A university student (22) from Fivemiletown, Northern Ireland, was diagnosed with secondary chondrosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, after she visited her GP with what she thought were just migraines she was getting due to her university coursework. The bubbly Northern Irish lass Emma Lapsley told OSN her story.
"The feeling of looking at your doctor with tears in her eyes and listening to her whisper the words “it’s not what we expected, it’s cancer” had to be the hardest words I have ever had to accept," explained Emma. "My heart sank and the words to follow were muffled and I can barely recollect them. That’s how my 2019 started out!" Emma is now 23 years old and she was diagnosed with Chondrosarcoma bone cancer on 16th April 2019. Before her diagnosis she is what you would class as a "normal" 22-year-old. Finishing her university degree in Psychology, socialising with friends and enjoying her life. "Every weekend was filled with fun, planning trips and time with family," shared Emma. "At the Christmas dinner table, I can remember toasting to a brilliant 2018 and ensuring everyone that 2019 was going to be even better, little did I know, two weeks after this toast my cancer journey would begin."
Emma, like many other students can relate to, was using January to cram in coursework to meet deadlines and sitting arduous exams after doing very little academic studies due to enjoying the festive period over Christmas. The Northern Irish student thought this was a relatively normal stage in her Uni life, however, she noticed she was getting migraines frequently and they made it difficult for her to concentrate on work. "I scheduled an appointment with my GP at the start of January and explained I was having constant headaches and couldn’t understand why," said Emma. "My lifestyle and diet were both good, however, I was just a little stressed for coursework deadlines," she added. "We chatted as she took my blood pressure, she then proceeded to take it again. She looked at me with shock and asked me if I was really stressed. To my knowledge, I wasn’t. My blood pressure was through the roof, my heart rate was over 150 beats per minute and my heart was palpitating. The chit chat stopped and she immediately asked “have you got a way of getting to A&E?” I laughed it off and said I felt fine, there was no need to go to hospital. My doctor wasn’t taking no for answer and I made my way up to hospital." Emma was advised to go to the South West Acute Hospital (SWAH) in County Fermanagh where they conducted tests and a chest X Ray. "Nobody was overly worried about me when I was there, however, my bloods were taken and due to having multiple chest infections in the past, a chest x-ray was organised. A few hours later my bloods came back clear and an X-ray was taken, I was told my x-ray results would be back with me in a few days and I was free to go home."
The following day Emma received a call from an unknown number. "I was reluctant to answer the call, so I let it go to voicemail. A message was left by a consultant in the hospital asking me to ring back as soon as I could," she recalled. "When I returned the call, he informed me that a CT scan had been organised for me the following day as my x-ray wasn’t clear. I asked no questions as I presumed it was another chest infection and attended the scan. I remember the radiologists explaining they had to go out of the room, but I could see them through the glass window in the room opposite me if I needed reassurance. I watched them chat and smile in the room while the scan took place, then the machine went silent and I was thankful the scan was over. I didn’t take my eyes of the radiologists as I waited for one to come out, however, I could see that they weren’t smiling anymore and one of them reached for the phone and called somebody. A man entered their room and immediately looked at the screen which they were all so intently studying, he muttered words to them which I couldn’t hear and left the room. It was at that moment I knew something wasn’t normal, but I kept reassuring myself that it was nothing and I felt fine. A radiologist returned to help me up and I immediately asked her when my results were, she stammered and said, “a few days”, the nerves in her voice were audible and I knew I was getting the results sooner."
Emma returned home that evening and did everything she could to distract herself from thinking about that morning, however, just a few short hours later, she got a phone call from the consultant that she really didn't want to get. "He explained to me I had sizable mass on my 7th rib but it characterized all the signs of a benign tumour," said Emma. "I remember asking him could if there was a chance it was malignant, and he had to tell me that there was a small chance." The news continued to worsen for the Fermanagh girl. "The consultant then told me the mass had been there since 2016 and it hadn’t been picked up upon. I went from being an emotional mess to completely angry. Between 2016 and 2019 I had had three chest X-rays and in each one the mass had grown. How could they have missed this I continuously thought. Its only human to put our complete trust in medical professionals and in this instance, I felt so let down."
Emma was red flagged to the Royal Victoria hospital in Belfast where she seen a top cardiothoracic surgeon. "At that stage little did I know, he was going to be the man who essentially saved my life," Emma said definitively. "He invited me in and reassured me I was in good hands. He was a leading surgeon with many years of practice. I felt privileged that he was operating on me! He asked me questions about my life and university and then asked me whether I wanted the surgery now or summer. He assured me that the tumour had a “smooth cap” which is a major sign that it was benign and obviously wouldn’t spread. If I opted for the surgery in summer, I could finish my placement year at University and have three months of recovery. That seemed like a much more sensible option than having the surgery there and then and having to quit placement early and fail my diploma within my degree. I looked at him and said, “I think I’ll wait to summer when I have more time”, he nodded and proceeded to fill in a yellow form. While sitting in silence watching him write words on a form, the words of the consultant came back to me, telling me that there was a small chance it could be cancer. I asked my surgeon the same question about whether this could be cancer and he replied, yes there was a small chance it could be. I felt so stupid for even considering putting my health at risk for split second, university could be repeated but my life couldn’t be. I apologised and told him I wanted the surgery straight away; he tore up the yellow form and replaced it with a red one."
A letter arrived from the hospital shortly after to Emma's home address stating that her surgery was on the 20th March 2019. "As the date approached my nerves grew and it hit home the night before, when my fiancé Jamie and I were packing my bag for the surgery," said Emma. "I knew I was going for this surgery to get answers, but I never considered the answers I was going to get. I had such a positive partner and family and we were all convinced I was going to be fine." This surgery entailed Emma's seventh rib being removed along with the tumour. "The surgeon explained that when they had made the incision, they could then see that the tumour was beginning to push against my liver and the timing of the operation couldn’t have been better," Emma recalled. "I recovered well and was told my results would be three weeks. Three weeks came and went, and I started calling the hospital for the results. Each time I called for the results they weren’t ready. Finally, after nearly four weeks, I received a call from my doctor, in a monotone voice she asked if I could come down and see her straight away. Dad and I walked into her room, I looked at her to see her eyes full of sympathy. I immediately laughed and said “what’s wrong?” trying to make light of the eerie atmosphere. She then told me the words that would change everything, “it’s not what we expected, it’s cancer Emma.” Truthfully, I can’t remember in detail what happened next. My dad was sitting beside me and completely white, I grabbed his hand and told him it was going to be alright. We drove home in silence both wishing the news we just heard was a dream. As we pulled over, I can remember him just grabbing me and repetitively telling me I was going to be ok.
The following day Emma had to travel to Belfast. "I arrived at the doors of the cancer centre in Belfast, doors I never thought I would go through and especially not at 22," shared Emma. "My family and Jamie, my fiancé, came for support as I was going to be told the details of my treatment. As I went into the surgeons room, I immediately noticed a change in his personality, I wasn't a patient who was going for minor surgery anymore, I was a cancer patient. He sympathised with me and reassured me he was going to do everything he could to make sure this horrible disease inside me was defeated. He explained that chemotherapy and radiotherapy doesn’t respond to my particular cancer and I was going to need to have major chest wall reconstruction, which entailed removing my 6th, the rest of my 7th and my 8th ribs, replacing them with titanium plates and removing a section of my diaphragm. He explained that he needed to cut through both large and small nerves which would result in me having no feeling in a large portion of my chest and side, this feeling will never return."
Emma surgery was scheduled for three weeks after this meeting as she needed more time to heal due to the previous surgery. On the 15th May, Emma went in for the major surgery. "I can’t even explain how nervous I was feeling and the hundreds of “what ifs” which were racing through my mind. At 2pm that day I woke up, I had three drains attached to my lungs and diaphragm and kept telling myself the pain would be worth it. I was so determined to beat this on my own, I refused epidurals and only had morphine for the pain. I couldn’t compare the pain of this operation to the first procedure, never mind the recovery. The wound is around 9 inches long and due to it being on the ribs where we tend to have little fat, I struggled to heal. My wound struggled to heal, and I needed more stitches. My lung drains and diaphragm openings also were slow to heal. At this stage I think my body had had enough!"
Emma explains how she felt after the surgery. "As the three week mark started to approach, I started to get that familiar nervous feeling once again, it was results time. Finally, I got the news, my doctor told me it was both good and bad news. My heart sank a little as I heard the “bad news” part of her sentence. She started with the sinister and explained that the rest of the seventh rib had been infected with malignancy. If I hadn’t of had the second surgery the cancer would have come back with a bang. However, the 6th and 8th ribs were clear along with the diaphragm and surrounding tissue. A wave of relief came upon us all as I hugged my amazing GP. It was unlikely I would need any more surgery however, for the next ten years I will attend a check-up every three months. Better safe than sorry!"
After going into the depths of Emma's story, we could not help but see how incredibly upbeat Emma remains, despite all she has been through. "We are all so guilty of getting caught up in negativity, whether that be problems with our work, financial or relationship problems," continues Emma. "Like most people, I put life before my health. I worried about minuscule things and never fully appreciated the small things in life. I only fully appreciated the beauty of life when I was restricted to bed, looking out my window, wondering whether I was going to see all the small but special events which were supposed to be carefully mapped out ahead of me. Prior to my sickness I worried about where I was going at the weekend and what I was going to wear, but during my cancer journey, I worried about how many more weekends would I see."
Emma went on to say "The take home message is that each day is a gift and not a given right, in a split-second things can be turned upside down. I couldn’t have survived this journey without my amazing family and friends and the most supportive fiancé I could have asked for. Also, a massive shout out to my GP. If it wasn’t for her I would still be living my ‘normal’ life and when symptoms would have begun to develop it would have been a different outcome for me. Her continuous twenty-four seven support is something I will be forever truly thankful for. Without her patience, persistency and upbeat personality, I wouldn’t be the person I am today."
Following her recovery, Emma wants to raise awareness of bone cancer in the community and 'give back' by volunteering as a support worker with Cancer Focus NI. Emma also hosted a coffee morning within her local community and raised a total of £2,255.00 which was donated to Cancer Focus Northern Ireland.
Emma has asked us to share the link to the fund page which we have gladly done so below.
I'm sure you will agree that Emma is a true inspiration. The positive mindset she has is just so infectious. OSN wishes her an incredible life moving forward and would like to place on record our huge thanks for sharing her story with us.