My Cervical Cancer: An Interview with Chew Lips’ Tigs
, November 18th, 2012 12:00
On the second anniversary of being given the all-clear, Tigs from Chew Lips talks to John Freeman about her experience of cervical cancer and why she will never miss a smear test again
On November 18 2010, Tigs Huertas - the lead singer of electronic pop duo Chew Lips - made one of the most important phone calls of her life. Several weeks earlier she had become one of the 3,500 UK women each year who are diagnosed with cervical cancer. The phone call was to a consultant surgeon at Northampton General Hospital. During the short exchange, Tigs would receive the news that she was free from cancer and that the operation she had undergone a fortnight earlier had been a success.
I have known Chew Lips for several years. In late 2008 I had been due to interview Tigs and bandmate James Watkins but had to cry off as my son had been taken seriously ill. A few months later I introduced myself after they’d played a show in Manchester. Tigs immediately asked after my son. I was extremely touched she had remembered about him. Since then, I’ve interviewed the band on several occasions and catch up with them whenever the chance arises. I’ve grown very fond of Tigs and James.
Earlier this year, I met up with them at James’ north London flat as they had asked me to write a new biography to accompany a press release. After a typically chaotic and hilarious interview (the pair constantly bicker like an old married couple), Tigs said she wanted to talk to me about something personal.
Tigs told me that she had been diagnosed with cervical cancer and that she was now in remission. When I’m not being a music journalist, I have spent the last 15 years working in cancer research, trying - pretty unsuccessfully - to develop new drugs to treat a variety of cancers. However, no amount of experience can ever prepare you for the shock and sadness when a friend - and a very young friend at that - tells you about their cancer. I offered to write about her experience if she ever wanted to talk about it publicly - my two ‘work worlds’ would collide.
Thankfully, Tigs was referring to her cancer in the past tense. Of the half-a-million new cervical cancers cases diagnosed globally each year, many are highly treatable. A combination of obvious early symptoms (commonly irregular vaginal bleeding or pain during sex) and undergoing regular cervical screens (a smear – or pap – test) mean that for most women, the disease is caught early and can be treated with a relatively straightforward surgical procedure. However, cervical cancer still kills three women each day in the UK.
In this country all women between the ages of 25 to 49 are asked to have a smear test every three years (the gap is five years for 50 to 64-year-olds). The test is designed to screen for abnormal pre-cancerous cells and also the human papilloma virus (HPV) which is known to be linked to cervical cancer. Worryingly, recent data suggests that one in five women in the UK have not had a smear test in the last five years. Tigs admitted that prior to becoming ill she’d never had a smear test and was subsequently shocked to discover just how many of her twenty-something friends hadn’t kept up with their regular screens either.
So, in some senses, Tigs has been lucky. This is her story.
What did you know about cervical cancer and cervical screening before you became ill?
Tigs: Nothing at all. I’d actually got to the age of 26 without ever having a smear test. It wasn’t through fear that I didn’t have them. As a person, I am very good at putting off everything. What has been more surprising is the amount of female friends that I have spoken to since – intelligent, successful people – who have told me they have never a smear test either. So, I know I’m not alone although that doesn’t make it right. Part of the reason was that if you are based in one place you do get a letter from your family doctor. I’ve moved around a lot and although somewhere way, way back in my mind I thought ‘I should get that done at some point’. I just never did - like I never go to the dentist.
What was the first sign that anything was wrong?
Tigs: I was having abnormal [vaginal] bleeding and after a few times of that happening, my flatmate suggested I go to the doctor. I wasn’t stupid enough to ignore that, so I went to the doctor and had a smear test. That came back as having an ‘unusual’ result. I remember thinking, ‘That’s not very good’ but I didn’t worry overly as I was told that one in 20 come back with an unusual result. I wasn’t massively concerned but I did know I had been having some symptoms as well. That was in September 2010.
What happened next?
Tigs: I was told I had to go back and book another appointment. I then went on tour and kind of forgot about it. Our album had come out so we were very busy that year. Well, I didn’t forget, I just thought I would do it at some point. I am very ‘head-in-the-sand’ about stuff. I think I realised the situation wasn’t great and I didn’t want to deal with it. It’s such a stupid attitude and I let it slide. My mum is not in this country – my parents live abroad – and it was actually my flatmate who took on the role of my mother and would call me once a week, then once a day and then multiple times a day asking whether I had arranged another appointment. She was like a dog with a bone. It seems a lot to say that she saved my life but she saved me in a way. She sorted me out.
What happened at that next appointment? Did they take a biopsy?
Tigs: I went back and had a colposcopy. It is done in a hospital; your legs are in stirrups and you are awake. It’s not pleasant – you have a number of people looking up you. I was told that a cervix is 4 cm long and that colposcopy would also take a biopsy of 4 mm of tissue. I still wasn’t overly concerned as I knew many people had to go back to have this done.
How long did you have to wait for the results of the biopsy?
Tigs: I was told they would get back to me within a month and a couple of weeks later I was at James’ house writing songs and I got a phone call. It was from the hospital. They told me they’d had the results back and could I come in and see them that day. I asked them if it was bad news and they just said they needed to talk to me face-to-face. I knew what it was - I asked if it was cancer and they told me to come in to speak to them. I put the phone down and went back to James. I must have looked as white as a sheet and he said, ‘What’s the matter?’ and I said ‘I’ve got cervical cancer’ and just cried. James is very good in a crisis. His dad died of cancer. From that moment on, James has looked after me - he was very nurturing and gentle.
That must have been an awful time. Can you remember what the subsequent consultation was like?
Tigs: James came with me to the hospital. Stupidly, I made him stay in the waiting room. I remember waiting in a room in the Cervical Screening Area which was just for those appointments and everyone else who was there were all 50 years plus. I remember thinking, ‘This is a bit weird’ and I now know that cervical cancer is less common when you are young. I was called into an office with the consultant surgeon, so I knew she was senior. She wanted to deal with my case, probably because of my age. She sat down with me and I got out my notebook, as my mum had told me to make notes. We talked for a while and she said that I had Stage 1 micro-invasive squamous cell carcinoma. She showed me some charts and we looked at some diagrams and she told me that she would have to remove it. She told me that she’d taken 4 mm with my colposcopy and she was going to take 8 mm this time. Over a quarter of my cervix would be gone. She told me that there would be various risks during pregnancy but it shouldn’t affect my fertility. She told me she wanted to operate in ten days time.
I realise this sounds like a stupid question, but how did you feel at that moment?
Tigs: There was a huge intake of breath. I just felt fucking weird about the whole thing. It is very strange when these things are actually happening. You never, ever think things like that will happen to you. It was fifteen minutes into the conversation and she asked me if I was okay and whether I wanted a moment. She said, ‘It is a very treatable form of cancer’ and that was the first time that she had said the word. I think they try and not say the word because it is so loaded. You think of cancer and you think of death, whereas, actually, loads of people survive cancer. Then, at the end, I asked for her name. She was a Chinese woman and she said she was Mrs Chew and thought, ‘No fucking way, this is fate’ – I knew was going to be alright. I think even the most non-superstitious of people will cling on to the weirdest of things in moments of crisis. I had never met anyone with the surname of Chew.
How did your friends react to the news?
Tigs: I told my flatmate the next day and she was so upset. I told another friend and she just cried her eyes out and the first thing that came out of her mouth was, ‘It’s just like Jade Goody’. I said, ‘Babe, she fucking died’. It was so ridiculous but people genuinely don’t know how to react.
How long was it between the diagnosis and the surgery? How difficult a time was that for you?
Tigs: I had the operation on the November 4, 2010, and the diagnosis was ten days before that. It is a funny thing knowing that you have something that needs to be got rid of and you have to live with it for ten days. It was horrible, it was in me and I wanted rid immediately. Another thing I found upsetting was this notion that part of my body was trying to kill me and if it was left I would die. But, I only had to wait ten days; I must say that the service I received from the NHS was amazing.
What do you remember about the day of your operation?
Tigs: It felt like a big deal – my mum and boyfriend at the time flew over. I had the whole ‘fasting, bad night’s sleep and early start’ thing. I got there and got into the horrible clothes. The nurses were very lovely to me – I was on a ward with people in their 60s. The point where my family had to leave was horrific. I just about held it together but I was scared. I’d never had a general anaesthetic before. As they put the mask on me to inhale the anaesthesia I remember just thinking ‘fuck’.
What happened immediately after the operation?
Tigs: The procedure was quite quick - only half an hour I think. It was loop surgery [Loop Electrosurgical Excision Procedure (LEEP)]. Afterwards, Mrs Chew came to see me and said she thought it had gone well and that the operation had been a success but she didn’t know whether she had taken it all. As you cannot see the cancer as such, they are estimating the amount of [cervical tissue] to take and that had to go off for analysis.
Waiting for those results to come back must have been horrible.
Tigs: The worst part of the entire experience was the time period after the operation until getting the results. That was the pits. I had been told that essentially it would be a ‘heaven or hell’ outcome because if they had not got rid of all of it, it would be quite likely I would require a hysterectomy as the next stage of treatment. I did very little in those two weeks. It was grim – I had some really dark moments in that time. I don’t think I ever really thought I would die. I was afraid about not being able to have children. I had a baby niece and a baby nephew and I didn’t know whether I might lose the opportunity to be a mother. I remember telling my boyfriend that if I couldn’t have children I wouldn’t expect him to stay with me. He was really upset. I had really given myself over to something really life-changingly bad.
So, how did you find out the good news?
Tigs: I got the analysis results back on November 18 . They told me that they had got out all of the area they needed to remove and there wouldn‘t be the need for any further treatment. It was really weird as I had geared myself up for the news being bad. After I got the results and a bunch of people came over and we got fucking smashed.
What kind of follow-up have you had since?
Tigs: I had to have a smear test every three months and now I have to have them every six months – considerably more often than most people. Overall, if that was my experience of cancer I feel I got off very lightly. I did feel lucky compared to other people’s stories but it also made me feel like a statistic which was an odd feeling.
Two years on, has your outlook on life changed at all?
Tigs: For a while it made me grateful for everything. The best thing about the experience was how close it brought me to my group of friends. You become the epicentre of something very beautiful and strong. It was about people wanting to be close and showing that they cared. It was unbelievable. I felt so loved and I will never forget that. That was a lasting legacy – it has made me a lot closer to people in my life. There have been moments when I have tried to write a song about it but it’s too dark to write a pop song about. Maybe if I was Leonard Cohen I could do it, but to condense it into a rhyming ditty seems poor, to be honest. But, you have to get on with life. I cannot say I have tried to ‘seize the day’ everyday – you just go back to doing normal things and being you.
And, finally, how has your attitude towards cervical screening tests changed?
Tigs: Some people might think of it in the same way they think of the dentist or the optician. It’s in the back of your mind but you don’t think it is that important. I would say just take an hour out of your day to go and get a smear test. It is so little effort and for the vast majority of people the results will give them some kind of peace of mind. For the people who might not get a good result – if there was anything abnormal – you have to think really carefully that you are putting your whole future at risk by not getting checked out, and that you might not be able to have children. That’s what got to me, the idea that my whole future could have changed.
I’m a classic example of one of those women in her 20s who didn’t get a smear test. I now realise that it is one of those things you have to put on your list as being a responsible woman if you want to have a family. It’s something you only have to do once every few years. That’s not much of a hassle, is it?