When Katrina Cunnane felt blood seeping through her underwear as she drove down the Pacific Highway towards Sydney, she assumed it was an irregular period.
Having recently stopped her contraceptive injection, the then 32-year-old was unfazed by what she believed be to normal menstrual bleeding – but her mum, a retired nurse, insisted she go to the emergency room immediately.
Ms Cunnane didn’t know it then, but that ‘irregular period’ was the first warning sign that a massive tumour had grown across her cervix and was steadily spreading into her womb.
Less than two years later, the power-lifter who used to train at F45 fitness classes is undergoing palliative chemotherapy to prolong her life – and tells Daily Mail Australia she is ‘desperate for a miracle’ to wake her from the nightmare that is terminal cancer.
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Glamorous business manager Katrina Cunnane, 34, used to train at F45 classes and power-lift to keep fit; now, she is undergoing palliative chemotherapy to prolong her life
After her hospital examination on December 23, doctors put Ms Cunnane back on a contraceptive pill to regulate what they diagnosed as a hormonal imbalance triggered by coming off her injection.
But when bleeding resumed with renewed intensity and accompanying lower back pain just a few weeks later, she saw her GP who referred her for a pap smear – which detected a mass of abnormal cells.
‘We all knew that I had cancer, but no one wanted to say it out loud,’ Ms Cunnane, now 34, recalled.
Women should have cervical screening tests to check for pre-cancerous and cancerous cells every five years, the Australian Department of Health advises, provided the most recent test showed no abnormalities.
The last test Ms Cunnane had was six years before her diagnosis and returned perfectly normal results – a clean bill of cervical health.
It was Ms Cunnane’s mother Mary (right), a retired nurse, who sensed something more sinister than a hormonal imbalance was at play and insisted she go to the emergency room
Fast-tracked for surgery on April 4, 2019, she woke to the news that doctors had discovered a tumour spanning the width of her cervix and well into the cavity of her womb.
The growth was deemed too large to remove.
In a doubly devastating blow, the damage to her cervix was so great that doctors confirmed she would never carry a child – a loss that broke Ms Cunnane’s heart.
‘I was inconsolable. Being a mum is all I’ve ever wanted,’ she said.
‘We all knew that I had cancer, but no one wanted to say it out loud,’ Ms Cunnane, now 34, says
On June 10, 2019, Ms Cunnane began gruelling treatment which involved six rounds of chemotherapy, 28 rounds of radiation and three days of brachytherapy, a form of radiotherapy where radioactive material is inserted into the body to destroy cancerous cells.
Her body responded well and doctors assured her there was an ’80 percent survival rate’ associated with successful treatment.
But despite their confidence, Ms Cunnane’s world was shattered nine months later on March 5, 2020, when a routine PET scan revealed cancer had spread deep into her pelvic tissue and lymph nodes.
This time, doctors said there was no option but palliative chemotherapy – the medical term for ‘end of life care’ for patients with terminal cancer.
‘I just remember going numb and starting to shake. The doctor had to write everything down for me because I couldn’t process what I was hearing,’ Ms Cunnane said.
Ringing in her ears were the words ’12 to 24 months’ – the time she has been given to live.
When she called her mother to tell her the news, Ms Cunnane said she ‘heard her heart break’ on the other end of the phone.
Ms Cunnane’s world was shattered on March 5, 2020, when a routine PET scan revealed cancer had spread deep into her pelvic tissue and lymph nodes
Doctors have given Ms Cunnane (pictured with sister Danni) between 12 and 24 months to live
Symptoms of cervical cancer
* Vaginal bleeding between periods
* Menstrual bleeding longer or heavier than usual
* Bleeding after sexual intercourse
* Pain during intercourse
* Unusual vaginal discharge
* Vaginal bleeding after menopause
Advanced stages can cause excessive fatigue, leg pain or selling and pain across the lower back.
Source: Cancer Council Australia
Katrina Cunnane was one of roughly 950 Australian women diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2019.
An estimated 238 women will die from the disease in Australia in 2020, according to statistics from the Department of Health, despite being largely preventable through screening programmes and vaccination against human papillomavirus (HPV).
Different strains of HPV – a common sexually transmitted infection believed to affect 80 percent of people at some point in their lives – play a role in causing most forms of cervical cancer, which is notoriously difficult to diagnose because it often develops without a single symptom.
Warning signs include pain vaginal bleeding between periods – which Ms Cunnane experienced – as well as pain during sex and unusual vaginal discharge.
In its initial stages, cervical cancer is highly treatable and associated with long-term survival, which means early intervention can be the difference between life and death.
Ms Cunnane (pictured with sister Danni) is racing against time to create memories with friends and family while she still can
Ms Cunnane urges women to speak openly about their gynaecological health
Terminal cancer patients like Katrina Cunnane face incredibly difficult decisions about treatment near the end of their lives.
While palliative chemotherapy can prolong survival, it can also cause debilitating side effects that prevent people from fulfilling their dreams and enjoying precious time with loved ones.
Although Ms Cunnane initially accepted her prognosis, she said said she is ‘no longer at peace’ with the hand she’s been dealt and is ‘desperate for a miracle’.
Cancer has left her a ‘shell of her former self’ as she races against time to create memories with friends and family while she still can.
‘My whole life has changed and I often feel I’m a shell of my former self,’ she said. ‘Time is precious and I’ve wasted so much of it over the years.’
Ms Cunnane is desperately hoping to be accepted to an experimental immunotherapy trial which she sees as her last chance to overcome the insidious disease.
Eager to help others avoid her fate, she urged women to speak more openly about their gynaecological health and normalise discussions about vaginal issues, which are still shrouded in stigma.
‘It’s time for women to look out for other women – ask each other if you’re up to date with your pap smears,’ she said.
‘There’s so much embarrassment about these conversations but it’s about time we start having them. Too many women are dying, let’s have each other’s backs.’