‘A visit to the optician saved my life,’ says Yorkshire mum with brain tumour

A routine optician’s appointment for a mother of two from Horsforth ended up with a terrifying diagnosis. Catherine Scott reports

Sarah Cardwell with her daughters with Lucy, 10 and Ellie, seven

When Sarah Cardwell’s vision started to become blurred she thought she just needed stronger glasses. But a routine visit to the opticians discovered something more sinister – a life-threatening brain tumour on her optic nerve.

Communications officer Sarah, 46, is now working with the charity Brain Tumour Research to help raise awareness of the disease during National Eye Health Awareness Week.

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“I was at work, in summer 2018, when I first noticed my vision was blurred and I thought I probably needed new prescription glasses,” recalls the mother of two from Horsforth, Leeds, who works at Leeds Becket University.

Sarah in hospital in Leeds after treatment for a brain tumour

“I only wore glasses for driving at the time. I kept telling myself to make an optician’s appointment but with a busy job and two young daughters, life got in the way and I kept putting it off. I finally went to Specsavers in Guiseley on November 16, 2018.

“The optometrist did a series of tests and then tried to see if my sight was improved with various different strengths of corrective lenses. With each different lens she tried, there was no change. She then calmly told me that she was urgently referring me to the eye casualty at St James’s University Hospital.”

Accompanied by her husband, Sarah went to the hospital the same day, where an ophthalmologist took a photo of the back of her eye and carried out a colour-blindness test.

“I didn’t get a single one right. He then asked lots of questions about whether I got tired easily and whether I had noticed any other unusual symptoms,” says Sarah, who is mother to Lucy, 10, and Ellie, seven.

“When I thought about it, I had been prescribed iron tablets for anaemia and had also suffered some sickness and dizziness. I had also been to the doctors with severe headaches but I thought they were probably due to being tired and over-stretched with a busy work and home life. It had also been suggested that my symptoms were possibly caused by being on the contraceptive pill.”

Sarah was referred for an MRI scan at Leeds General Hospital (LGI), which took place on December 8, 2018. The scan revealed a ‘cyst’ on her brain and she was asked to go back the following day for another MRI. The following week, Sarah met a neurosurgeon, Nick Phillips, who said he thought the mass was a craniopharyngioma, sitting on her optic nerve.

“I was utterly shocked when Mr Phillips said he wanted to operate the following morning, if at all possible. The urgency of it all was alarming.”

Sarah then had to break the news to her children that they wouldn’t see their mummy for the next couple of days, as she was going into hospital to fix “a problem with her eye”.

“Luckily, they weren’t fazed at all. I, on the other hand, broke down. The thought of possibly not seeing them again was just too much. I didn’t want to go to bed that night and I think I only managed about one hour’s sleep.”

The location of Sarah’s tumour meant that she was operated on by ear, nose and throat (ENT) surgeon Paul Nix, as well as Mr Phillips. The operation lasted five hours and they went in through the sinus, meaning it was less invasive than conventional brain surgery. She was discharged on December 22, in time to spend Christmas with her family.

“The results of my first post-op MRI scan were in February and showed that things were stable. My next routine scan was due in December 2019. However, in June, I woke up one weekend with a tingling sensation in my eye. It felt all too familiar. Deep down I knew the tumour was back but I didn’t want to believe it.”

Sarah’s instinct was right and doctors confirmed she’d suffered a relapse of her tumour. On July 23, 2019, she underwent a second brain surgery to treat the regrowth.

“The operation seemed to go well and once again I stayed in hospital for five nights. This time, however, after being discharged from hospital, I suffered a cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) leak and I contracted meningitis. I had to be re-admitted and have two further surgeries to fix the leak, which was a really gruelling experience.”

Sarah is now having annual MRI scans and her tumour remains stable. In September 2020, she and her family took part in the Brain Tumour Research Walk of Hope, raising nearly £700 for the charity.

Now, Sarah is sharing her brain tumour experience, to help encourage people to be aware of their eye health and to get checked up if something seems wrong.“I put off going to the optician for ages. Now, I’m much more aware that a problem with your eyesight might be an indication of something serious. With hindsight, I wish I’d gone to Specsavers sooner. I’ve no doubt that that routine check-up saved my life,” says Sarah.

“After my surgery, I went back to the optician with a card and flowers, to say thank you for my quick referral to hospital. Even though it was scary at the time, without my urgent appointment, my brain tumour diagnosis may have come too late and the consequences don’t bear thinking about.

Hugh Adams, from Brain Tumour Research, said: “We regularly hear from patients who have been sent by an optician to their hospital eye clinic or even local neuroscience department for rapid diagnostic tests and treatment. Opticians are able to detect a build-up of pressure in the brain which can be an early sign of a brain tumour.

“We were so sorry to learn about Sarah’s ordeal but pleased that she is on the road to recovery, thanks to the swift action of her optician and the skill and expertise of the surgeons who treated her. We thank her for sharing her story to help raise awareness this National Eye Health Awareness Week.”

Brain tumours kill more children and adults under the age of 40 than any other cancer yet historically just one per cent of the national spend on cancer research has been allocated to this devastating disease. Brain Tumour Research funds sustainable research at dedicated centres in the UK. It also campaigns for the Government and the larger cancer charities to invest more in research into brain tumours in order to speed up new treatments for patients.

National Eye Health Awareness week takes place from September 20 to 26 and aims to inspire and educate people on the importance of eye health and why they should go for regular sight tests. www.braintumourresearch.org