LONDON: She spends her working days caring for patients with brain tumours.
But nurse Chantal Smits only realised she too was suffering from a tumour after spotting a poster at work.
The now 22-year-old started suffering minor symptoms like headaches in her first year as a nursing student in 2014.
“I felt tired all the time and used to fall asleep at 8pm, pretty much as soon as my daily shift was over,” she told The Sun.
“But I put it down to the fact that at that time I was working 40 hours a week and writing essays all weekend. And in any case, all nurses are shattered half the time. It’s a hazard of the job.”
Ms Smits took painkillers to ease the pain but didn’t think it was bad enough to see a doctor.
Four years later, she was living with her boyfriend of two years and had qualified as a neurology anaesthetic nurse at St George’s Hospital, London.
Every day she was assisting surgeons operating on patients with brain tumours.
By this time, she was suffering crippling headaches almost every day and taking four ibuprofen and four paracetamol tablets daily to manage the pain.
“But I still didn’t think too much about it,” she said.
“Then one day, while on the bus home, I felt an odd sensation – like rain was trickling down one side of my face. Yet still, I never told anyone about it.
“Comparing myself to those seriously ill patients I saw every day, I told myself my own symptoms were trivial and I would just have to put up with them.”
It wasn’t until February 2018 when she was reading a poster on the hospital wall, listing the signs and symptoms of brain tumours in young people and children, that Ms Smits realised what might be wrong with her.
“I thought, ‘Hang on a minute. Headaches, constant fatigue, occasional visual impairments – I have all those. Maybe I should go to the GP, just in case.'”
After speaking with her family doctor, she was sent for non-urgent tests, being referred to the same consultant she worked with most days.
Following an MRI, she received a letter shortly afterwards.
“By then, I’d persuaded myself I was making a fuss about nothing and everything was going to be fine. So I opened the letter, all by myself, at work,” she said.
“Unfortunately, it wasn’t fine.”
The letter informed Ms Smits that she had a large mass on her brain stem.
“My first reaction was to burst into tears,” she said.
“I see the worst of the worst in my job and now I assumed that I was going to be like the extremely unwell patients I see day-to-day.
“I didn’t know too much about brain stem tumours at the time – of course, I do now.”
Ms Smits was diagnosed with a brain stem glioma tumour. It’s currently inoperable and incurable.
“When (my consultant) told me that my tumour was large, I asked him: ‘How big?’ But he just told me, ‘You don’t need to know.'”
Since discovering the tumour, Ms Smits has had several more scans and is monitored every three months.
“The good news is, my tumour is stable and is not currently growing,” she said.
“The bad news is, because of its position on my brain stem, it cannot be biopsied.”
This means nobody can tell her yet whether it is cancerous.
There’s also a potential it could start to grow one day where it would need chemo and radiotherapy, just like many of the brain tumour patients she works with on a daily basis.
Ms Smits is currently taking medication to manage her symptoms and is on a “watch and wait” policy regarding future treatment.
The only way to benchmark tumours that can’t be biopsied is to do regular scans every three months, she said.
“Every time, because nobody can predict how it will go, the ‘scanxiety’ is quite unbearable,” she said.
“To help myself and boost my chances, I’m going down the positivity and wellness route.
“I’ve taken up yoga and mindfulness, and am eating a very healthy, balanced diet containing lots of antioxidant foods like turmeric and tomatoes. I’m having IV vitamin infusions at a clinic, along with mistletoe injections to boost my immune function.
“This whole episode has been very shocking and somewhat ironic for me, given my line of work. But I’m staying as positive as I can.”
She likes to keep busy as it keeps her mind off her condition, and since being diagnosed she hasn’t taken a single day off work.
“Nursing is my calling in life. And I think the fact that I have a brain tumour, just like many of the patients I work with, makes me a better practitioner,” she said.
“Now when I meet people living with brain tumours, I can really empathise with them.”
Ms Smits is hoping to inspire other people with brain tumours to continue to live their lives, rather than “just cope”.
She is also backing a brain tumour awareness campaign, called HeadSmart, which encourages early diagnosis of brain tumours, as well as setting herself a personal target of raising $18,000 for The Brain Tumour Charity.
“Looking back, I can see now that I had symptoms for a very long time. I shouldn’t have ignored them,” she said.
“Now I hope to help raise awareness of brain tumours and do something positive to help others.”
Brain Tumour Charity chief executive Sarah Lindsell said: “We are incredibly grateful to Chantal for sharing her story to help us raise vital awareness about brain tumour symptoms in young adults.”
The charity’s HeadSmart campaign has two aims – to save lives and reduce long-term disability by bringing down diagnosis times.
“A key part of that is to make sure health care professionals and young people themselves are aware of the warning signs of a brain tumour in this age group. In some cases, a delay to diagnosis can mean the difference between life and death.” (Column-News)