She spends her working days caring for patients with brain tumors.
But nurse Chantal Smits only realized she too was suffering from a tumor after spotting a poster at work.
The now-22-year-old started suffering minor symptoms like headaches in her first year as a nursing student in 2014.
“I felt tired all the time and used to fall asleep at 8 p.m., pretty much as soon as my daily shift was over,” she told The Sun.
“But I put it down to the fact that at that time I was working 40 hours a week and writing essays all weekend. And in any case, all nurses are shattered half the time! It’s a hazard of the job.”
Smits took painkillers to ease the pain but didn’t think it was bad enough to see a doctor.
Fast forward four years and Smits was living with her boyfriend of two years and had qualified as a neurology anesthetic nurse at St George’s Hospital in England.
Every day she assists surgeons operating on patients with brain tumors.
By this time, she was suffering crippling headaches almost every day and taking four ibuprofen and four paracetamol [acetaminophen] tablets daily to manage the pain.
“But I still didn’t think too much about it,” she said.
“Then one day, while on the bus home, I felt an odd sensation — like rain was trickling down one side of my face. Yet still, I never told anyone about it.”
“Comparing myself to those seriously ill patients I saw every day, I told myself my own symptoms were trivial and I would just have to put up with them.”
It wasn’t until February 2018 when she was reading a poster on the hospital wall, listing the signs and symptoms of brain tumors in young people and children, that Smits realized what might be wrong with her.
“I thought: ‘Hang on a minute. Headaches, constant fatigue, occasional visual impairments — I have all those. Maybe I should go to the [doctor], just in case.’”
After speaking with her family doctor, she was sent for non-urgent tests, being referred to the same consultant whom she worked with most days.
Following a head MRI scan, she received a letter shortly afterward.
“By then, I’d persuaded myself I was making a fuss about nothing, and everything was going to be fine. So I opened the letter, all by myself, at work,” she said.
“Unfortunately, it wasn’t fine.”
The letter informed Smits that she had a large mass on her brain stem.
“My first reaction was to burst into tears,” she said.
“I see the worst of the worst in my job, and now I assumed that I was going to be like the extremely unwell patients I see, day-to-day.”
“I didn’t know too much about brain stem tumors at the time — of course, I do now.”
Smits has since been diagnosed with a brain stem glioma tumor. It’s currently inoperable and incurable.
“When [my consultant] told me that my tumor was ‘large,’ I asked him: ‘How big?’ But he just told me: ‘You don’t need to know.’”
Since discovering the tumor, Smits has had several more scans and is monitored every three months.
“The good news is, my tumor is stable and is not currently growing,” she said.
“The bad news is, because of its position on my brain stem, it cannot be biopsied.”
This means nobody can tell her yet whether it is cancerous.
There’s also a potential it could start to grow one day where it would need chemo and radiotherapy, just like many of the brain tumor patients she works with on a daily basis.
Smits is currently taking medication to manage her symptoms and is on a “watch and wait” policy regarding future treatment.
The only way to benchmark tumors that can’t be biopsied is to do regular scans every three months, she explains.
“Every time, because nobody can predict how it will go, the ‘scanxiety’ is quite unbearable,” she said.
“To help myself and boost my chances, I’m going down the positivity and wellness route.”
“I’ve taken up yoga and mindfulness, and am eating a very healthy, balanced diet containing lots of antioxidant foods like turmeric and tomatoes. I’m having IV vitamin infusions at a clinic, along with mistletoe injections to boost my immune function.”
“This whole episode has been very shocking and somewhat ironic for me, given my line of work. But I’m staying as positive as I can.”
She likes to keep busy as it keeps her mind off her condition, and since being diagnosed, she hasn’t taken a single day off work.
“Nursing is my calling in life. And I think the fact that I have a brain tumor, just like many of the patients I work with, makes me a better practitioner,” she said.
“Now when I meet people living with brain tumors, I can really empathize with them.”
Smits is hoping to inspire other people with brain tumors to continue to live their lives, rather than “just cope.”
She is also backing a brain tumor awareness campaign, called HeadSmart, which encourages early diagnosis of brain tumors, as well as setting herself a personal target of raising $12,750 for The Brain Tumour Charity.
“I consider myself lucky that my own tumor was caught early,” she added.
“Looking back, I can see now that I had symptoms for a very long time. I shouldn’t have ignored them.”
“Now I hope to help raise awareness of brain tumors and do something positive to help others.”
Sarah Lindsell, chief executive of The Brain Tumour Charity, said: “We are incredibly grateful to Chantal for sharing her story to help us raise vital awareness about brain tumor symptoms in young adults.“
HeadSmart has two aims: to save lives and reduce long-term disability by bringing down diagnosis times.
“A key part of that is to make sure health care professionals and young people themselves are aware of the warning signs of a brain tumor in this age group. In some cases, a delay to diagnosis can mean the difference between life and death.”
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