WAKING up with another thumping headache, Charlie Aldred knew something wasn't right.
The 17-year-old had already been to see her doctor about her sore head, bad balance and blurry vision but her GP put it down to depression.
Before that her symptoms had been put down to bad posture and she was sent away with printouts of how to do yoga.
Charlie, from Bedworth, Warwickshire, refused anti-depressants and tried to get on with life as she began her first term at sixth form.
But when she started to get blurry spots in her vision, mum Michelle thought it might be time for an eye test.
It was only during this routine appointment that it became clear Charlie had been right – she wasn't well.
In fact, she would later find out that it was actually brain cancer.
'Not taken seriously'
Charlie, now 19, told The Sun Online: "I felt like I wasn't being taken seriously.
"If I had been listened to maybe it would have been spotted sooner.
"Instead, I was offered anti-depressants and I had no clue why."
Charlie was 16 when she first started getting headaches, but shrugged them off as being normal before she noticed other symptoms.
"I was struggling with my walking, my balance was going really bad – I thought it was normal that was happening," she said.
"I kept getting blurry spots in my vision, but thought it was probably because I’m tired."
Charlie says she kept "self-diagnosing" herself but eventually went to see a doctor.
"The first time I went they printed me off a load of sheets on how to do yoga because they thought it was my posture and how I sit at college, which I thought was silly" she said.
"The second time they said I was stressed and the third time they offered me antidepressants, but I quickly turned them down."
It was then that her mum Michelle suggested that her headaches could be down to her straining her eyes.
Charlie said: “A lot of my family wear glasses so my mum suggested that I get an eye test to see if I was getting headaches because I was straining my eyes.
"The optician spotted something was wrong straight away and referred me to my local hospital, where they discovered the tumour.
“I had a biopsy then a lumber puncture which confirmed it was cancerous.
"It was just three weeks after my 17th birthday.
"I have blocked out that time completely, but I know that my mum was really upset.
"Looking back, she probably saved my life though by insisting that I went for an eye test as we wouldn’t have discovered it without that – the GP wasn’t listening."
Charlie was told she needed an operation to remove some of the tumour, but having only been in hospital once before, she was terrified.
The operation at Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham took seven hours and she in intensive care for another fortnight.
“It was hard on my mum as my brother was only 12 at the time and she barely saw him," she said.
"We lived 25 miles from the hospital, so my mum had to stay in hotels, which was expensive."
After leaving ICU, Charlie was transferred to the Teenage Cancer Trust unit for radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
“I had my own room so my mum was able to come and stay over with me, or my grandma would when my mum was at home with my brother," she said.
"I don’t know what I would have done without them if I was having a bad day.
"My mum was there for me throughout everything and she was my rock."
Charlie also made friends with some of the other girls on the ward going through a similar experience and formed a close group of friends.
She said: “That was so important as I had dropped out of a college course and not many friends kept in contact and came to visit me.
"All I needed was ‘Hi, are you ok?’ but many didn’t do that. Some also used me as an excuse to get out of things by telling people I had cancer.
"I wanted to be treated like a normal person, but I was just ‘that girl with cancer’."
THE FIVE MOST COMMON CANCER WARNING SIGNS IN YOUNG PEOPLE
There are many signs and symptoms of cancer – but remember that having any of them doesn’t necessarily mean you have cancer.
It’s really important to call your GP and get checked out if you have any of the symptoms below – especially if they last for a while and you can’t explain them.
The five most common signs of cancer in young people are:
- Lumps, bumps and swellings: These could be anywhere in your body
- Unexplained tiredness: When you feel completely exhausted, all of the time, and even a good night’s sleep doesn’t help
- Mole changes: This could be a change in the size, shape, colour or texture of a mole, or if it starts bleeding
- Pain: The kind of pain that’s persistent and extreme, and doesn’t go away when you take painkillers
- Significant weight change: This could be weight loss or weight gain, when you haven’t changed your diet, how much exercise you’re doing, or any medication you’re on
Other signs and symptoms to watch out for are:
- Headaches or dizziness that won’t go away
- Getting out of breath more easily than normal
- Bleeding you can’t explain – for instance in your urine or poo, after sex, between periods, or if you vomit
- Unexplained bruising
- Ongoing changes when you go for a poo – like constipation or diarrhoea (or both), pain, or feeling like you’ve not quite finished going
- Sweating a lot at night.
During the coronavirus crisis, it’s still really important to call your GP if you’re worried about any of these symptoms.
If it turns out not to be cancer, you haven’t wasted anyone’s time. You’ll still be listened to and taken seriously – the NHS is actively encouraging people to contact their GP if they’re worried about possible cancer symptoms.
If it does turn out to be cancer, then getting diagnosed early is really important, and can save lives.
Either way, you’ll have done the right thing.
Source: Teenage Cancer Trust
Incredibly, Charlie got the all-clear halfway through chemotherapy although finished the course to be on the safe side and was finally cancer-free in June last year.
But the disease has left her suffering from ongoing side-effects that still impact her more than a year on.
She said: “I have a lot of scars on my head, neck and chest and most are from having central lines put in as I couldn't have a PICC line because my veins were really bad in my arms and there was a 99.9 per cent chance of a blood clot.
"My hair would fall out every time I had chemo so it’s only just starting to grow again.
"I've always enjoyed doing my own make-up and when I lost my brows and lashes it helped me out so much more that I could play with make-up.
“I didn’t take many photos at that time as I was embarrassed due to my weight gain after steroids.
"I was always big, but steroids sent me bigger and it was the worst time of my life so far.”
Best to check
Charlie is supporting Teenage Cancer Trust’s #BesttoCheck campaign, which is reminding young people of the common signs and symptoms of cancer and encouraging them to seek medical advice at the earliest opportunity.
It comes as figures show cancer referrals have plunged as a result of coronavirus, amid fears of thousands of extra deaths.
Before the pandemic research suggested that young people like Charlie aged 16-24 with suspected cancer symptoms commonly had to visit their GPs three times before they were referred to hospital.
Charlie said: “I’m always telling my friends and family to get any symptoms checked out – I know how important is and it’s silly not to.
“Pandemic or not, contact your GP and tell them what’s happening, don’t feel silly, you know your own body.
“And if you’re not taken seriously, do what you can and be persistent or look for help elsewhere.
"I went to the GP three times before my mum made me go to the optician, and that eye-test probably saved my life.”
Ben Sundell, head of policy at Teenage Cancer Trust, said: “We know it’s a challenging time right now, and the NHS is busy, but the NHS want you to talk to your GP about possible cancer symptoms.
“Coronavirus doesn’t stop people getting cancer so please don’t sit on symptoms – because an earlier diagnosis could save your life.
“Cancer in young people is not as common as it is in older people, but our message is that it’s always, always, best to check.
"If you are worried and want to find out more about symptoms and how to talk to your GP about them, you can find out more on the Teenage Cancer Trust website.”
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