In Hope Stories
Just 1% of the national research spend has been allocated to this devastating disease
Army photographer and father, Steve Blake, 36, was out on a job when his vision went blurry and his head began to hurt. Doctors diagnosed a sinus infection and prescribed decongestants, but when he was still suffering with headaches 18 months later, Steve was finally given a scan. The MRI revealed that, like his mum three years earlier, Steve had a meningioma brain tumour and needed surgery.
“It’s good to be back with my team and hear the usual banter. I much prefer it for people to treat me normally and joke around. The guys check out my scar and say: 'Man up, it’s only a scratch!'"
Steve tells his story…
January 10th 2018 was a big day for me: my first day back in uniform after months spent recovering from brain surgery. I had joined the army at 17, going into The Royal Signals and spending 11 years in the telecoms world, before training to become an army photographer in the Royal Logistics Corps. I take photographs all over the world, providing powerful images for the media that tell the stories of the brave men and women of the British army.
It’s intense and full of variety. I might be working on soldiers’ Christmas messages one day and following a visit from a royal or celebrity the next. I served in Afghanistan for a year and have seen the horrors of the front line. People often expect that kind of job to be the toughest, but actually for me it’s the repatriation ceremonies. I have photographed more coffins than I ever thought I would see in my life. Sometimes it was guys I knew or were even friends with. It’s the harsh reality of my profession but it doesn’t get any easier.
I was out on a job two years ago, in February 2016, when I started to get a headache and my vision went blurry. The headache didn’t seem to get better, although my vision normalised after a bit. It was bad enough for me to see a doctor, only to be told it was probably a sinus infection. I was prescribed nose-sprays, decongestants, antibiotics and was even told to inhale steam to sort out the problem, but nothing worked.
I tried everything, seeing several different doctors over many months, with no real idea about what it could be. I thought I might need to just live with it and so I attempted to ignore it and get on with my life, including moving in to a new house and proposing to my girlfriend Becky. I was quite proud of my proposal, we were at a garden party at Buckingham Palace and I went down on one knee on the lawn just outside of the Queen’s tent. Luckily Becky said yes and we planned the wedding for August 2017.
Medically, things came to a head in May 2017, when I finally had had enough of the constant headaches. This time I was referred to the hospital for a scan; 24 hours later my results were available. It was much quicker than I had been told to expect, which didn’t turn out to be a good thing. The military doctor who broke the news couldn’t answer all of my questions at that point, but there was something growing in my head that shouldn’t be there. My home is in Southampton but I’m based in Aylesbury during the week so I was given an appointment with a consultant at The John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. The weeks before my appointment dragged. I didn’t know whether it was cancerous, how big it was or where it was. It was extremely scary for Becky and I. It felt like we were on tenterhooks for ages.
The consultant was reassuring, telling me that I had a meningioma… apparently if you are going to get a brain tumour, this is the one to get. It was the best-case scenario as the tumour was unlikely to become cancerous. The brain tumour was on the back of the sinus canal, which explained all the sinus infection symptoms I had been suffering with. Meningiomas are usually low-grade, meaning they tend to be slow-growing, so the doctors didn’t recommend immediate treatment. We thought that they might wait until after my wedding in August.
My mother, Joan, had also been diagnosed with a meningioma, three years earlier in 2014. She had experienced black-outs throughout my childhood, eventually requiring surgery to remove a massive tumour. Mum had been all-clear for years so my parents were fairly blasé about my diagnosis. They understood that not all brain tumours are the same and that survival rates vary from the very worst kinds.
I was worried about telling my son, Joseph, who is 14. His only experience of brain tumours was seeing his friend lose his mum to a particularly aggressive form of the disease. I wanted to wait until I had some answers and could reassure him that my tumour was low-grade and, hopefully, manageable. I was really matter-of-fact about it all and told him not to worry.
Our plans were all thrown in the air when the doctor called again and said he had changed his mind. He was concerned about how I looked in my consultation and wanted to act more quickly. Memorably, he described me as a “pressure cooker waiting to go off”. I needed lots of tests and surgery to remove the pressure in my head. It was not possible to remove my tumour, due to its tricky position, but I was booked in to John Radcliffe for a week in July.
I had eye-tests, scans and intracranial pressure (ICP) monitoring under anaesthetic. The pressure in my brain was through the roof, literally off the scale when I lay down, so I needed a shunt to drain the excess fluid causing the pressure to build up. It was a two-hour operation and unfortunately it didn’t work the first time so the procedure needed repeating. By the end of the week, I had endured three surgeries. It was ten days before our wedding.
Becky and I were married at Highfield Park in Hook, with all our friends and family around us. I was still pretty tender and easily tired so everyone had a stash of painkillers and Haribo sweets in their pockets for me. In the military we call it “Moralibo” as when you’re away from home even the smallest of things can help cheer you up!
I was off work for a few months. The army are very good at procedures around occupational health, so they eased me back in gently and allowed me to wear civilian clothes rather than my tight army beret. It was a great feeling to be back full-time and in my proper uniform by January 2018. I had been wearing that uniform for nearly 20 years. Sitting around for months has an effect on your physical fitness and I’m working hard to get back to normal.
It’s good to be back with my team and hear the usual banter. I much prefer it for people to treat me normally and joke around. The guys check out my scar and say: “Man up, it’s only a scratch!” I don’t want anyone to get all dramatic about my brain surgery and start saying I’m lucky to be alive, then telling me all the stuff I shouldn’t do anymore. I don’t need to hear that. I’m still me and what I do is my decision.
I have just had my first scan since the surgeries and things still feel quite uncertain. I still get headaches and my scar is a tight and achy reminder of my brain tumour. It’s easy to work myself up thinking about it, to get paranoid that it is growing. I spend sleepless nights wondering what is going on inside my own head. It’s strange to have no control over your own body and I’m well aware, after months thinking it was a sinus infection, that it’s not always obvious when something isn’t right.
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.
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