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Dismissed as ‘paranoid’ by her GP, it took 18 months before the new mum was finally diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma
As told to Ella Buchan
13th August 2017, 12:01 am
Updated: 12th August 2017, 6:51 pm
LURCHING forward in bed, I clawed at my throat, struggling to breathe.
It was 4am and I had woken with a start, my T-shirt dripping with sweat and clinging to my skin.
Next to me, my partner Cole, now 28, slept, while our then-eight-month-old baby George dozed peacefully in his cot beside us.
Looking at my perfect little family, I felt sheer terror. I’d been diagnosed with post-natal depression and told anything else was all in my head.
But plagued by night sweats, exhaustion and breathlessness, I knew something was seriously wrong.
The symptoms had started during my pregnancy in January 2013. Five months before my due date, I passed out briefly at the supermarket checkout.
My GP said I was anaemic and prescribed iron tablets, and I had no reason to doubt her, but they didn’t seem to make any difference. While I didn’t black out again, I still felt fatigued and was often breathless.
After George was born in May 2013, everything was a struggle. My arms felt like lead and even cradling him left me exhausted.
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After tucking him into his cot in the evening I’d slump on the sofa and fall asleep, sometimes mid-conversation with Cole.
When George was a few weeks old, I went to see my GP and explained I often felt tired and light-headed. That’s when she told me it was probably post-natal depression and put me on a low dose of antidepressants.
I knew it was quite common for first-time mums and nothing to be ashamed of, but it didn’t add up. I didn’t feel upset or down, and I couldn’t have been more in love with George from the moment he first blinked up at me.
I told Cole, an accountant, about the diagnosis and he was supportive, assuring me everything would be fine. Usually his reassurance made me feel better, but something still niggled at the back of my mind.
When the tablets didn’t help, the GP increased my dose to 20mg, then 40mg – the highest available. At playgroup, I began to pick up chest infections, coughs and tummy bugs, so was then prescribed antibiotics and an inhaler.
Eventually, in July 2013, I Googled my symptoms and watched the results page fill with terrifying words such as ‘blood cancer’ and ‘lymphoma’. Again I badgered my GP for more tests but she dismissed me, saying I was paranoid.
32% of young people with cancer attend their GP surgery three times or more with cancer symptoms before referral for tests.*
29% are diagnosed through admission to Accident & Emergency. Of these, a quarter had been to see their GP with their cancer symptoms but were not referred.*
2,500 people aged 13-24 are diagnosed with cancer each year.*
Kris Hallenga: I’ve outlived my expiry date
In March 2014, we watched a documentary about Kris Hallenga, the young woman behind breast cancer charity CoppaFeel!. It sounds silly, but it felt like another sign that something was wrong because she mentioned feeling fatigued as one of her symptoms, too.
‘What if I’ve got cancer?’ I thought to myself.
I swung between believing I was paranoid and being convinced I was going to die and leave my baby without a mum. At times, I could feel the life draining out of me.
A few weeks later at morning playgroup, my arms felt worryingly weak and floppy as I held George. Making yet another appointment at the surgery, I was determined not be fobbed off.
My GP was away, so another doctor checked my heart rate. I was told it was dangerously high at 130 – a normal heart rate is around 70. She referred me to hospital that same day, and I called Cole to drive me.
An X-ray revealed a huge shadow across my chest. There was a hive of activity as the doctors worked around me, and although I was relieved something was finally being done, it was terrifying.
A scan showed 2cm tumours on either side of my neck and a 10cm tumour in my chest, plus my spleen was hugely swollen. A biopsy confirmed it was Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer that’s rare in young people. It develops in the lymphatic system and spreads quickly.
I burst into tears of sadness, worry and relief, because finally I knew what was wrong.
The cough, tiredness, chest pains and night sweats were all textbook symptoms, the doctor told me. I’d found all that out through the internet, but it had taken 18 months for anyone to listen.
It probably started around the time I was pregnant with George, and the thought of tumours growing inside me along with my baby was horrifying.
Thankfully, the cancer had been caught just in time and there was a good chance treatment would work. But if I hadn’t pestered for a second opinion, I could have been dead by Christmas.
If I hadn’t pestered for a second opinion, I could have been dead by Christmas.
Pushing my anger aside, I made a big fuss for George’s first birthday a few weeks later, filling a local hall with balloons and inviting 40 kids and their parents for a buffet and children’s entertainment.
Looking at my little boy gurgling and giggling, I felt a pang. What if I wasn’t around for his second, third or fourth birthdays?
In July I started having chemo every two weeks for six months. In hospital after my second session, I got up to go to the toilet and left my chestnut hair on the pillow. It was such a tangible, physical sign of what was happening to my body, and I felt bereft.
The treatment made me sick and sleepy. Cole’s parents Anne and Steve looked after George, while the Teenage Cancer Trust – which helps people in their teens and early 20s going through treatment – arranged for him to go to nursery twice a week, paid for by a charity called Mummy’s Star.
Curled up on the sofa when I should have been looking after my son, I wrestled with guilt, and depression kicked in for real.
Cole kept me going, sitting with me when I needed a good cry. He played with George and put him to bed when I was too tired, and he somehow managed to keep his accountancy business afloat at the same time.
Soon after my diagnosis, he proposed. We were sitting on the sofa – I was in my pyjamas – but it couldn’t have been more romantic. We’ve been together since I was 15 and always talked about getting married.
We planned a register office do, but when a scan halfway through my treatment showed the tumours were shrinking, we decided to wait and have a big ceremony the following year.
On January 13, 2015, I was officially declared to be in remission – I was ecstatic. We booked a beautiful old hall in Northamptonshire for the wedding.
There wasn’t a dry eye in the house as 64 friends and family watched us tie the knot on August 28, 2015, with 10 cancer patients I’d met in hospital joining in the evening.
Looking at Cole in his grey suit and pink cravat and George in a mini-me outfit was so overwhelming. This was a day I’d always imagined, and I could so easily have not been around to see it.
I’m now off antidepressants and still in remission. There was a small chance the chemo could have left me infertile, but thankfully tests showed
[My wedding] was a day I’d always imagined, and I could so easily have not been around to see it.
I could still have another baby. In a year or so, Cole and I plan to try for a brother or sister for George.
I switched to a different GP surgery a year ago. Sometimes I imagine storming into my old GP’s office and confronting her, but what would that achieve?
I looked into legal action, but a solicitor advised such cases are notoriously hard to win, and I’m not sure I could put myself or my family through any further stress.
This type of cancer is rare in people my age, but even so, my GP should have listened to me.
I still sometimes wake in the night, gripped by panic. If I had accepted my original diagnosis, I probably wouldn’t be here today.”