Mum's panic attacks turned out to be brain tumour

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Mum's panic attacks turned out to be brain tumour

A mum-of-three has spoken of her “nightmare” after she was misdiagnosed with panic attacks – which turned out to be seizures caused by a brain tumour she had for over 20 years.

Courageous Catherine Wilcockson, 37, suffered her first severe panic attack in December 2018 – when she experienced second-long blackouts or absences, felt tired and panicked at her daughter’s nativity play.

She went to see her GP shortly and was told she may be suffering with derealisation – a mental disorder that creates a sense of disconnection from the world – and was prescribed antidepressants.

But in May 2019, she had a sudden seizure while she was asleep and fell off her bed and smashed her head on the ground.

The hairdresser, from Sheffield, said her daughters Shani, then nine, and Christie, then 15, saved her life after they rang their grandfather Terry for help and he called an ambulance.

She said: “It was an absolute nightmare – I couldn’t understand why I was feeling the way I did. I got this awful feeling come over me – I felt really panicky and like the world was closing down on me.

“I was blacking out for short periods of time but it kept happening over and over. It was quite scary and I realised something must be wrong.

“I couldn’t tell you what happened, one night I just woke up on the floor – I was confused and my girls looked terrified.”

She added: “If not for my little girls I wouldn’t be alive today – they saved my life.”

Catherine was rushed to Northern General Hospital, where a CT scan revealed she had a tumour the size of two apples in her brain.

She was then transferred to the oncology ward at Royal Hallamshire Hospital and told the cancer, a grade two astrocytoma brain tumour, had likely been slowly growing in her brain for at least 20 years – as it normally presents in children.

Doctors were able to remove 80 per cent of the tumour and Catherine was left with 34 staples in her head

Doctors were able to successfully remove 80 per cent of the tumour in a “terrifying” operation which lasted over nine hours – while the mum was awake and conscious. She was left her with 34 staples in her head.

Catherine said: “The surgeon was outstanding – I couldn’t praise him enough. To do something so terrifying but make you feel confident and positive is an amazing thing. He kept me positive throughout and I felt safe – but it was so scary. It’s a surreal experience to have someone open your head while you’re awake.”

Looking back at the “panic attacks”, Catherine says she feels lucky as it could have ended far more tragically.

She recalled: “When I first started suffering with panic attacks it was terrifying – I didn’t know the extent of it yet but when you can’t explain something wrong it’s unnerving.

“Looking back on it, it’s even worse because I was putting myself and others in danger. I wasn’t suffering with panic attacks, they were seizures. I was driving every day, I was with my girls, it could have gone so wrong.”

Almost a year since her operation, the mum has kept in good spirits after successfully undergoing radiotherapy for six weeks and chemotherapy for six months.

Catherine Wilcockson with staff at the Royal Hallmshire Hospital in Sheffield who treated her

In March, she had a double celebration as she was told her tumour had shrunk to five per cent of its original size on the day of Shani’s 10th birthday.

She said: “Since the surgery I’ve just stayed positive. It’s been a surreal year – from the diagnosis to coronavirus – but I choose to stay optimistic.

“I could have died, but I’m here. And I’ve been able to spend so much time with my girls who mean the world to me. I celebrated my daughter’s 10th birthday – which is something I won’t take for granted.

“This year has been a complete whirlwind and roller coaster but I know I have to keep going forward – for me and for my girls.”

The mum says she wants to inspire others who may be faced with the numbing news that they have a devastating disease.

She said: “I want to tell others who might be going through the same thing that they can get through this too. I remember all of the news I read was always so negative and bleak but you can come across the other end of this devastating news as strong as ever.”

Catherine is working with the charity Brain Tumour Research to share her story and, together with Shani, is taking part in its Wear a Hat Day With Flowers this Friday (June 19).

The event will see people wearing their favourite hats adorned with flowers to raise money for the cause.

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