Don’t ignore those headaches!

Elena Hardy ‘listen to your body!’

One Tuesday morning after being up all night with another severe headache, I took myself to A&E hoping to put an end to my suffering.

I had been having agonising headaches for over a year and, in all honesty, I didn’t do much about it apart from going to the GP complaining about regularly being in pain. She ordered some blood tests back in September 2014 and by February 2015 I was feeling extremely bad again; my head was sore to the point that I was taking pain killers constantly. One afternoon, to make matters worse, I suddenly felt very strange, I seized up, I couldn’t move and I couldn’t speak. It only lasted a few seconds but it left me puzzled and very perplexed.

Time went by, I carried on with life; I had been a professional ballet dancer for the last twenty years, then, after becoming a mum, I cut down the work, started teaching Pilates and only committed to the odd job here and there as a dancer. However, in May 2015 my headaches progressively got much worse; to the point that I was always tired and I had to seriously cut down on my dancing. The constant battle with the pain left me emotionally drained and I couldn’t cope with even small daily tasks.

In the early hours of Tuesday morning, after the last bank holiday in May 2015, I was woken up again by another severe headache and I started vomiting. It was at that point I thought to myself ‘there is something not quite right here!’ I saw being sick as a sign to listen to my body and take some action! One Tuesday morning I took myself to A&E and, after explaining to the doctors my symptoms, how long I had been suffering with headaches and my strange event back in February, they arranged for a CT scan almost immediately.

My mind felt torn in two; part of me was desperately trying to be positive, but the other part was telling me I should prepare myself for the worst-case scenario. In my heart, I knew my body was trying to communicate to me that something was seriously wrong. All I can remember now is the expression on the face of the A&E consultant when she walked towards me trying to find the right words to say “I’m sorry, Elena, you have a brain tumour. You will be admitted to the hospital right away and the neurosurgeon will be with you very shortly to explain what will happen next.” Those few words confirming my deepest fear felt like a bomb exploding. I instantly felt sick to my stomach as anyone would after receiving such bad news.

I turned to my husband, looked him straight in the eye and decisively said, “I am a mum, nothing will take me away from my two kids, they need me, I am fighting this.” I was diagnosed with a Meningioma, thankfully a benign tumour but unfortunately one that causes immense pressure to the brain; hence the terrible headaches. Of course, this also explains the seizure I suffered back in February. By the end of the week, I was introduced to my consultant neurosurgeon. With extreme clarity, he explained the tumour needs to be removed as soon as possible. I was too young and too fit to keep such a lesion in my head and, in his professional opinion, if I don’t have surgery very soon my health would be in grave danger. Well, how do you respond to such comment? I did as he suggested and a surgery date was set for two weeks’ time!

I spent those two weeks worrying about the operation: what if it didn’t go to plan, how such delicate surgery could have affected me mentally, physically, emotionally my movement and my speech. I was constantly researching on the internet the nature of my tumour and what may have caused it. My main dilemma was how to tell my parents. As a teenager, my oldest brother was diagnosed with a malignant tumour, a Medulloblastoma, but luckily, after months in hospital and lengthy treatments, he survived his ordeal. I couldn’t bear to break the news to them that another one of their children had been diagnosed with a brain tumour. In the end, I got my husband to phone them, and few days later, whilst I was preparing for surgery, they arrived from Italy with sleeves rolled up ready to get stuck in to support me and help with daily life in any way they could including looking after the kids.

It is important for me share my experience and help raise awareness that a simple headache can sometimes be indicative of a much more serious problem. I am not, of course, implying that all headaches are life threatening but all I am trying to send a message of ‘body awareness’. Listen to your body; don’t ignore it. And don’t diminish persistent symptoms. It might sound obvious but sometimes things are so obvious we no longer see them. That is how we can easily make the big mistake of ignoring our body. I was recently having a conversation with a member of a brain tumour support group and we were discussing the fact that most people have the preconception that being strong and healthy exempts you from suffering from this kind of tumours. It seems unthinkable to me now that anyone would think like this! I’m the prime example of someone who was very fortunate to have been blessed with a strong and healthy body. On top of this, I always remained mentally driven and determined to fulfil my dreams and make a living out of my passion: dancing.

When I became ill I realised just how much I took my ‘body awareness’ for granted. My body was, and still is, my ‘tool’. Most of the time I could foresee signs of weakness but, after sharing my experience with others, I came to realise not everyone has that innate capability to listen and understand if something doesn’t quite feel right. I cannot reiterate enough how important it is to listen to your mind and your body; it might be very simple, obvious advice but again, far too often, we take it for granted. Don’t ignore your worries, your doubts, or your fears and, although not every ache and pain leads to something life threatening, you will never know unless you start investigating.

Being fully aware that the brain is a complex organ surrounded by protective bone as it is not something you can see or feel or easily access to this day much of the brain remains a mystery. This being the case, I am compelled to ask why don’t we have a system in place, or some kind of screening, to raise more awareness and investigate or monitor the seriousness of certain symptoms without anyone brushing them off with the most obvious conclusions like a bad migraine, or dehydration, or perhaps deteriorating eye sight? Kings College Hospital in SE London was the NHS hospital where I was treated and looked after extremely swiftly, professionally, and most importantly, compassionately. In my heart, you will always be second to none. Thank you! After my experience, I decided to support ‘The Brain Tumour Charity’ and ‘Kings College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust’

If you would like to support either or both please visit their respective websites to donate. I have celebrated the end of my recovery process by taking part in a photo shoot entitled ‘Body Awareness’ in which I am featured dancing and some of the pictures accompanying this article are part of it.