Aussie mum who was told to 'relax' over unexplained symptoms diagnosed with cervical cancer and given weeks to live

Ashlee Williams-Barnes
Despite being otherwise healthy, Williams-Barnes says her complaints fell on deaf ears - and despite meeting with multiple doctors, her pain was dismissed for more than two years. Photo credit: @ashleewilliams1 / Instagram

A young Australian mother who was advised to have a "few wines and relax" when she complained to a doctor about her severe pain and bleeding was later diagnosed with cervical cancer, and told she had just weeks to live. 

At 24, Ashlee Williams-Barnes, a mum-of-two from New South Wales' Jervis Bay, began experiencing unexplained symptoms including frequent UTIs (urinary tract infections), heavy bleeding and pelvic pain.

Despite being otherwise healthy, Williams-Barnes says her complaints fell on deaf ears - and despite meeting with multiple doctors, her pain was dismissed for more than two years. 

In 2015, at the age of 26, Williams-Barnes was finally diagnosed with cervical cancer, and was told to get her affairs in order as it was unlikely she'd be alive to see Christmas. 

Now more than seven years after the devastating diagnosis, Williams-Barnes, 34, has spoken candidly to 7News about her battle against the disease, as well as the healthcare system.

Prior to her diagnosis, the young, fit and healthy mum had seen numerous doctors in an attempt to diagnose her symptoms, but was met with responses such as "have a few wines and relax", "it's all in your head" and "you're too young to have cancer".

"I felt scared, unheard, and alone - even though I had my family and friends to lean on - I felt my options were running out," she told the outlet. 

Recalling her journey, Williams-Barnes said it all began with a pap smear in 2013, when she was 24 and already mum to daughter Zahli and son Kyden. The smear found she had a low-grade pre-squamous, an area of abnormal cells forming on the surface of the cervix, but the GP was unconcerned and advised her to return in 12 months.

Over the following year, Williams-Barnes' health began to deteriorate. Speaking to 7News, the now-34-year-old recalled suffering heavy bleeding between periods and frequent discomfort. She was initially prescribed antibiotics for nearly six months to treat what her GPs believed was an infection. 

The bleeding would happen at random, she said, meaning she could never predict when an onset would occur. As a result, she'd always leave the house wearing a sanitary pad - but if the bleeding did begin, the pad provided little protection. 

"I left the house knowing that if I was going to bleed out that day, the pad would give me a couple of seconds to find a place to hide or a toilet before it would flood my clothing... and the floor around me. It was seriously horrifying," she told 7News

"Other symptoms that took over my life included lethargy, lack of motivation, depression, pelvic pain and weird sugar cravings."

The heavy bouts of bleeding were accompanied by constant, excruciating pain, which meant she was unable to use tampons and could no longer enjoy sex with her partner, Luke. 

After two years of bleeding, pain and infections, Williams-Barnes eventually found a GP who referred her to a "miracle" specialist that "actually took me seriously". The subsequent appointment was the one that changed her life, she said.

Then 26, the young mum had a biopsy of tissue taken from her cervix, but the procedure caused her to become critically ill. After losing a significant amount of blood, she was placed in intensive care at a hospital in Sydney, and was advised she would need to undergo further surgery to stop the bleeding. 

However, what was thought to be a quick procedure turned into a four-hour ordeal and when she woke up, Williams-Barnes - surrounded by her family and partner - was informed she had cervical cancer. 

After a scan, the specialist said a substantial and aggressive tumour had "invaded" her cervix, and the cancer had already spread to her lymph nodes - findings that were "much worse than first expected". 

"I was deemed inoperable," she told 7News. "We were told I could not save any of my eggs for the chance of Luke and I having a baby together - there was no time.

"I would be lucky if I got to see Christmas 2015... I had two weeks to get my affairs in order."

Soon after her devastating diagnosis, there was a glimmer of hope when Williams-Barnes was offered the opportunity to participate in a medical trial, which would see her undergo chemotherapy at the end of her treatment plan. It was hoped partaking in the trial would reduce the risk of secondary cancers. 

Accepting the offer, she proceeded to undergo "invasive" treatment that required her to receive radiotherapy each day, as well as chemotherapy once a week over a three-month period. This was followed by a further four rounds of weekly brachytherapy, a type of internal radiotherapy, and after three weeks of recovery, she underwent a further 12-week course of chemo. 

"I couldn't do basic things like get dressed, take a shower or go to the toilet without the assistance of Luke," she said. "I struggled to lift my head off my pillow."

Despite the heavy toll on her health and mental and physical exhaustion, Williams-Barnes said she fought to maintain her positivity and never gave up hope that she could beat the odds.

One week before Christmas in 2015, a day she was told she'd be lucky to see, Williams-Barnes was expecting a phone call that would either seal her fate or give her real hope for a future. She had recently undergone magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to create a detailed picture of the health of her cervix and the surrounding tissues, and the results were in.

While picking up presents in Kmart, the radiotherapist called and informed Williams-Barnes that while she had extensive scar tissue due to the intensity of the treatment, she was now free from cancer. 

Seven years on, Williams-Barnes is still navigating her 'new normal', which includes taking antibiotics and bladder medication daily and wearing hormone patches. At 34, she is menopausal, suffers recurrent infections and visits the hospital annually due to the damage to her organs, but despite the setbacks, she said she is incredibly grateful to still be here with her family and children. 

"We know our bodies best and it is so important that if answers from general practitioners are not sitting right with your gut instinct, then please seek a second, third, and fourth opinion if necessary," she told 7News

"If I hadn't kept fighting for answers and speaking up, I would not be here today."