Vaginal cancer: Val’s story

Val Curtis visited a GP in 2018 after experiencing vaginal bleeding outside menopause, and received a devastating diagnosis

by Wellbeing of Women | 6th Sep 2020

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Val Curtis, director of the environmental health group at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has had an incredible 40-year career in public health.

From helping governments around the world establish safe toilets to leading research that put hand washing on the agenda in more than 20 countries, her work has changed thousands of lives.

But, after being diagnosed with vaginal cancer two years ago, her life’s work has been cut cruelly short.

“I was on top of the world thinking, finally I've got all the things I want; I’ve got my professorship, I’m fit, I’m healthy, and was really feeling satisfied with life. And then this popped up.”

Vaginal cancer is very rare in the UK – it affects just 250 women in the UK a year – which means that research, and therefore experts’ understanding of the cancer, is limited.

When Val noticed some vaginal bleeding in winter 2018, she initially didn’t think much of it.

“Normally I don’t pay much attention to such things,” she says, “but something made me look at the NHS website which said that blood spotting, if you're past the age of menopause, is something you should see a GP about.

“I got the last appointment before Christmas. There was a young intern who said she didn’t think she could see anything, but she called in the doctor in charge of the surgery.

“She found a lump and the tone of the conversation changed rapidly.”

Val was told she needed further tests and treatment “as soon as absolutely possible” – but soon found herself on a two-month waiting list for treatment.

“I couldn't understand why I couldn't start treatment until the end of February, then I had a brain wave; 62 days is the NHS waitlist target,” she says. “It’s a way of managing an impossible caseload.”

By the time Val had the necessary tests the cancer had become “a lot bigger than it had been when they first did the calculations”.

Against all odds, she was given the all-clear in July 2019. However, as is the case for so many women with a gynaecological cancer, this relief didn’t last long and it returned.

She discovered that some unusual lumps – initially thought to be radiation damage – were a new recurrence.

“I had a scan on Christmas Eve 2019 to see if the cancer had spread further around my body and it was decided I could need a major operation to take out big chunks of my insides to get rid of everything,” she says.

“But by the time I was operated on, two months later the surgeon saw it had spread too far.”

Overall, Val had six radiotherapy sessions as well as chemotherapy and brachytherapy. She was also going to try taking immunotherapy drugs as part of a clinical trial, but this was halted as a result of the pandemic.

Early this year, she decided to stop treatment.

“I could have had more chemo, but they said it was not going to cure me, and there was only a 20 to 30% chance that it would actually prolong my life substantially,” she explains.

“And it made me feel really sick – I felt horrible on chemo. It takes your motivation away. You don't have any desire to do anything.

“I decided quite quickly that I wasn't going to do that anymore. I wanted to enjoy what life I had left and get the best quality of life I possibly could out of it.”

Soon after this decision the World Health Organisation declared a global pandemic in March, something that Val, whose specialist subject is hand washing and infection, has been preparing for her whole career:

“The other really sad thing for me is that this is my topic – this should have been my time to shine.”

Val is still working to complete important projects; at the moment she is building multi-country COVID-19 communications campaigns and is determined to get her students – who are working on transforming sanitation in India – through their PhDs.

But the cancer’s impact on her health makes this increasingly difficult; “There is so much more I would have liked to have been able to do,” she says.

We need more research into poorly understood gynaecological cancers like Val’s. By finding new, effective treatments, we can help inspiring women like Val to get back to living longer, healthier lives after diagnosis.

Wellbeing of Women invests in research into finding new ways of diagnosing, preventing and treating vaginal cancer. Donate here.

Find out more about vaginal cancer symptoms, diagnosis and treatment here.