Cabinet Minister Kirk Allan writes of her cervical cancer diagnosis:
Last week I was diagnosed with stage 3 cervical cancer – so now the fight of my life begins.
My last smear test I had was when Talei Morrison, just prior to her passing from cervical cancer, rallied her whānau, her friends, the kapa haka community and ultimately NZ to campaign for women, and particularly Māori women to get their smear tests done regularly.
To be honest, I’m one of those gals that hates anything to do with ‘down there’. And have taken a ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ type approach to that part of my body. Talei’s call to wāhine and whānau to get tested was the push I needed to get it done.
Time passes. Work piles on. Going to the doctor for anything other then an emergency goes way down the priority list.
Last year, during the campaign I noticed I was getting a lot of pain in my back, stomach and legs. I put it down to lots of driving, working long hours and the general stress of campaigns etc – so, I got my partner to give me a few mirimiri and forgot about it.
Earlier this year, I realised I was finding it hard to sit for a lengthy period of time. Always in a bit of pain. I started running to try and move the lower back area a little bit. Nothing seemed to take the pain away.
In late January I started menstruating and it didn’t stop. In hindsight, there were lots of opportunities to go touch base with a doctor. But I didn’t. I put it down to work, and was on the go, and “that stuff usually sorts itself out”.
After I had been menstruating for about 4 weeks, I went for a quick check up at the GP. She had a good look at me and tried me on some medication.
At about 6 weeks of menstruating with no change since the GP visit, I raised it with my colleague and friend, Ayesha Verrall who is a doctor, asking if the bleeding was a little odd. She asked a few more questions and I told her about the pain. She urged me, pleaded with me, “Kiri, please, please, please prioritise this and go to the doctor tomorrow.”
She made some recommendations and the next day I found myself having an ultra sound. The ultra sound found a 3 cm growth, probably benign. But the doctor made arrangements for me to go to the hospital the following day at the Women’s Clinic.
That day also happened to be the day of the tsunamis and earthquakes. I found myself managing the earthquakes early morning, then headed the hospital for another ultra sound at about 8am (just before the large evacuation notice – poor timing!).
This was a longer ultra scan then the previous day and they took a number of smears and biopsies as well. They found the growth was approx 6 cm but likely benign. We had a chat about options for removal. By and large, things seemed ok and I could get back to work that day. So I arrived back just in time for the 11.30 am stand up at the beehive.
The following week I got a call saying the smears had shown an abnormal result and I needed to come in again for a colposcopy. It sounded ok, my cousin had had one and it was just a precautionary thing I thought. I told my family and they called the Dr to ask a few questions. She was amazing and took my family’s call to explain the process (THANK YOU SO MUCH!).
Some days later, I went in for the procedure. When we arrived, I was received from reception by Robyn, a bubbly nurse who knew the East Coast well. She kept reassuring me before the appointment that she could be contacted anytime for any questions and gave me a cell phone number to call. She took us to the room where a kind Dr was waiting – and wanted to talk through the procedure. She seemed very kind and patient, but the vibe of the consultation felt more serious then the rest.
Fortunately, by this stage of testing I had formed a solid crew of folks to help me navigate the meetings and to make sure I didn’t miss anything. Mani, my partner, who came to appointments with me and asked all the follow up questions my mind couldn’t turn to. Natalie, my best mate and baby’s mum would be our first call before and after the appointments to make sure we hadn’t missed anything. Mum and Dad, being staunch advocates for well-being, they provided spiritual support. And my cuz Chelsea and other best mate Sacha on our little thread we called ‘the Angels’ bouncing questions and offering loads of moral and spiritual support as well. We had a sweet little team.
When the doctor was doing the colposcopy, she noted that there were abnormal cells showing and took another biopsy to test. She said the results would take a while, so I wasn’t expecting any further news until a few weeks later.
A handful of days later, I was jumping off a flight from Christchurch where I had been doing an RMA meeting and launching a community waterways partnership project, into Auckland where I was off to launch a Kiwis for Kiwi project with Sir John Key and Helen Clarke the co-ambassadors for the project.
I saw I had a missed call from the doctor with a text follow up to give her a call. I called back, going down the escalator stairs and the sound was rubbish. I skirted off to a corner to take the call properly, expecting good news.
However, my kind doctor, who had been so incredible and taken calls from my family in the evenings, called to say the colposcopy had revealed I had cervical cancer.
The ‘C’ word hits you like a jolt I had never experienced. I gripped the wall in the airport. Calmed myself down before being met by Huia, one of my DOC staff and my driver who were taking me to the event.
In the car, I called my dad first. Mum was listening in on speaker phone. And I lost it. In the car. On the way to the event. Huia’s intuition kicked in, cancelling the event while I fell apart in the car. I was dropped at my parents place. Natty and my cousin Chelsea came over. Mani flew up that night and we cried and watched stupid stuff on netflix.
Since then, it’s been a whirlwind of MRIs, CT PET scans, and preparing for chemo and radiotherapy, and any other therapy I’ll need.
The Boss, Jacinda has been a mate, a colleague and my boss through this process. I cried telling her the night I found out. And her words were profound. I’ll always have so much respect for the way she’s dealt with me over this past couple of weeks or so. A text away – always. So today, she’ll make an announcement that I’ll be taking medical leave from work to focus on the fight I have ahead of me. She’ll also be appointing acting ministers to my portfolios.
I want to thank my colleagues for their support, and especially Meka and Tamati who will be helping to take over my local electorate duties in the East Coast. Everyone along the journey this far has been simply incredible. I’ve never really had much engagement and always been a little scared of hospitals. They have communicated incredibly well, been clear, shown compassion, and made themselves available. I can’t thank the Wellington Hospital Women’s Clinic, the gynecological team and the oncology teams enough.
I’ve told a few folks by now, and often the question is, “is there anything I can do?”. My answer now is yes. Please, please, please – encourage your sisters, your mothers, your daughters, your friends – please #SmearYourMea – it may save your life – and we need you right here.
For now, my whānau and I are requesting a bit of privacy while we come to terms with the challenge ahead.
Finally, I know there may be questions about why it’s taken this long to say something publicly and to step back from work. I guess I wanted to know as much info, and have a full diagnosis before taking any major decisions. We got the full diagnosis, stage 3 cervical cancer, last Thursday so it felt appropriate to say something now. I also want to acknowledge the internal support the Boss, my colleagues and the staff in my team have given over the past couple of weeks in letting me take the time I needed to digest before making this news public – aku mihi ki a koutou.
Heoi ano, arohanui from me to all of you (for now),
Kiri Allan – the proudest ever MP for the Mighty East Coast.
This is devastating news for her whanau, friends, and collegues. She is highly regarded across the political spectrum and the people taking over her portfolios have big shoes to fill.
When people here news like this they usually ask, is there anything I can do?
Kiri has given all of us the answer:
Please, please, please – encourage your sisters, your mothers, your daughters, your friends – please #SmearYourMea – it may save your life – and we need you right here.
This is very good advice, every woman should heed.
Smears can detect cervical cancer, and the earlier the detection the greater the chance of a positive outcome.
But smears don’t detect other gynaecological cancers.
Every woman should know the symptoms of the other four: ovarian, uterine, vaginal, and vulvar.
Every man should know the symptoms of cancers peculiar to them.
We all must take responsibility for our own health.
That’s not an invitation to hypochondria, but we should all know the symptoms of other cancers and other diseases.
If symptoms persist, we should go to our GP, and keep going until we get an answer to what’s causing them.
Getting checked when you have symptoms can make a huge difference to the severity of an illness, and the outcome.