Philomena Henry knew something was wrong after she suffered heavy discharge but was told endlessly it was ‘normal’
GET a second opinion if something isn’t right!”
That’s the message from grieving sisters who lost their sibling to cervical cancer after it was missed by FIVE smear tests.
Philomena Henry, from Belfast, died of the disease just after her 31st birthday, despite undergoing a radical hysterectomy.
In a tragic story echoing that of Jade Goody – who died of the disease in 2009 – she married her beloved partner Jonny just months before her death, and was buried in her wedding dress.
Now her family want to raise awareness of the symptoms of cervical cancer, and are urging women to get a second opinion if something doesn’t feel right.
Philomena had been complaining of a heavy, smelly discharge for two years before her diagnosis, and had undergone five cervical smear tests, but each one came back clear.
She was the eldest of three sisters, and now her siblings Seana Gamble, 32, and Maureen Barr, 35, want to share her story with Fabulous Digital…
“She was 25 when she started with this horrible discharge,” Seana remembers.
She confided in me and I told her to book a doctors’ appointment. It was thick and heavy, there was sometimes blood in it – we knew it wasn’t normal.
“She had a smear test, but it came back clear. She ended up having five tests within the space of a year, but each one was fine.
“The doctor told her that some women have a heavier discharge than others and to wear pads, or carry a spare pair of knickers in her bag.
“She was a dental nurse, and she was so worried that people would smell it. Looking back, it was awful really, she daren’t even go out on dates because she was so embarrassed about it.
“She tried everything; creams from the chemist and even natural yogurt, locking herself away in her bedroom. It was making her miserable.”
The sisters are from a close-knit family, and their parents, Maureen and John Devine, were also getting worried.
“One day, I was at the doctors’ surgery and I saw they had a female temporary doctor in, so I made an appointment for Philomena and asked for a second opinion,” explains her mum Maureen, 61.
“She gave her an internal examination and referred her to Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital for tests.
“The day after her hospital appointment, she got a call saying they needed to see her urgently, and she should bring someone with her.
“She burst into tears, saying she knew it was cancer. We tried to calm her down, telling her it was probably just a bad infection or a cyst. She was only 27, never in a million years did we think it could be cancer.”
Maureen and John both accompanied their daughter to get her results.
John, 60, says: “As soon as we got onto the ward, I knew by the look on everyone’s faces that something wasn’t right. They told us it was cervical cancer, and it had already spread to her womb, but it was only grade one so they were confident they could treat it.”
Philomena underwent a radical hysterectomy operation on April 27, 2009 – over two years after she first started complaining about her discharge.
“I remember her waking up from surgery, we were all gathered round her bed,” says Seana. “We were so glad she’d come round, but she was distraught.
“She kept saying she couldn’t have children, so what man would ever want her now. She thought she’d never find love.”
But Philomena was wrong. After being given the all-clear, she was set up on a blind date with a mutual friend, Jonny Henry, 44.
She came home from the date absolutely buzzing,” smiles Seana.
“It was love at first sight, she told me straight away she’d found The One.
“What’s more, she’d told Jonny that she couldn’t have children, and it didn’t bother him at all. He said he liked her just the way she was.”
The relationship moved quickly, and soon the couple had moved in together. Things were looking up, but then Philomena started experiencing breathing problems. She was given antibiotics for a chest infection, but one day she collapsed while she was with Seana at their parents’ house.
“I was literally screaming at her to wake up,” says Seana. “I called 999 and she was rushed to A&E, where they X-rayed her lungs.
“For months she’d been having nightmares that the cancer had returned. I remember her telling me she’d had this bad dream, where all her family were gathered around her deathbed.
“We’d been telling her not to be so silly. But it turned out she’d been right all along.”
Doctors told Philomena and her distraught family that the cancer had spread to her lungs. It was terminal, although chemotherapy might buy her extra time. She was just 29-years-old.
“We cried a river, all clinging to each other,” says Seana.
“But Philomena was her typical caring self, telling us not to worry. She was determined to make each day count, to live every day like it was her last. Her first question was when could she go back to work.”
A couple of weeks later, Jonny had a surprise up his sleeve. He took the whole family out for dinner to the Italian restaurant where he and Philomena had their first date.
“I knew what was coming,” grins Seana. “I’d helped him pick out the ring.
“He popped the question in front of the whole family – no pressure! I even had to pass the ring across the table for him.”
The couple began planning their big day for September 2012, but with Philomena’s condition deteriorating, doctors advised them to bring it forward.
They tied the knot in December 2011, with Seana and Maureen as bridesmaids.
She bought us each a locket with a photo of the three of us in it,” says Seana.
“There wasn’t a dry eye at the top table!”
Three months later Philomena was admitted to the Northern Ireland Hospice, and her family were warned to prepare for the worst.
But there was one event Philomena wasn’t missing… her younger sister Maureen’s wedding.
“Her last wish was to be Maureen’s bridesmaid,” says Seana.
“She was struggling to stand by this stage, but she insisted on walking down the aisle.
“We had gorgeous red bridesmaids dresses and we danced all night. You’d never have known she was sick. She made the photographer swear not to catch her oxygen cylinder or morphine driver on camera.”
Five weeks later, on May 10th 2012, Philomena passed away in her family home with Jonny, her parents, sisters and big brother Danny, 40, at her side. She was just 31 years old.
The family have since raised over £50,000 for the Northern Ireland Hospice, dubbing themselves ‘Phil’s Allsorts’.
“She was such a kind, caring person, she touched so many people and had so many close friends,” says her mum Maureen.
She was a typical big sister, always chief organiser and always looking out for everybody.”
Her dad John adds: “In the weeks before she died, she asked me to help her write letters to all her friends and her siblings, to be opened after she’d gone. I’d have my back turned to her so she couldn’t see my tears.”
The family have decided to tell Philomena’s very personal story, to raise awareness of the importance of taking women’s health problems seriously.
We’ll never know why the cancer didn’t show up on the smear tests,” says Seana.
“It may have been that the discharge was affecting the results.
“If we had our time again, we’d have demanded a referral to hospital for more tests.
“We don’t want to frighten people, but if you’re experiencing changes or unusual symptoms, such as a discharge that won’t go away, don’t just put them down to women’s problems. Find a sympathetic doctor, ask questions, or push for a referral to a gynecologist.”
Philomena’s family are haunted by hindsight, and say they wish they’d sought a second opinion sooner.
“Speaking out won’t bring my daughter back,” says John.
“But if we can save another woman’s life by telling her story, it’ll be worth it.”
The Health and Social Care Board told Fabulous Digital they cannot comment on individual cases but are sorry to hear of the tragic circumstances of Miss Henry’s death, and would wish to express sincere condolences to the family.