation oncologist at the London Regional Cancer Program. She would find out that she was facing an aggressive cancer that was deep in the tissue and spreading; one for which there were very few options for treatment. Complete removal by surgery would be inadequate and the standard form of internal radiotherapy wouldn’t penetrate far enough and could also potentially cause life altering damage to internal organs such as the bladder and bowel.

Dr. D’Souza would, however, offer her hope with a procedure called gynaecological interstitial brachytherapy. This would involve the implantation of radiation ‘seeds’ directly into the cancerous tissues through hollow needles, treating the disease at its source. It was a procedure that very few physicians in Canada were qualified to do and he was one of them.

With a 70 per cent success rate for first-time patients, and the promise of a better quality of life than what standard radiation would offer, Padfield knew it would be her best chance at beating the cancer and returning to her normal day-to-day activities.

The treatment which normally happens over five weeks would end up taking place over a seven-week period to allow her to spend the Christmas holidays at home with her family. It was both a physically and emotionally difficult time for Padfield.

“It’s easy to lose yourself as you move throughout cancer,” says Padfield. “There are a lot of negative things that are easy to get caught up in – you come in for treatment knowing that you’re going to feel worse before you’ll start to feel better and despite your best efforts, you can’t help but think about the what-ifs. I just knew that I had to put my faith in Dr. D’Souza and his team and stay positive, because I had a lot to live for and I wasn’t going to give up.”

Early in the New Year, Padfield would begin the journey along the path to recovery. It would take four-to-five months for her to begin feeling like herself again. And after just one year, most days felt as if it almost never happened. Today, more than two years later, Padfield remains cancer free and is taking advantage of her new outlook on life, putting her family first and treasuring the time she has to spend with her children.

A legacy of innovation at LHSC
Just over 61 years ago, on October 27, 1951, the world’s first cancer treatment with Cobalt-60 radiation took place at the London Regional Cancer Program at Victoria Hospital. This marked an important milestone for both the fight against cancer and Canada’s emergence as a leader in the field of radiotherapy. Listen to broadcast coverage from this world first.

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Nicole Padfield
Nicole Padfield at home with her family (L-R), her brother Anthony Padfield, youngest sons Josh and Luke Dionne, husband Steve and eldest son Brandon Padfield.
Dr. David D'Souza, radiation oncologist at LHSC's London Regional Cancer Program, holds the brachytherapy implant