Since just before diagnosis I have wanted to read about other people with eye cancer. Their personal stories. At the start I was desperately looking for people’s description of their first symptoms, wondering if mine were the same and if that was conclusive it was cancer. I then moved on to treatments. What treatments did people have and why? I now often search for stories on eye sight deterioration but mostly how long did it take for mets to be discovered. These patient stories help us all. Help us to not feel scared. Seeing people further along the journey coping, or not, makes us feel normal. It is just difficult to find those stories, due to the rarity of our disease.
So a few people have agreed to share their experience of eye cancer on my blog, so that someone else out there, on their computer, Googling past midnight, feeling frightened, may feel less alone and less scared. Seeing people get on with day to day live somehow takes some of the fear away. So thank you to all those who have said they will share their story. Now over to the wonderful Jacqui.
My name is Jacqui, I was 41 years old at the time of diagnosis – this is my story, it’s a bit long so well done if you get to the end!!!
In July 2013, I started to get blurred vision in my left eye. I was seven months pregnant and coming to the end of the year teaching infants, so I put it down to stress and/or being pregnant. I scheduled my yearly eye exam with my local optician for August, as I suspected my prescription needed changing, which it did. After receiving new glasses, things still didn’t seem right, so I went back for a re-test. This showed that my prescription had changed again and was put down to pregnancy, but another test was scheduled for two weeks later, just to make sure. This repeat test, on Friday 13th September, showed another change and more worrying (although not for me at this stage, as I was still in the ‘oh it’s pregnancy related’ mode) on the photos this time they could see that my optic nerve was swollen – not good. My optician said he would get me an appointment with a consultant optician, so I went home….and Googled. Big mistake! Nothing good came from that search.
Later that afternoon I got a call to say an appointment had been made for me at the nearest hospital, which was an hour away, with a consultant ophthalmologist for that evening, half past five. Cue panic mode. I had to get my husband home from work, sort out food etc. for our son Finnbar, who was three at the time, as we didn’t know how long we were going to be in the hospital.
At the hospital, I was taken straight to the Acute Care Unit, where they tested me for a brain bleed, MS and a whole host of other things that I have thankfully forgotten. After much debate, they kept me in overnight, finally admitting me at 11pm. Frank and Finnbar went home – Finnbar thoroughly enjoying the dark and spooky night.
The next day the team decided that the only way forward was to do a scan of my head; initially they were reluctant to do so due to my pregnant state, but I had a lead apron placed protectively over my bump and a CT scan was performed. A considerable mass was detected. This was on the Saturday.
By the Wednesday, I was in Moorefields’ hospital having yet more tests, scans, photos etc. and none were conclusive, apart from the fact that there were two tumours – one inside my eye and one outside. At this point the team at Moorefields’ weren’t even sure if the two tumours were connected or two separate ones. My consultant wanted to do a biopsy of the tumour, but we had to wait three weeks for the aspirin I had been taking in pregnancy, to leave my system. To make things more difficult, I had to go to a different hospital, one with a neonatal unit, so that if the biopsy triggered labour, they would be able to deal with it! As my consultant at Moorefields’ said: “We are great with eyes, not so good on the rest of the body!”
We knew within the hour of having the biopsy that the tumours were connected and they were also malignant – I had, what is officially known as, Amelanotic Ocular Melanoma and they were of such a size that my eye could not be saved – I would need to have enucleation. Eye removal. This biopsy also analysed the tumour to determine the risk for mets. I found out at a subsequent appointment that I was high risk and this was a followed up by a letter to confirm as much. Although I had already been told, seeing it brutally written in black and white shocked me.
But first….the small matter (if only, I was huge!) of my unborn baby….
An oncologist appointment the following week gave us more information about the enucleation and I was told that I had to make arrangements for my baby to be born that coming week. I was 35 weeks pregnant, so she had a good chance of being okay.
Back to the local hospital where my fabulous midwife ( I got a special one as I was classed as an older mother ha ha ha!!) arranged for me to have my baby by C-section the following Thursday. I needed to be admitted on the Tuesday, as I would need steroid injections in my bum to mature the baby’s lungs and because I had gestational diabetes (just another thing to add to the list!) the steroids would effect my insulin, so I needed to be monitored and hooked up to insulin for the 24 hours either side of the injection!
Emily was born at a good weight and a month later we went back yo Moorefields’ for my operation, I sat in bed with my now 4 year old Finnbar and explained how my eye wasn’t working, so the doctors were going to take it out. I explained I would have a bandage etc. and asked if he had any questions….”Yes” he replied, “How high do grasshoppers jump Mumma?”
The day before my op I had another scan where they found that one of the tumours was dangerously close to the bone, so they had to revise their surgery options and go for exenteration, which is removal of the eye, muscle and tissue and sew my eyelids together over the cavity. I wasn’t really prepared for this, but had no choice, so got on with it. I took a picture when I was all bandaged up to show Finnbar, so he wouldn’t be too worried and then Frank and I went home two days after the op and got on with normal stuff…for a while.
In the May following my exenteration, I had a course of radiotherapy on my eye socket – travelling up to London each day for 20 sessions. The travelling took about two and a half hours each way, for approximately five minutes of being zapped. It was tiring doing the commute and my socket became sore from the radiation, but these were all ‘normal’ side effects, and it gave me peace of mind that any stray/lingering cells left from my surgery were being blasted away. I also lost my hair in two big patches behind my ears, but was fortunate that my long hair covered up the bald patches. It grew back fairly quickly, although I did have a couple of months where I had curly bits sticking out of my otherwise straight hair! I also asked the lovely team (I had the same team for each session) whether I would glow in the dark after treatment! To be fair to them they didn’t laugh at my question…but sadly, no glow for me . I gave my mask to Finnbar at the end of the sessions and he used it to be some sort of superhero!
I was down to have six monthly scans and in the February of 2014 I had an MRI, but the following scan in August was changed to a CT scan of my liver. I had read that I really needed an MRI, as CT scans aren’t as sensitive for the liver, so I referred myself (through my GP) to Southampton and an MRI was arranged for the October, 15 months after first noticing the blurring in my vision. I duly went and the initial reports were fine…but as I was ‘celebrating’ a year of living with one eye (much better going up/down stairs, but still rubbish at pouring wine!) I had a letter from Southampton to say that after closer inspection of the MRI, there were ‘suspicious masses’ in my liver that needed further investigation.
On the 4th February 2015, I went for another MRI of my liver – and knew the news wasn’t good when I saw the doctor wait for the nurse to come into the room before he spoke to me. Many tear later, we had a plan. It was a course of Ipilimumab to deal with the blobs.
We went home and Frank and I spent time dealing with the shock of it and then we got on with stuff, as normal. The next day I posted on the OcumelUK Facebook page, about the appointment and was immediately flooded with messages – mainly about why I wasn’t having liver directed treatment! After a few phone calls (with OcumelUK acting for me) I found I was a suitable candidate for the new, experimental treatment of chemosaturation (Delcath). So I had this in May (major organising of childcare, with family coming to look after our children, so they could have as normal as possible routine). Scans about six weeks later, showed tumours had stopped growing. I had the second part in the September.
Scans in the December showed one rogue tumour had grown, as there was a part of my liver that the team was not able to get the chemotherapy to, so we decided a resection was the best option. That was scheduled for early March 2016.
My resection was done, which involved another stay in hospital with my family looking after our children. At the consultation following the scans a few weeks later, the analysis of the tissue surrounding the tumour, showed there were lots of little ‘seeds’ – tumours too small to be seen on an MRI, so it was agreed that another course of Delcath was the best way forward, with a course of Ipilimumab before the treatment, as there was a wait on the Delcath. I had my third procedure in September 2016 and have had clear scans for six months.
Our children know nothing about my prognosis and we are going to keep it this way for as long as possible. Finnbar knows that I mUst go to hospital to get the bad blobs zapped/cut out of me and he is fine with that – we make a game of counting my bruises when I come home!
My next scans are in May, so we will see what happens from there.