WATCHING her seven-year-old daughter Rose playing on the swings in the park, Catherine Reeve relishes the precious moment together.
But in the back of her mind she can't help but feel guilt that one day in the near future, her little girl will have to play without her mum.
The 38-year-old was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer four years ago after her headaches and sickness was put down to stress and depression.
At the time, Catherine and her husband Steve, 43, from Writtle, Essex, had been trying for another baby.
But she was advised not to get pregnant while having treatment for glioblastoma, the most common aggressive brain tumour in adults.
Catherine says she remains torn over having another baby so that Rose doesn't have to grow up alone – but fears the guilt of leaving another child without a mother.
Sharing her poignant story through The Brain Tumour Charity, Catherine said: “When I was told I had brain cancer, it didn’t seem real.
“It’s such a shock being told that you have a terminal prognosis and it took months to even begin processing it.
“Even now, four years on, I struggle to comprehend it at times, knowing that I won’t be here to see my little girl grow up.
“It is too painful to think about all the time, but I feel more for Rose than I do for myself – that she is going to lose her mum.”
She said: “When I became ill, we’d been trying for another baby to complete our family.
“Doctors said it may not be a good idea to carry on due to my treatment and I am fully aware of what my prognosis is.”
Catherine discussed the possibility of having her eggs frozen but decided against it as doctors told her it may delay her recovery – though they said it would still be possible for her to get pregnant.
“Part of me still longs for a baby and I would dearly love Rose to have a sibling,” said Catherine.
It would be the most precious gift I could give her so she’s not alone when I’m gone
“It would be the most precious gift I could give her so she’s not alone when I’m gone.”
“If I did have another baby, though, I would feel dreadfully guilty that another child would be left without a mother.
“Steve would love to have another child, too, but he worries about the impact on my health and, if I was pregnant, I wouldn’t be able to have my four-monthly scans.
“I feel so torn and the thoughts just circle round and round in my head.”
Four years ago, Catherine started suffering headaches when she was an assistant head at a primary school.
“My colleague noticed I was having bad headaches every day and suggested I go to the doctor,” she said.
“Then I started getting sick. I remember it was a ‘meet the teacher’ day and I had to rush to the loo to throw up.”
Catherine’s headaches became increasingly severe and daily.
Her mum took her to the GP who diagnosed depression and prescribed anti-depressants.
“I was never really a stressy person but I thought it was plausible as I had a busy, stressful job,” she said.
“At the hospital, they didn’t give me a scan and sent me home.” said Catherine.
In July 2016, Catherine forgot it was her sixth wedding anniversary.
“I always remember our anniversary but it went clean out of my head until Steve handed me a card,” said Catherine.
“Another day, I went to a friend’s baby shower, she opened the door, and I blurted out, 'I need a bowl' and was sick."
What is glibolastoma?
Glioblastomas are the most common high grade (cancerous) primary brain tumour in adults but they can also occur, rarely, in children.
However, with about 3 to 4 new cases of glioblastoma diagnosed each year per 100,000 people in the UK, glioblastoma is still classed as a rare cancer.
Glioblastoma primarily affects adults between 45 and 75 years old and it is slightly more common in men than in women.
Glioblastomas belong to a group of brain tumours known as gliomas, as they grow from a type of brain cell called a glial cell.
Glioblastoma is the more common name for a type of brain tumour called a grade 4 astrocytoma.
Glioblastoma are 'diffuse', meaning they have threadlike tendrils that extend into other parts of the brain. They are fast growing and likely to spread. You may also hear them called glioblastoma multiforme, GBM or GBM4.
There are different types of glioblastoma:
- Primary – this means the tumour first appeared as a grade 4 glioblastoma (GBM)
- Secondary – this means the tumour developed from a lower grade astrocytoma
Unfortunately glioblastomas are aggressive tumours and often appear resistant to treatment.
Source: The Brain Tumour Charity
On August 4, 2016, Catherine’s mum came to the house and instantly knew her daughter “wasn’t right.”
“She took me to A & E at her local hospital as she knew there was something very wrong as I was just totally ignoring Rose,” said Catherine.
“I was there physically but I was like an empty shell.
“Mum told doctors, ‘I don’t recognise my daughter.’”
Catherine had a scan, which revealed a mass on her brain, and she was sent to Queen’s Hospital, Romford for a more detailed MRI scan.
“I remember being in the ambulance with my sister and my mum had rang Steve to meet us at the hospital,” said Catherine.
“Then I remember being wheeled into hospital and the rest of it is a blur.”
Five days later, Catherine had an operation to relieve pressure on her brain and an awake craniotomy 10 days later to remove 97 per cent of the tumour.
Two weeks after surgery, she had an even more devastating blow when biopsy results revealed she had a glioblastoma – the most common aggressive brain tumour in adults.
“It didn’t feel real,” said Catherine.
“I was told I had two-five years to live – nothing can prepare you for being given a terminal diagnosis.
“I remember going back to Mum and Dad’s. They’ve got a big garden and I just walked round and round it with Steve.
“I kept thinking, Why me? What had I done to make this happen? God must really hate me.
“And what hurt most was knowing I was hurting my family.
“It took months to even begin to process it and a long time to work through my feelings.
“Even now, I can’t comprehend it at times, knowing that I won’t be here to see my little girl grow up.
“We cope by living in the moment and just getting on with it.”
HARD TO ACCEPT
For now, Catherine has simply told Rose that Mummy is ill.
“When I was diagnosed, she was only three and doesn’t really remember me being ill,” she said.
“She’s now seven and knows that Mummy is ill but not the full extent.
“And it’s hard to believe as I don’t look sick – no one can see the cancer in my brain.
“It’s even hard for Steve to accept at times as I look so well.”
The couple “choose not to focus on it most of the time” but they are “realistic.”
“We know what lies ahead of us as the disease inevitably progresses,” said Catherine.
The devoted mum has vowed to make the most of every moment with Rose – especially as she lost “precious time” with her after she came out of hospital, followed by six weeks of radiotherapy and six months’ chemotherapy.
She lost movement on the right-hand side of her body, which gradually improved with physiotherapy.
“It took a long time and was very frustrating,” said Catherine.
“I had to learn how to walk again and use a knife and fork.”
It stopped her being hands-on with Rose.
“I’d always been the primary carer, the one Rose would come to first,” said Catherine.
“But when I was ill and recovering, Steve took over that role. He read her bedtime stories and tucked her up at night.”
Now the couple share the night-time routine.
“I think Rose wants us both to do it in case I’m not there one day,” said Catherine.
“I’m glad we both do it and Steve has that bond, too – but, at the same time, it hurts that I’ve lost that one-to-one closeness with Rose.”
PREPARING TO SAY BYE
Catherine knows she has the painful process of saying goodbye to her daughter ahead of her.
“I am starting to think about all the things I want to say to her and how I should start saying them,” she said.
“Maybe I’ll write letters or make videos for her life’s milestones when I can’t be with her.
“But I’m not at that place yet – I’ll know when I am.”
“And Steve and I aren’t ready yet to talk about what happens when I’m not here – but we know the day will come.
“I know Rose will be fine with him as her dad.”
Now Catherine is determined to make the most of life and has ticked running the London Marathon off her bucket list.
When the event was cancelled due to Covid-19, Catherine didn’t let that deter her and took part in The Brain Tumour Charity’s virtual event.
Braving heavy rain on October 4, she ran the route between her home and her parents’ home, roughly six miles each way, four times.
“It was really hard-going without mass crowds to keep my spirits up,” said Catherine.
“But Rose, Steve and my family and friends supported me on my route and I was determined to raise as much money as I could for The Brain Tumour Charity.”
Now her focus is on making “lots of happy memories.”
“We go on nice holidays and to National Trust places,” said Catherine.
“I like to treat Rose but I don’t want her to be spoiled.
“Most of all, I love the everyday special memories like taking her to the park and snuggling up on the settee to watch a film.
“Those are the most precious moments – just being together.”
And she is sharing her story to help The Brain Tumour Charity raise awareness to help save other families her heartache.
“It’s important to me to help raise money and awareness while I live my life as best I can,” said Catherine.
“I know my brain tumour is here but I like that other people don’t know unless I choose to tell them.
“That way, they don’t just see me as a brain cancer patient. I’m Catherine the person, a mum, a wife, a teacher.
“I am realistic about my prognosis and I know what lies ahead, but for now I am alive and well- and I am living my life.”
Sarah Lindsell, The Brain Tumour Charity’s chief executive said: “We are hugely grateful to Catherine for sharing her story to help us raise awareness about brain tumours – the biggest cancer killer of children and under-40s in the UK.
‘Like Catherine, many of our supporters have symptoms like headaches and sickness put down to stress and depression.
“And, like her, they have to navigate the devastating impact a brain tumour has on the whole family, affecting the choices the rest of us often take for granted.
“And we can’t thank her enough for raising £10,000 for us especially at a time when, like so many other charities, we are suffering the impact of Covid-19, and will see over a 40 per cent drop in our income this year, which is why our Winter Appeal is more vital than ever
“Now our community needs hope more than ever and, while some of our financial commitments need to be smaller next year to help us recover, one commitment only grows: to be here for our community.”
- To get support visit The Brain Tumour Charity’s free information and support line: 0808 800 0004 or email [email protected] or visit the website
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