When I read that Lola in EastEnders was going to be diagnosed with a brain tumour as part of her new storyline, I was pleased. Delighted, in fact.
Delighted that awareness was being spread about the disease that kills more children and adults under the age of 40 than any other cancer.
Because despite the fact that brain tumours have taken the lives of more children than leukaemia, more men under the age of 70 than prostate cancer and more women under the age of 35 than breast cancer, the general public don’t know enough about them.
I certainly didn’t when I was diagnosed back in 2015.
Earlier that year, I’d got a new job as Head of English in a special needs school, I’d married my boyfriend Luke and we’d spent six weeks over the summer travelling around Mexico and America as one last big adventure before settling down to start a family.
I’d barely paid attention to the headaches I’d been suffering from while we were away. I just put them down to too much sun and too much alcohol. They felt like a mild permanent hangover or that feeling you get when you’re a bit dehydrated.
But when we returned, they were harder to ignore. My doctor and I assumed they were migraines. I tried all the usual remedies: lying down, taking painkillers, putting a cold flannel on my forehead. But nothing worked.
If anything, they were getting worse. They’d wake me up in the middle of the night, I was violently sick outside the school gates one morning and I even ended up in A&E.
Eventually, my doctor sent me for an MRI scan in October 2015, marking it as urgent. I was glad it was finally being looked into properly. The next day, I tried to put it out of my head, and went out with friends.
But when I got home at 7pm, my doctor called, sounding panicked. ‘You have an abnormality on your brain scan,’ she told me urgently. ‘I’ve called the hospital and they’re waiting, you need to get there now.’
Even then, the idea of brain tumour never crossed my mind. As Luke raced me to the hospital, I thought I might have a brain aneurysm or was at serious risk of having a stroke.
And when they did confirm it was indeed a brain tumour and that I’d need surgery to remove it, of course I was shocked, but I was also relieved. These headaches – caused by the pressure the growing tumour was putting on my brain – were ruining my life. The fact they were going to operate could only be a good thing. Then it would be gone, sorted out.
How wrong I was. Because when they removed the tumour the week later and sent it for tests, they discovered it was a Grade Two oligoastrocytoma. At first, that sounded positive, that it was such a low grade.
But when I went home and did my own research, I realised it wasn’t good news at all. Luke was determined not to read too much into my research and said we should wait to ask for more information from the consultant, since he was the expert.
But at my appointment in February 2016, he told us that there was a one-in-three chance that the tumour would return in five years. My chance of making it 40 was only 50-50. I was only 30 at the time, and EastEnders’ Lola is only 26.
As we walked out of his office and went to the pharmacy for my medication, I realised Luke wasn’t beside me anymore. He’d slumped up against the wall, crying. Seeing him, who had always been so positive, so distraught devastated me.
Over the following weeks, as we struggled to come to terms with my diagnosis, I told him to leave me. ‘We’ve only been married a short while, we can easily get divorced,’ I pleaded with him. ‘Go, meet someone else and live a long, happy life with them.’
He refused staunchly. ‘I’m staying with you,’ he said. ‘If you don’t want children anymore, we can just go and have adventures, make the most of what time we have together.’
Yet, the truth was, I did want children. Desperately. I wanted to experience motherhood and all of the wonders I’d watched other women have.
But was it fair to have one, now that I may not be around to raise them? It was a question Luke and I wrestled with. Eventually, we decided to go for it. After all, what if I did survive for 10, 15 years and we’d wasted our chance at something so special?
When my next scan in July came back stable, we decided to start trying and in September, I fell pregnant. And I’d never felt elation like it when I held our gorgeous baby boy, Eli, in my arms in May 2017.
My angel baby, as I called him, saved my life. He became the reason I got up every morning, that gave me a reason to live.
And I needed that more than ever, when, in February 2018, a scan showed my tumour had returned – and was now a grade three. ‘We need to hit it as hard as we can,’ I said immediately.
So the doctors operated again, and gave me radiotherapy and chemotherapy. It was incredibly tough and I was devastated to lose my hair. It felt like this brain tumour was taking everything that made me, me.
But I knew I had to fight. Not just for me, but for Eli, for Luke and my friends and family – and for all of the other people out there who are suffering with brain tumours.
Because although I’d never describe myself as lucky, I know I’m one of the luckier ones. Since the chemotherapy, my scans have shown that my tumour, although there are cancerous cells still in there, is stable. Many other people aren’t that lucky.
So far, I have raised £56,000 for Brain Tumour Research, so we can hopefully find a way to fight this devastating disease for good, to stop so many people losing their precious lives to it.
So, please, watch EastEnders, be aware of your own body and – if you’re in a position to – donate to Brain Tumour Research to help me, and other people like me.
As told to Sarah Whiteley
You can find Katie on her blog or Facebook page. You can make a donation to her fundraiser here
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