Sunday 22 April 2018

'It all started with an abscess on my tooth... then they told me I had cancer' - mother-of-one (58)

Worried son (16) convinced mother to visit hospital

Denise Atkinson (58) was diagnosed with stage four non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
Denise Atkinson (58) was diagnosed with stage four non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
Geraldine Gittens

Geraldine Gittens

A Wexford woman has revealed how a series of unexplained minor illnesses – including an abscess on her tooth – were signs that she had stage four non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

Denise Atkinson (58) who was born in London, but has been living in Wexford for the past 12 years, had always felt fit and healthy until suddenly in 2013, her immune system started to break down. 

"It all started off with abscess on my tooth, and I had to get a tooth taken out. Then I had a skin complaint, and I was backwards and forwards to the doctor for a few months with little complaints. I thought at the time that it was strange, because I was never ill.

"I got a chest infection and it was terrible. I never got chest infections. I went to the doctor and told her that I had a terrible pain in my stomach as well.

"I was put on a waiting list for an ultrasound on my stomach, and in the meantime the doctor suggested a low-fat diet and painkillers to see if that would help. Another few weeks went by and then I had breathing trouble.

"When I laid down at night, I couldn't breathe properly. The doctor said it could be pollen and sent me off with a ventolin inhaler for a few weeks, but that didn't help me."

Eventually, on the advice of her 16-year-old son, Denise packed her bags and went to A&E at Wexford General Hospital.

"The doctor thought the pain in my stomach was something to do with my gallbladder but I said that pain is around the other side of my stomach, it's nowhere near my gall bladder. I was being diagnosed with everything else but [cancer] basically.

"I couldn't breathe properly. My son was 16 at the time and he said 'mum I'm worried about you, I think you need to go to A&E'.

"My stomach was getting bigger and bigger, I looked like a pregnant woman.

"They decided to do a body CT scan and saw fluid on my stomach and it was quite serious.

"I had a biopsy and about a week later they told me I had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. The senior doctor came around the bed with his team. He said, 'It's stage four, you've got it in your lung, liver, diaphragm, and there's a mass of it as well'.

"He said 'it is treatable, just remember that'."

Denise was put on a course of steroids, and chemotherapy for six months at University Hospital Waterford (UHW). After a week, her hair began to fall out. And for the first three weeks her son became the sole carer for her mother who has dementia.

"It was horrible having to tell my son. So my son was ordering food from Tesco while I was in hospital, cooking, and giving my mum her medication. And he kept me going."

"For the first three weeks I was in isolation. Then I came home. I had three lots of chemotherapy and then I had to go for a CT scan. I went into the day ward and the nurses were running around telling me they'd really good news. It was my 55th birthday, on the 26th of Nov, and told me that they couldn't find any cancer on the CT scan, it had all gone."

Denise, who is now in remission, says chemotherapy took its toll on her body but with the support of the Daffodil Centre in UHW and her friends, she was able to recover both physically and mentally.

"My friend shaved off all my hair because it started coming out after the first week. Another friend of mine was 30 at the time and had just had a baby. She said she'd shave her hair for me. So we both had our hair shaved in the kitchen.

"It was horrific having chemotherapy - because I had it everywhere in my body - having big bags of chemicals pumped into you. But it does get better, your body gets used to it, you cope."

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