Niamh's '˜migraines' were something far more serious

Typing in your health symptoms into the internet is all too easy nowadays and many people self-diagnose themselves when they are feeling unwell or suffering from health issues.

Monday, 18th September 2017, 12:09 pm
Updated Monday, 18th September 2017, 1:10 pm
Niamh Cunningham, 15, who was diagnosed with a brain tumour and had to have emergency brain surgery

Although this can lead to some people needlessly worrying themselves by convincing themselves they have a serious and sinister condition, the reverse can also be true and some people can feel wrongly reassured by thinking they have the signs of something innocuous when in fact it is something more alarming.

Although Niamh Cunningham and her family didn’t use the internet for diagnosis, they know only too well how it is important not to self-diagnose when suffering from a persistent health problem.

Niamh, 15, who lives in Leyland, was diagnosed with a brain tumour and 
underwent emergency brain surgery this time last year.

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However, for a considerable amount of time, Niamh and her family thought her headaches were migraines.

And Niamh’s mum Lisa Cockcroft today urged people not to try and diagnose themselves and for parents whose children are experiencing headaches to get them checked out. Lisa, 44, who also has son Jack, 18, says as Niamh’s headaches were irregular when they started, they thought they were migraines as the symptoms seemed to fit.

Lisa, a teaching assistant at a primary school, explains: “Niamh just woke up one morning with a bad headache a couple of years ago and could not keep anything down, even water.

“My mum suffers from migraines so we thought Niamh was having the same thing as the symptoms seemed to fit.

Niamh Cunningham with her mum Lisa and brother Jack

“We didn’t think too much of it at first as it was another three months before Niamh had another headache.”

From around March 2015, Niamh began experiencing intermittent headaches and vomiting. But to begin with, they were only happening every three to four months.

Lisa recalls: “It could be three or four months between Niamh’s headaches. But they were always either when she woke up in the morning or when she woke up during the night.

“The only way the headache would clear was after Niamh was sick. She would then feel better but really tired. She would be in awful pain with the headache and only being sick helped her.

Niamh Cunningham with her mum Lisa and brother Jack

“But this can also be true of migraines so we thought that’s what it was.”

During the summer holidays last year, Niamh went downhill rapidly and her headaches became more frequent until she was getting headaches and bouts of vomiting once or twice a week.

Niamh then noticed her right hand felt numb. Niamh and her mum went to the doctors and told them all the symptoms.

The doctor carried out checks and also thought 
Niamh was suffering migraines and prescribed her medication to control the pain and come back in a fortnight.

However, in the meantime, Lisa, who was still concerned, decided to take Niamh to have her eyes tested. Lisa says: “Niamh had had an eye test the year before and everything had been fine. But I thought we should get her eyes tested again just in case.”

Lisa took Niamh to Leyland Opticians on Hough Lane and the optometrist Marian Gray carried out the test and took pictures of the back of Niamh’s eyes and saw the optic discs were severely blurred and noticed swelling. She immediately rang the hospital and Niamh was given an emergency appointment for the Saturday.

Niamh had a CT scan which revealed a brain 
tumour and she underwent emergency surgery at Manchester Children’s Hospital the next day.

Tests later showed 
Niamh had a low grade glioma. Niamh had to stay in hospital for a week after the surgery. The operation has left her with weakness down her right side and double vision.

Niamh, who is a pupil at Parklands High School in Chorley, is wearing a contact lens to block vision in one of her eyes to cure the double vision for now but may have surgery to try to correct it in the future.

Niamh is backing a UK-wide campaign in support of HeadSmart, a campaign run by The Brain Tumour Charity, to raise awareness of the signs and symptoms of childhood brain tumours.

HeadSmart has helped cut the average diagnosis time for a childhood brain tumour in the UK from more than 13 weeks to six-and-a-half weeks.

The campaign focuses closely on healthcare professionals, parents and teenagers in a bid to ensure young patients with possible brain tumour symptoms are referred for specialist help as quickly as possible.

Niamh and her family know from their own experience how important it is for doctors and parents to recognise when a child might have a brain tumour.

Doctors told Niamh and her family they hadn’t managed to get all of the tumour out so she is now having three-monthly scans to monitor tumour growth.

They have been told there is a 30 to 40 per cent chance that the tumour might grow back but they prefer to flip that and view it as a 60 to 70 per cent chance that it won’t grow back.

Niamh is now back at school full-time and is doing well and living life. However, she wants to make sure 
everyone is aware of the symptoms so that tumours can be caught early in the future.

The HeadSmart campaign, which includes pocket-sized symptoms cards and a website, lists the warning signs of a brain tumour in babies, children and teenagers. HeadSmart recently won the National Lottery Good Causes Health Award.

Lisa says: “Our advice to other families would be: ‘Don’t try to diagnose it yourself and put it down to a migraine as it could be something more. The only reason we found out Niamh had a brain tumour was because the optician spotted something. If it is a brain tumour, the earlier it is diagnosed, the better it is.”

Niamh’s story in her own words

“Around three years ago I had my first headache, it was to be a while before I found out the reason why.

“Over the next couple of years I had countless headaches which had no pattern except they were always in the night and it only ended after I was sick.

“We put it down to dehydration but later on found out that wasn’t the case,

“Last year, in the six week holidays, my headaches got worse and closer together and I began feeling tired all the time.

“All of a sudden I noticed my right hand going numb during the headache. This was new, which caught my attention, and made me wonder why.

“At this point my mum took me to the doctors. He did routine checks and put it down to suffering from migraines which run in the family and gave me anti-migraine tablets.

“My mum thought I should get my eyes checked, the doctor didn’t think that was necessary but thankfully my mum still took me.

“The optician said she could see some blurring/swelling of the optic discs and arranged an emergency appointment for the Saturday morning at the hospital.

“The optician there agreed and we were referred to the children’s ward at Preston where I had a CT scan.

“At this point I began to panic but nothing prepared me for what was to come.

“The consultant came in and sat down opposite me and said: ‘I’m so sorry to tell you but the CT scan showed a large tumour in your brain.’

“I just burst into tears and went into utter shock. My mind went blank. My mum took my hand and I remember her saying with tears in her eyes that everything would be okay and that she wouldn’t leave me and that she and my dad would be with me every step of the way.

“Straightaway the nurse came in and I was put on a drip and medicine was given to reduce the swelling on my brain.

“We were told we would be moved over to Manchester Children’s Hospital as they didn’t do children’s neurology at Preston.

“As I waited to be admitted to the ward, I rang a few of my best friends and told them the news.

“They couldn’t believe it and the phone went silent as I heard them cry.

“Hearing my best friends so upset made it seem even more real but I didn’t feel as alone.

“At midnight I was on the MRI scanner for about an hour. The next morning I was told I would be having an operation later that day.

“The operation lasted 10 hours and I was in intensive care for one night before going on to the children’s ward.

“I spent a week in hospital and as a result of the operation I now have double vision and my right side is weaker than my left as the tumour was located in my cerebellum and this area controls co-ordination and


“The tumour was diagnosed as low grade which means it is slow growing.

“Unfortunately, the tumour couldn’t all be removed as there was a high risk of it affecting important areas of the brain.

“I am now on three monthly MRI scans with follow up appointments at The Christie to see if my tumour has started to grow again.

“We have been told there is a 30 to 40 per cent chance of it growing back, which would need further treatment.

“Me and my family like to look at it as a 60 to 70 per cent chance of it not growing again.

“Physically I am stable but the after effects mentally have started to hit me lately.

“As a family we have got closer and when I start to worry about the future, I know I can lean on those closest to me who care and they will get me through the day.

“As my mum says: ‘Lean on me and we’ll be strong together.’”