A new mum who put her headaches and tiredness down to ‘baby brain’ was devastated to discover she actually had an incurable brain tumour.
Claire Curtis, 30, had been experiencing headaches and feeling tired for a months before her diagnosis but just put it down to the stress of being a new mum.
Doctors prescribed her medication for migraines, but when Claire started vomiting in the early hours of the morning, she knew it was something more sinister.
An MRI scan revealed that Claire had an incurable brain tumour the size of an orange, and she is now battling the cancer to get more time with her family.
Claire said: “I was getting bad headaches in the front part of my head, but I put it down to being exhausted as a new mum.
“I just felt really drained and thought it was because I’d just given birth to Charlie, so I took myself for naps when I could and tried to get on with it.
“Doctors thought it was migraines at first and gave me co-codamol, but it didn’t seem to work, and then I started waking up in the early hours to be sick.
“I was repeatedly going back to the doctors begging for help because I knew something was wrong, but nothing prepared me for the diagnosis of cancer.
“I’m going through chemotherapy now to buy more time, and although I know my diagnosis is terminal, I’m fighting for every extra minute I can get with my kids.”
Nursery worker Claire had always wanted to be a mum, and started trying for a baby when she was 25 with her long term partner Tom, 34, who she met in 2007.
Claire and crazy golf manager Tom welcomed daughter Millie in 2015 and their son Charlie followed in February 2018.
The family of four were happily settling down in their home in Plymouth, Devon, when Claire started getting headaches in April 2018.
Blaming the headaches on being tired out with two young children, Claire tried to ignore the pain, taking naps when she could, before eventually going to a doctor who prescribed her co-codamol.
The pain relief didn’t work, and when Claire started vomiting in the early hours of the morning, she returned to the doctors who gave her anti-sickness tablets.
After struggling to climb the stairs in June 2018, Claire was desperate for answers and went to the opticians for an eye test.
She said: “I assumed the stress of sleepless nights and caring for two kids was the cause of my headaches, and when I finally went to a doctor, they thought it was either migraines or vertigo.
“I just tried to get on with life as a mum to two young children, but when I started throwing up every morning at 4am, I realised I couldn’t ignore it any more.
“I remember one morning Millie called me from her bedroom, and as I went to climb the stairs, I suddenly felt really dizzy and I couldn’t see properly.
“I told my mum about it and she made me go to the opticians, and when they spotted swelling during the test, they referred me straight away for an emergency MRI.
“It took two weeks for me to actually get an ’emergency’ appointment, and my symptoms had somewhat subsided by the time I got to the hospital.
“I made the mistake of telling them that was the case, and suddenly my MRI was delayed by another four weeks.”
In August 2018, Claire finally went for an MRI scan where chemical dye was administered via a cannula to help give the doctors a clearer image of her brain during the scan.
She was told that she would receive her results in two to three days, but after her doctor went on holiday for a fortnight, she was left without answers.
Claire visited her GP for an unrelated appointment, and mistakenly saw her scan results with the words “brain tumour” on his screen.
Claire said: “Waiting for the results was absolutely horrific and sent my stress levels through the roof.
“Obviously I was desperate for my results, and when I heard my doctor had gone on holiday, I thought I’d ask my GP about my results in an upcoming appointment I had booked.
“My GP told me he could tell me right there and then what the results were, but as he was reading them, he suddenly stopped and told me that he wasn’t qualified to go through my results with me and I’d have to ring the hospital.
“He quickly grabbed his computer screen to turn it away from me, but he wasn’t fast enough and I glimpsed the words ‘brain tumour’.
“I rang the hospital the next day, and the receptionist said she could tell me the results before having the same reaction – she stopped reading and told me the doctor would have to ring me to discuss them.
“I sat on my kitchen floor absolutely beside myself with worry for about an hour before the doctor rang me and told me that he didn’t want to discuss the results over the phone so I needed to come in to the hospital.
“By the time I actually got to the hospital to hear my results, I was a total nervous mess – I knew it was bad news, I just needed answers now.
“Hearing the doctor say it was a brain tumour absolutely stunned me, and I was in too much shock to really show any emotion there and then.
“It wasn’t until a few days later that it really sunk in and I just couldn’t stop crying at the thought of dying and leaving my kids behind.”
On 2 October 2018, Claire had an awake craniotomy – an operation to remove tumours, where the patient is awake throughout the procedure.
Doctors put Claire to sleep in order to drill open her skull and then woke her up whilst her brain was exposed to ask her questions as they removed the tumour.
Claire’s surgeon told her that the tumour didn’t look cancerous, but three days after surgery, Claire was diagnosed with a Grade 3 malignant brain tumour.
The cells of Claire’s type of cancerous tumour are fast growing and divide rapidly, often recurring after treatment in a more advanced form.
Following surgery, Claire underwent radiotherapy for six and a half weeks before starting a year of chemotherapy to give her more time with her family.
Claire said: “The doctors told me that the type of tumour I have gives patients on average a three to five year prognosis.
“Hearing that really made me feel sick, thinking I may not be here in 3 years time, but the doctors reassured me that I am young and healthy so I should survive longer.
“Finding out my cancer was incurable was so hard, I couldn’t bear the thought of dying and leaving my children without their mum.
“It’s not a case of IF the tumour will come back, it’s just a matter of WHEN will it come back, which is the hardest thing.
“I’m currently going through chemotherapy, and my four year old daughter Millie asked me why my hair was falling out.
“I just told her that Mummy had something bad in her head and she kind of accepted that – she’s too young to fully understand it all really.”
Claire’s diagnosis has only brought her family closer, and the brave mum was over the moon when Tom proposed on Christmas Day 2018.
The couple have set a date for their wedding on 20 July 2020, and Claire has already bought a beautiful dress for their special day.
Making the most of every moment together, the family also went to Disneyland Paris in May 2019 for a holiday of treasured memories.
Claire said: “Some people die in the five years after doctors discover the tumour, but others can live a lot longer after diagnosis.
“I’m young and I’ve always been healthy so hopefully I’ll have another 40-50 years, we just don’t know.
“Doctors are monitoring my brain every three months with MRI scans so it’s just a waiting game now on when it’ll come back.
“Right now, I’m just focusing on making memories with my family – we went to Disneyland Paris earlier this year which was amazing.
“Tom has been so supportive throughout all of this, making time for me and the kids as well as working full time, and I can’t wait to marry him next year.
“I just want to spend every day doing something with Tom and our children.
“I want to treat them to really great things and go on lots of holidays, which has been hard with only one wage coming in as I have had to take time off whilst battling cancer.
“I’m going back to work at the nursery soon as I loved it and we need the money, but will only be working 3 days a week as I want to spend as much time as I can with the kids.
“We haven’t really thought about what to tell the children at this stage about what’s happening with me, we’re just focusing on enjoying every day together.
“I never expected this to happen to me as I’ve always been healthy, I’m never ill and don’t ever call in sick to work – I just felt drained and put it down to having Charlie.
“My diagnosis has showed me that every moment is precious, my kids and family mean the world to me and I just want them to be happy and to make as many memories as I can.”