Valerie's story

Valerie by the sea

Valerie was diagnosed with soft tissue sarcoma in 2014 after noticing a swelling on her thigh, and was treated with radiotherapy and surgery at her local hospital. Two years later, after noticing a lump on her back, Valerie’s cancer was confirmed to have spread to her spine. At this point she decided to seek a second opinion, to see if any other treatment options could be explored.

Valerie, a 70-year-old mother and grandmother, who lives in North Yorkshire with her beloved Lurcher, Lilly, first became worried about her health back in 2014 after noticing a swelling in her left leg, which was continuing to grow. Valerie saw two GPs who believed the mass wasn’t a concern, but Valerie persisted, seeking the opinion of a third GP. They referred Valerie to her local hospital where she had a series of tests which confirmed the devastating diagnosis – that she had a soft-tissue sarcoma.

Here, Valerie shares her experience of being diagnosed with this rare type of cancer and the treatment and care she has received from Dr Vasilios Karavasilis, Medical Oncologist at HCA UK at University College Hospital.

"I was enjoying my retirement at the time, particularly my hobbies of Scottish country dancing and badminton, when I noticed a large swelling in my left leg at the back of my thigh. I visited two GPs who could not diagnose the cause, but said they weren’t concerned. I was concerned, so I visited a third GP who informed me she thought it could be a Sarcoma. I didn’t know what Sarcoma was, ‘it’s a rare cancer’ she said. I found this difficult to comprehend, I was in shock. I lived alone, after losing my husband in 2004, so I immediately went to my daughter and son-in-law for support, who thankfully lived close-by."

Challenging treatment

Prior to starting her treatment at HCA Healthcare UK, Valerie had a number of treatments including radiotherapy and surgery. Unfortunately, there were complications during her surgery which resulted in a long hospital stay and recovery period. The long-term outcome of her surgeries resulted in permanent drop foot and lymphoedema to her left leg. This was a very challenging time for Valerie, particularly as she was no longer able to continue with her physical hobbies and felt “very alone”.

A turning point

Valerie found support through a UK cancer charity ‘Penny Brohn UK’, a health and well-being centre.

"I was unable to continue with my physical hobbies. My life had been turned upside down and I didn’t know which way to turn, everything seemed very bleak. I enrolled for an introductory weekend at Penny Brohn UK where I met lovely people who were all at different stages of their cancer journey and, like me, looking for something to help them through their trauma. To meet people facing the same shock, fear and pain was so helpful. We shared experiences, slept well, shared mealtimes and enjoyed energised conversation."

Valerie seeks a second opinion

Two years after her initial diagnosis Valerie’s cancer was found to have spread to her spine. At this point, given the difficult experience she’d had so far, Valerie decided to seek a second opinion. This led her to the care of Dr Vasilios Karavasilis, Medical Oncologist at HCA UK at University College Hospital, who, with the support of his HCA UK colleagues, has been caring for Valerie ever since.

"I first felt the sensation of a lump in my spine when leaning back in my chair. I requested a scan but my doctor at the time didn’t consider the result was anything to be concerned about. However, in August 2016 it was confirmed that the cancer had spread from my primary tumour, and in September I was told that the cancer had further spread into another part of my spine."

"This was a difficult time, and I was getting increasingly concerned about the level of communication and delays in treatment with my healthcare provider. I began researching ‘top Oncologists’ and Dr Karavasilis came highly recommended. I have been with the lovely Dr Karavasalis now for almost seven years and owe him so much. Not only for his medical knowledge and expertise, but also for his warmth, kindness, openness, and honesty."

"My treatment with Dr Karavasilis began with radiotherapy to the tumour in my spine. At this time, I found out that the cancer was in my lungs, and I was treated with a lung ablation in December 2016, followed by lung radiotherapy in March 2017. By December 2017 the cancer had progressed within my lungs and bones, so I began a course of chemotherapy. Then in July 2019, because the cancer had progressed to my pelvis, I had some more chemotherapy."

A team approach

In 2022, when a scan revealed that Valerie had another tumour on her spine, Dr Karavasilis referred her to his colleague, Professor David Choi, Consultant Neurosurgeon at The Wellington Hospital, part of HCA Healthcare UK, for further investigation.

"I knew I was in good hands with Professor Choi; he had operated on me previously as I’d had a vertebrae collapse and he’d done excellently for me then. He suggested that we operate on my spine to remove the tumour, which I agreed to."

"In terms of my current treatment, I have just completed a year of chemotherapy and on the last scans I had all the tumours were stable, except for one."

Positive lifestyle changes

To help her with the side effects of treatment and improve her mental and physical wellbeing Valerie focused on making some lifestyle changes.

"I am a practical person, I felt empowered when I decided to work alongside the medical treatment I was receiving. This was achieved mainly through diet and exercise."

"I found that certain foods no longer agreed with me, and alternatives could improve my wellbeing and energy levels. I eat as much organic, fresh food, fruit, and vegetables as I can. I also try recipes which are designed to help combat the various treatment side effects, such as nausea, loss of appetite, fatigue and changes in taste and smell."

A woman’s best friend

"Exercise was a little trickier. But I got myself a dog, a wonderful Lurcher called Lilly, and began walking more which improved my mental state and my physical fitness.

This was difficult to start, but Lilly has made such a huge difference. She is so loyal; when I was falling over quite regularly, she would stop walking, come back, and stand next to me so I could lever myself up on her shoulders. We’re now walking up to 3 miles a day."

The love of family and friends

"The endless love and support I have received from my three wonderful children has been my mainstay and reason for fighting. My son has cycled miles to attend consultations with me, spent hours watching over me in hospital and provided immeasurable support and encouragement. My children keep positivity and hope alive and are my constant providers of advice."

"The day-to-day kindness and company of my friends from all parts of the UK, through personal contact and email has given me so much additional support. All these people have been a huge part of my experience and I couldn’t have managed thus far without them."

If you have been diagnosed with cancer, whether or not you’ve started treatment, you may wish to get a second opinion regarding your diagnosis or recommended treatment and care plan.

This content is intended for general information only and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional.
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