I told my fit and healthy daughter not to worry about an abnormal smear because she had no symptoms, but she died of cervical cancer aged 31 – it can be a silent killer
- Gemma Willis a superyacht florist, from Essex, fought cancer for two years
- Her mother, Jayn Willis now wants to encourage women not to miss their tests
- READ MORE: Fewer than seven in 10 eligible women had smear tests last year
A heartrboken mother is urging women not to miss their smear tests after losing her daughter to cervical cancer, aged 31.
From having no symptoms, Gemma Wills, from Essex, had her life turned upside down in October 2019 when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer after her second ever routine smear, and fought the disease relentlessly for two years.
Now her friends and family want to urge women to be vigilant with their health and not miss any of their routine tests because sometimes the disease has no symptoms.
At the age of 28, Gemma was at home on a four-week break from her job as head of department at the florist on a superyacht when she went for her routine smear test.
While in the US Gemma had to have her cervix removed. Her parents could not be with her because of Covid-19
She had never experienced any period problems, not even an ache or pain, so was shocked when two weeks a letter came from the GP requesting to see her again within three months.
Her mother, Jayn Willis, 54, explained that Gemma had returned to work in the US and so they discussed the GP letter over the phone.
Jayn said: ‘I told her it’s probably showing abnormal cells, something that is very common and that I had myself in my early 20s. I told her how I had them treated and was and have been fine since.
‘I told her almost all my friends have had them at some point. It’s that common, so not to worry too much.
‘We discussed her flying home for a few days to have another smear test at our GP surgery as she was worried about having it done in the US. But due to her work schedule she couldn’t take the time off to fly home, so she went to see a gynaecologist in Palm Beach.’
Gemma’s mother Jayn (pictured left) wants to raise awareness about the fact that cancer can come without symptoms. She wants to encourage women not to miss their smear tests
Gemma Willis (pictured) was diagnosed with cervical cancer when she was 28-years-old. The superyacht florist didn’t have any symptoms before her diagnosis
Three more PAP tests, as they call them in the US, and two biopsies later Gemma was diagnosed as being in the early stages of cervical cancer in February 2020.
This was a devastating shock to the family and made even worse by the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic the following month.
Jayn, a freelance fashion assistant, from Essex, flew out to Miami to attend appointments with her daughter and find out exactly what was going on.
She explained: ‘Gemma was scheduled to go in for a cone biopsy while I was there, which her doctor assured me would get rid of what was growing on the outside of her cervix.
Gemma was at home in Essex, taking a break from her job, when she went to the doctor for her second routine smear test
‘The procedure went well. I stayed with her for a week where we carried on planning and talking about our dreams and plans for the future, and places we wanted to visit together.
‘We both love the US and constantly talked about states we wanted to visit and road trips we wanted to do. She was so happy to be based there for work.’
However, two weeks later when Jayn had returned to the UK and Gemma was back at work on the yacht, they had a three-way call with her doctor, who explained that the cancer was more developed than they originally thought, and so they wanted to remove her cervix to stop it spreading.
Yet, the whole world was in lockdown and despite contacting as many people as she could, the embassies and consulates who Jayn needed to talk to were closed and she couldn’t make it back to Miami.
‘Due to Covid the hospital was on lockdown so Gemma had to go in alone. It was breaking my heart being so far away from her and knowing how scared she was
‘All I wanted to do was be there to hold her and tell her she will be alright, and that I’d be there right outside when she came out of surgery. But I couldn’t, all we could do was talk on FaceTime.’
She had never experienced any period problems, not even an ache or pain, so was shocked when two weeks a letter came from the GP requesting to see her again within three months
Jayn spoke to her daughter’s surgeon before the surgery, who said he would call her when it was finished after three hours.
However, he called an hour in to tell Jayn and her husband Martin, 56, that he had removed 23 lymph nodes from Gemma’s pelvis area, nine of which had cancer in and that he wanted to perform a radical hysterectomy, for which he needed permission.
Jayn and Martin broke down at this news and finally asked him to do what he thought was best for their daughter.
‘Gemma returned to the yacht to recover for 6 weeks before starting chemotherapy then radiotherap. During this time I was still trying to get over to her but it was becoming more obvious as the days and weeks went on that the lockdown and flight bans weren’t going to be lifted anytime soon.
Gemma had to go for a pap test in the US, where it was discovered that she had cancer. Her mother flew out to be with her for her first operation
Plans were made for Gemma’s treatment to start back up in Miami (the yacht was in Key West at this time). so it meant travelling backwards and forwards or finding accommodation in Miami which would mean her being on her own.
‘As you can imagine this was killing me and after four weeks of still not getting anywhere we had had enough, it was obvious I wasn’t going to get back over to her so we started planning on getting her home,’ Jayn said.
Gemma arrived home at the end of April and referred to the University College Hospital London (UCH).
But when she arrived the family were told that the cancer was now at Stage 4, due to it spreading through her lymph nodes, and before planning her treatment the doctors wanted to remove her ovaries that had been left in place in Miami.
After a few weeks of recovery Gemma began aggressive chemotherapy, she was scheduled in for 8-hour infusions with three different chemotherapies for five months.
Gemma with her family in Vegas. Her mother said how she kept going by discussing all the places in the US that she wanted to visit
Jayn explained: ‘They said they were throwing the kitchen sink at her as she was young and generally fit and healthy. They said she would be able to take it, and she did.
‘The first day of treatment wasn’t great, she was scared, didn’t know what to expect or what was going to happen. I felt exactly the same.
‘The first visit to a chemo ward is very daunting and scary, there’s no privacy. It’s an open ward with all the patients either sitting in an arm chair or laying in bed hooked up to their chemo infusions.’
Gemma had decided beforehand that she wanted to try the cold cap to help save her thick long blonde hair from falling out.
Gemma loved her job on superyachts and was determined to get back to it as soon as she could, but her cancer quickly got worse
Jayn said: ‘I watched feeling so sick and scared for her and thinking it should be me going through this not her.
‘The nurses then talked her through the chemo procedure and hooked her up, within an hour she had gone to sleep, I sat and cried again while watching her breath like she was a new born baby again.
‘She woke about an hour later and said she felt fine, she even said the cold cap felt quite pleasant. The nurses couldn’t believe she was so chilled with it all.’
After that first treatment Jayn wasn’t allowed in with Gemma due to Covid restrictions, they had only let her in the first time because Gemma was so scared.
WHAT IS CERVICAL CANCER
- Cervical cancer is a cancer that’s found anywhere in the cervix.
- The cervix is the opening between the vagina and the womb (uterus).
- It’s part of the reproductive system and is sometimes called the neck of the womb.
- Nearly all cervical cancers are caused by an infection from certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV).
- It can often be prevented by attending cervical screening, which aims to find and treat changes to cells before they turn into cancer.
- Cervical cancer usually grows very slowly. How serious it is depends on how big it is, if it has spread and your general health.
Symptoms of cervical cancer include:
- vaginal bleeding that’s unusual for you – including bleeding during or after sex, between your periods or after the menopause, or having heavier periods than usual
- changes to your vaginal discharge
- pain during sex
- pain in your lower back, between your hip bones (pelvis), or in your lower tummy
Jayn said: ‘She went in each time with her laptop and course work (she was always doing courses for work or floristry), her packed lunch and blanket, and I would walk the streets for 8 hrs as I didn’t want to leave her there completely in case she needed me.’
After five months of chemotherapy Gemma then started intense radiotherapy which targeted three areas, this was scheduled every day for six weeks with one chemo infusion per week.
It was this treatment that floored Gemma, making her feel sick, and as the days went on she got worse.
‘She cried every day because she didn’t want to go to the hospital. She became so weak we had to pick her up to get her into the car every morning.
‘When she came out she was sick all the way home, she would then sleep in between crying from pain and have to do it all over again the next day.
‘Every day she begged us not to take her but she got through it and on the 23rd December 2020 she had her last treatment and came home for Christmas.’
The new year brought some good news, with a scan showing NED (no evidence of disease), meaning that Gemma’s cancer had ‘gone to sleep,’ and she could stop treatment for three months.
Gemma began to recover and was hoping to go back to work until, in April, at her three month scan when results came back showing two lesions on her liver.
At this point in time, Jayn’s elderly mother became ill and was put on to end of life care.
Jayn had to share her time between taking Gemma to hospital appointments and looking after her plus visiting her mother.
She did this for three weeks until her mother passed away peacefully in her sleep.
Jayn explained: ‘The next six months are a blur of losing my mum, Gemma’s hospital appointments and stays, various procedures, more chemotherapy and severe and relentless sickness.
‘From being the most positive, determined person Gemma was changing. She didn’t want to talk to doctors and she didn’t want to know what was going on. She told the doctors to only talk to me.’
The cancer was in her liver and spreading aggressively which was causing her problems, and in August the family were told it had spread to her back.
On October 15th 2021 after being admitted to hospital again due to having a fall at home, worsening pain and sickness Gemma had another scan, that found that the cancer was spreading quicker than the second round of chemo was working and it was now in her brain.
Jayn said: ‘They had made the decision to stop the chemo because she was so poorly, and told us there was nothing else they could do for her on the NHS.
‘The only option left for her was immunotherapy which isn’t available on the NHS for cervical cancer, although its available in other countries and here for other cancers.
‘It is available privately which her oncologist had told me about a few months before when discussing different options for her other than chemo, but at an extortionate cost.
‘Gemma’s friends and work colleagues had set up Go Fund Me pages and the money was coming in. We told the doctors we now had the money for it but they said at that time Gemma was too sick to take it.
‘They said if they could get her stronger, eating more and keeping it down and walking again they would reconsider in five to six weeks.
When things got worse, Gemma’s parents managed to get her back to the UK, where she stared aggressive rounds of chemotherapy and radiotherapy
‘That weekend plans were put into place to move Gemma from the hospital to a local hospice which was only 20 minutes from home and a much better environment for her to be in while rehabilitating and getting stronger for Immunotherapy.’
However, Gemma didn’t make it to the hospice. She passed away peacefully in her sleep on the day she was due to be moved on October 21st 2022.
Jayn wants to show people that cancer can happen to anyone. She would have people say to her ‘but Gem is so young and fit and healthy’, but that didn’t matter in the end.
In her memory Jayn has set up The Floating Florista Foundation named after Gemma’s work as a florist on superyachts.
On October 15th 2021 after being admitted into hospital again due to having a fall at home, worsening pain and sickness Gemma had another scan, that found that the cancer was spreading quicker than the second round of chemo was working and it was now in her brain
Jayn said: ‘I had been thinking about buying a Beach Hut and decorating it in the way I know Gemma would have liked it to be if we had one sooner, and gifting it out to cancer warriors for relaxing respite days.
‘We have completely refurbished it and it is now the most perfect hut that Gemma would love, The theme is Palm Beach meets The Beverly Hills Hotel, which are two of her favourite places that we have visited and spent time at together.
‘Anyone can hire The Floating Florista Beach Hut for the day and the hire cost will go into the foundation pot,
As well as the Beach Hut the foundation will also be gifting relaxing creative workshop days doing things that Gemma loved to do like floral design, painting and anything arts and crafts related.’
The only option left for Gemma was immunotherapy which isn’t available on the NHS for cervical cancer. She was moved to be moved to a hospice but did not make it
Jayn has also set up a pre-loved clothing business and hosts monthly pop ups where people can come along to buy or join her selling unwanted clothes.
She is currently in the process of refurbishing a unit in Epping to open a pre-loved clothing studio.
The Floating Florista Foundation aims to make people away there aren’t always symptoms of cancer and wants to give cancer warriors relaxing respite days.
They have coined the hashtag #doitforgem, to encourage women to have their smear tests when they are due.
Gemma’s mother has set up a foundation in her daughter’s name, The Floating Florista, to raise awareness about cervical cancer and encourage girls to go to their regular smear tests
Jayn said: ‘I want to get across and make awareness that there isn’t always symptoms with cervical cancer as in Gemma’s case, which makes having smear tests regularly and on time even more important.
‘Anyone could have cervical cancer developing but not know about it if their not showing any symptoms, but by having regular smear tests could detect it and potentially save their life.
‘Health professionals and Gynea charities always talk about the symptoms that we all know about, but not enough is mentioned about “No symptoms”.
‘I want to try and change this so whoever talks about symptoms also talks about not having symptoms as well.’
Gemma’s story has encouraged women who knew her, knew of her or didn’t even know her to have their smear tests done.
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