In Hope Stories
Just 1% of the national research spend has been allocated to this devastating disease
Abrica Bennett, from Gravesend in Kent, was 13 when she was diagnosed with a grade 4 medulloblastoma in October 2004. She underwent surgery two days later and was placed in an induced coma, after which she had to learn to walk and talk again. She had seven weeks of radiotherapy followed by 12 months of chemotherapy and, after years of clear scans, was fully discharged in 2012. Now working as a customs broker, Abrica has been through the heartache of her mum’s diagnosis with an aggressive form of the disease. Jaqueline Blowers was diagnosed with an inoperable glioblastoma (GBM) in November 2022. She had combined radiotherapy and chemo throughout December and will soon be starting a six-month course of chemo.
Abrica tells her story …
I started suffering from headaches at the back of my head, neck aches and extreme fatigue towards the middle of Year 7. I also felt off-balance and began experiencing double vision.
“I went to the opticians but my tumour wasn’t visible behind my eye at that point, so I was given glasses to try and fix the symptoms.”
Then, at the beginning of Year 9, I banged heads with a girl whilst doing a gymnastics routine at school. I was constantly sick after that and frequently felt hot and cold.
My symptoms had worsened over the course of a year and a half and my mum had taken me to the doctor at least 10 times since they started in Year 7. After the incident in Year 9, she became more concerned about how much I was sleeping and once again phoned our GP. At the appointment that followed, he looked through my eye and saw a 1mm shadow behind it. He immediately referred me to the Darent Valley Hospital, in Dartford. It was 29 October 2004.
“My mum had to fight to get me a CT scan but the results of that revealed I had a brain tumour.”
I was transferred to King’s College Hospital, London, to have brain surgery two days later. My surgeon told me I had a 50/50 chance of surviving the op but if I didn’t have it, I wouldn’t survive more than two weeks. I died twice during the 10-hour surgery, but my family are fighters and I managed to come back both times. Almost all of my tumour was removed.
“A tiny part of it was left behind for fear of leaving me brain damaged.”
To help with my healing, I was put in an induced coma for about a week and had to learn to walk and talk again after coming to. I recovered quickly and even my surgeon was surprised, given the size of my tumour and the length of my op. A biopsy confirmed I had a grade 4 medulloblastoma.
“I didn’t know the severity of my situation at the time.”
My mum and dad kept the fact I had cancer from me because they wanted to keep my stress levels down. A couple of years prior, our neighbour had passed away and my parents knew I would have linked cancer with her death.
My next course of treatment took place at the Royal Marsden Hospital, in Surrey, in the New Year. I had seven weeks of radiotherapy and after a couple of weeks off, I started high-dose chemotherapy. I was 13 at the time but was given an adult dose for a year, finishing in February 2006. It was a hard time for me. I went to a grammar school that didn’t have a Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator (SENCo) and not all of my teachers were supportive of my situation.
“I had Year 9 and 10 out of mainstream school and then went back full-time in Year 11.”
I did have a couple of months in ‘hospital school’ in Year 10 but I found a lot of the children disruptive and didn’t get on with it. I did my GCSEs in one year so only took five subjects. I was told I’d fail them all so was pleased to get an A where I was predicted a D. I also went on to study A-levels.
I’d always wanted to go to university but my attention span and desire to learn wasn’t the same after my treatment. I look back now and think I should have done it but, at the time, it just all felt too much. I used to do ballet and gymnastics but my tumour was on my cerebellum, which controls balance, and this got worse after my surgery.
“I can’t do either now because I can’t stand on one leg without falling over.”
Initially, I had monitoring scans every three months. As time went on, they were moved to every six months, then every 12 months and then every five years. I passed my driving test at the age of 18, took up full-time employment and began leading an independent life. Finally, in 2012 I was fully discharged.
“Sadly though, that wasn’t the last time a brain tumour dramatically affected my life.”
My mum, Jacqueline, was given a terminal diagnosis when it was revealed she had an inoperable glioblastoma (GBM) in November 2022. It came following several seizures, the first of which took place in September. She came into my bedroom presenting with speech problems and tremors in her arm. She was holding her shoulder and saying ‘pain’ just minutes before she started fitting. I was worried she was having a stroke and called an ambulance. We were blue-lighted to Darent Valley and then to King’s College, which is better equipped to deal with neurological problems.
“Mum was sedated, more than once because she kept waking up, and put on life-support overnight.”
She was in there for 10 days but seemed fine when she returned home. She’s got a rare autoimmune disease called Behcet's syndrome, which made diagnosing her brain tumour more difficult. She was given a scan but the results were attributed to Behcet's and it wasn’t until she had a biopsy after her second seizure that her GBM was discovered.
On one of the days she was due to have an appointment at King’s, she had a seizure in the car. Thankfully, the ambulance was able to call ahead and her consultant was waiting for us when we arrived.
“Mum blacks out during her seizures and stops breathing, which is extremely frightening.”
She had combined radio and chemo throughout December and is currently in a four-week recovery period before starting a six-month course of oral chemo. She has her up days and her down days. The lowest ones involve extreme fatigue and, like a lot of brain tumour patients, me included, uncontrolled emotions, but we’re making do and taking each day as it comes.
“I find it frustrating that so little is known about brain tumours.”
I was talking to a girl I used to work with recently who had no idea that brain cancer existed. That’s when it really hit me. Now I want to do all I can to help raise awareness of this disease and the lack of investment in research. I will do anything I can to help find a cure and will be doing a sponsored skydive in April. Anyone wishing to sponsor me can do so at: www.justgiving.com/fundraising/skydivingabrica-bennett.
Brain tumours are indiscriminate; they can affect anyone at any age. What’s more, they kill more children and adults under the age of 40 than any other cancer... yet just 1% of the national spend on cancer research has been allocated to this devastating disease.
Brain Tumour Research is determined to change this.
If you have been touched by Abrica’s story you may like to make a donation via www.braintumourresearch.org/donate or leave a gift in your will via www.braintumourresearch.org/legacy
Together we will find a cure.