WHEN Tara Saunders was diagnosed with cervical cancer her first instinct was to keep her terrible news private.
But then she had a change of heart in a decision that was to go on potentially to save countless women’s lives and raise awareness of the vital need to undergo regular smear tests.
Posting on a Facebook page entitled Tara’s Take Time to Test, the then 44-year-old mum of two wrote: “I’ve thought long and hard about whether my battle with cancer should stay a private one, but if speaking out saves even just one person from what I’m going through right now then it’ll be worth it.
“One of the most important things I think I can do to help raise awareness is to share my story. I hope It’s the quickest way to get someone to go from thinking, ‘That will never happen to me’ to starting to think, ‘That could be me’.”
For Lymington mum Tara there was something she felt she could not escape. That not “taking five minutes” for a smear test had cost her life – a mistake she did not want other women to make.
She wrote: “I can’t help thinking if I had made time to go for my smears then perhaps I wouldn’t be in this situation.
“If only I had taken the time to test. It could be the most important five minutes you spend.”
Her message reached as far as Canada, the US and Australia. Over 600 people liked the post. One woman commented: “Will be booking mine first thing Monday, Tara. Just sorry it’s taken reading your story to realise how important they are.”
Another revealed: “I immediately booked my first smear test after reading this.”
A young man told her: “I am now assuring my girlfriends/family to take a test because like you said it could be the most important five minutes they spend.”
For some those tests would come back positive and they would go on to have lifesaving treatment – something that came too late for Tara who was a much-loved staff member working in pastoral care and safeguarding at Priestlands for 14 years followed by two years at Pennington Junior School.
She died on 30th September at Oakhaven Hospice but her parents Barry and Sue Frampton, who live in Lymington, are determined that Tara’s mission will go on.
Mum Sue told the A&T: “We are so incredibly proud of the legacy Tara has left. She’s changed people’s lives. Tara admitted that ‘life had got in the way’ and she had stopped having smear tests.
“She was so busy with her work which she was devoted to. But when she learnt what had happened to her, she was determined that she would do as much as she could to stop other women making the same mistake.
“Her message was ‘Take the time, don’t put it off, do it now’ and thanks to her, women have. For some, that has almost certainly meant their lives have been saved.”
Tara had suffered symptoms such as heavy bleeding, back pain and weight loss for months leading up to her diagnosis of stage 2b cervical cancer in September last year.
She had five weeks of treatment including chemo and radio therapy. That was followed by brachytherapy, a type of internal radiotherapy that gives treatment directly to the cervix through inserted tubes.
Sue said: “Her treatment stopped a week before Christmas and I think she was very hopeful then. But the cancer was a very aggressive form and a CT scan in March showed it had already spread to her lungs.
“Another in June revealed it had spread to her spine.”
Barry said: “We just lived in hope. There was a chance it could go into remission but it just progressed. It ravaged her really, it was brutal.”
In her Facebook message to other women, Tara recalled being told the dreadful news saying: “Women may not attend cervical screening for a number of reasons, which can be related to the procedure itself, such as embarrassment, fear, a previous bad experience or difficulty getting appointments.
“For me it was a busy lifestyle that got in the way.”
Being busy for Tara meant spending evenings and weekends still doing her school job even when she should have been off work.
Sue said: “She was utterly dedicated to it. She had a special way with children, they trusted her, felt safe with her. A colleague told me after Tara’s death, ‘Her door was always open to them.’
“She was supposed to be called Miss Saunders but she never liked that so all the pupils called her Miss Tara.”
Barry reveals how recently he was given a huge hug by a woman in Lymington High Street who told him how Tara had helped her children through a difficult time.
He said: “When she left school she worked for several local legal firms but after becoming a mum she thought getting a job at a school would be ideal. When she walked into the classroom she just found herself. She was in her element
“When it was the school holidays she couldn’t wait for them to finish as she missed her job so much!”
As a pupil herself, Tara went to Priestlands School, excelling at business and internet studies as well as English. After leaving she started as an office junior at Heppenstalls solicitors before moving to Brooke Oliver in New Milton.
Always keen to become a mum Tara married Colin Saunders in 1997, having daughter Chloe a year later followed by Josh in 1999. The couple later separated.
Sue said: “Having to tell her children she had incurable cancer was the hardest thing she had to do.
“But her attitude helped them. Tara never wallowed about feeling sorry for herself.
“Her motto was, ‘It is what it is, we’ve just got to suck it up and get on with it.’ We’ve both found ourselves saying that to each other since Tara died. It helps.”
After learning the cancer had spread Tara underwent more chemotherapy but nothing could halt it.
Sue said: “It overwhelmed her. She became very ill and eventually went into Oakhaven Hospice. They were fantastic there. Even her dog Luna, who she adored, was allowed to visit.
“The love, the humour, the care every one of the team showed her and all her family was just unbelievable.”
Barry agreed, saying of both Oakhaven and the oncology unit at Southampton General Hospital: “They have been terrific. Their care was absolutely first class all the way.”
A celebration of Tara’s life was held at Hinton Woodland Burial Ground where hundreds of former colleagues and pupils turned out to pay tribute.
Barry said: “We’ve been absolutely overwhelmed with cards and messages. For us it has been very comforting to know how well respected and loved she was.”
In honour of Tara both Priestlands and Pennington Junior School have dedicated their annual fundraising campaigns to her and will be raising money for Oakhaven, which was her choice.
Sue and Barry plan to leave Tara’s Take Time To Test posting on Facebook in the hope it will continue its potential to save lives.
Sue said: “She’s already touched so many peoples’ lives already and will continue to do so. I know she would be very proud of that.”
In her Facebook message Tara wrote of how important raising awareness was for her – in life and in death.
She said: “I’m sorry if my story is depressing and upsetting and sharing it is an emotional experience but I’m so determined to spread awareness. Something positive has to come from this!
“I want to empower women to take the time to test as it is not something you should put off or delay.
“Are you up to date with your smear test?”
You can find out more information about cervical cancer at www.nhs.uk/conditions/cervical-cancer/symptoms/.