In Our Hearts Stories
Less than 20% of those diagnosed with a brain tumour survive beyond five years
Inspirational friend, son and hero Corporal James Campling was diagnosed with a brain tumour in June 2016. Despite this diagnosis, James, along with family, friends and comrades, was able to raise over £30,000 for Brain Tumour Research.
This continued James’ life-long devotion to those in need, whether through his career as a Royal Air Force Aeromedical Evacuation Specialist or his charitable work for a range of good causes, from educating children in Malawi to fundraising for The Blue Cross.
James passed away on 10th April 2018 and was honoured with a military funeral.
James told us his story in December 2016…I’m a Corporal in the Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron of the Royal Air Force’s Tactical Medical Wing. This means I’m often required to work long hours at short notice in a very stressful environment. In return, when I’m off duty, I’m able to take periods of leave, which is great as it gives me the opportunity to indulge my passion for travel.
I first noticed something was wrong when travelling in Mexico around Christmas 2015. Suddenly, I was unable to speak for a while, the words were just not coming out. It was a weird and terrifying experience.
Straight after Christmas, I went to see my GP back in England. I underwent some routine tests and the episode in Mexico was put down to stress. I wasn’t 100% sure that this was the case, but decided to trust my doctor and to carry on regardless.
In February 2016, I was on holiday in Sudan. I woke up one morning and had what I now know was a seizure. I’ve come to understand that when I have seizures it’s only my head that convulses, the rest of my body is normal. I think this is why my friend, who was in the same room as me at the time, wasn’t aware that there was anything wrong. Even when I asked her about it later, she said she hadn’t noticed anything wrong with me. The episode had felt really surreal and this, combined with the fact that someone who witnessed it was telling me I hadn’t had a seizure, convinced me it had all just been a bad dream.
Throughout the last year there has been a real struggle between my rational side and my ‘gut feelings’. My job means I have always been taught to keep calm, even in the face of adversity, and above all never to panic. However, this does clash with the normal human instinct to always fear the worst when it comes to your own health!
Life carried on as normal until April 2016. I was attending the Princess Mary’s Royal Air Force Nursing Symposium and suffered another seizure. Fortunately, this time, I was surrounded by a specialist audience of medics who understood what had happened straight away. I was referred for various specialist medical appointments and was in and out of A&E.
It was at this stage that, in my own mind, I really began to think there was something in my brain. Yet, once again, I managed to persuade myself that it was something less serious. After all, the neurologists who were treating me seemed convinced it was stress-related and prescribed me anti-epilepsy drugs which stopped the seizures. The doctors referred me for an MRI scan.
It was now into May 2016 and, before I had the MRI, I went travelling in India. Discovering new places has always been a great passion of mine and has provided a welcome distraction from my health concerns. I had some wonderful experiences in India, I visited places like Delhi and the Taj Mahal, although the highlight was undoubtedly seeing a tiger close up in the wild. I had been assured that tiger sightings almost never happened and, on the rare occasions they actually did, the tiger was normally seen from a long distance. I was therefore delighted to find myself within 10 metres of a tiger after only about 10 minutes of arriving at an Indian nature reserve!
When I got back to England I had the MRI scan. Whilst awaiting the results I really started to think that I had a brain tumour. Once more, I let my head overrule my heart and decided that I couldn’t possibly have one.
I was due to meet a friend in Norway in mid-June 2016 and decided to spend some time in Finland beforehand. On June 15th I was on a train from Finland to Norway, when I checked my phone and saw a flurry of missed calls from my GP. This is rarely a good sign for anyone! The train was moving slowly and so I was able to move to the end of the carriage, where, with great trepidation, I dialled my GP’s number. As I was calling from abroad the call took a bit of time to connect, which made it all even more agonising. It also gave me time to think how strange it was to be making this call from here – I guess most people have this kind of conversation with a doctor in their local surgery, rather than on a train whilst on holiday.
When I eventually managed to talk to my GP she told me I had a brain tumour. My world instantly fell apart.
It was all such a contrast from the night before, I had spent most of the day hiking the Finnish countryside, set up camp late and remember feeling content, sitting looking up at the stars in the clear night’s sky.
At this stage I didn’t even appreciate quite how serious a diagnosis of a grade 4 glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) was, but was still desperate for some space. The train was approaching a station and so, on the spur of the moment, I decided to get off. It was only as the train trundled away behind me that I realised I was standing at a small, deserted station in rural Finland, it really was little more than a wooden shack in a vast Scandinavian forest! I felt so isolated, not only was I struggling to process such a serious diagnosis without any friends and family around, I was now alone in a foreign wilderness.
Fortunately, I didn’t feel lonely for long. One of the best things about being in the Forces is the support of your comrades. As soon as they were aware of my diagnosis, my colleagues in the Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron offered a flight to come and collect me.
It feels a bit ironic now but, at work, I’d always tried to avoid oncology. Despite this, I came into contact with brain tumours quite a bit – which I thought was surprising considering the Armed Forces tend to be full of younger, very fit people. I guess this just shows how brain tumours can hit absolutely anyone – it was only later that I learnt brain tumours kill more children and adults under the age of 40 than any other cancer. I’d often worked alongside one of the doctors who was sent out to collect me from Finland – in a twist of fate the last person we’d picked up together on Aeromed duty was a brain tumour patient!
I wanted to stay strong in dealing with my brain tumour diagnosis, only letting myself cry twice throughout this whole ordeal. My family have always been there to support me, although I know that my mum, Diane, finds it tougher than she lets on. My younger sister, Jessica, has also been indispensable. It’s been a real surprise to see how people have reacted to my diagnosis, you often get the most extreme reaction from the people you least expect – one of my friends, a hard-as-nails cage-fighting bouncer, rang me up bawling his eyes out when he first heard about the brain tumour.
I received excellent care in England and underwent an operation to de-bulk the tumour on July 9th 2016 at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. This was an awake craniotomy which lasted for seven hours and, at the start, was totally painless. It was a difficult procedure for the surgeons as the tumour had intruded into my verbal and motor cortices. Things took a turn for the worse when I had a seizure halfway through the operation. Unlike my previous episodes, this seizure made my entire body shake violently and the surgical team had to hold me down. Mr Plaha, my consultant neuro-surgeon, gave me the choice as to whether we should carry on with the operation. I was surprised when he told me that most people decide to stop in these circumstances.
This was perhaps a situation where my more hard-headed, military-trained nature stood me in good stead. I have always been an extremely logical person and, although it was frightening having a seizure during an operation, it seemed clear to me that the quickest and cleanest way to finish this was just to grin and bear it for the remainder of the procedure.
I recovered in the John Radcliffe Hospital. I was weakened by a nasty post-op infection, which led me to black-out whilst I was washing one day, but the more distressing thing was that I didn’t feel like being around people. I saw my family briefly after the operation and had a long-list of friends who wanted to visit me, but I asked them not to come as I just didn’t feel up to talking to people.
As the tumour had impacted my verbal cortex, I had to learn to talk again and got particularly exhausted when talking with new people – this was quite a shock for me as I’d always been very outgoing and confident socially.
I spent the summer recuperating at RAF Brize Norton and made very good progress, regaining my ability to talk normally and recovering my physical strength. This was a gruelling process and took several months, but I improved day-by-day. My job in the Tactical Medical Wing helped me here again, as I was able to take inspiration from the recovery stories of other injured service personnel.
My recovery culminated on Friday 14th October 2016, when I walked 26 miles with friends and colleagues to climb the Yorkshire Three Peaks in under 12 hours. I’m so proud that we raised over £5,000 (and counting) for Brain Tumour Research. I’m grateful to my friend Rachael, an Oncological Research Sister, for organising all the fundraising. She was the first person to make me aware of how little funding goes towards brain tumour research – only 1% of the national research spend on cancer.
I watched the April 2016 Parliamentary debate that followed Brain Tumour Research’s e-petition. It was great to see that all the MPs agreed that brain tumour research was important, so why don’t they agree to do something about it?
Another thing I have found frustrating is that some of the cancer survival statistics banded about by people don’t apply to brain tumours. Other cancers now have some quite high survival rates, whereas GBM sufferers like myself still have a very low chance of surviving beyond five years. Even if I was miraculously lucky, and survived 20 years, I would still die aged 48, not exactly my planned expiry time! This lack of hope for brain tumour patients like myself is why I think more research is so desperately needed.
In early November 2016 I started a course of chemotherapy, which should last until around May 2017. It’s going to be a long six months – chemotherapy really takes a lot out of you and I’ve been sleeping a lot since the treatment began, which is not like me.
Had it not been for my brain tumour, I had planned to take a six-month sabbatical from the RAF starting on October 24th 2016 – I’d intended to spend that time travelling overland to Australia and, when I arrived, volunteering with a NGO. Recently, I’ve been waking up each morning thinking things like ‘I should have been in somewhere in Eastern Europe or Central Asia by now’, but, thanks to the brain tumour, I’m actually stuck in Oxfordshire or back home with my family in Grimsby – who are obviously amazing, it’s just not where I was planning to be!
I’ve tried to overcome this by planning some shorter trips. Realising that I have very little use for a house deposit, I’m instead planning to use the money to go to Jordan – to meet a girl I met when travelling in India and, in March 2017, I’m hoping to go to Antarctica.I’m battling my brain tumour as hard as I can, but I realise that the GBM is going to rob me of most of my life. I’m determined to make the most of what I have left.
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 inspired by James's story, you may like to make a donation via www.braintumourresearch.org/donation/donate-now or leave a gift in your will via www.braintumourresearch.org/legacy
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