A racing heart, a funny lump on your eyelid — you probably think you’d know instinctively whether to see a doctor about such signs.
But in some cases, it can take a casual remark from a stranger to make you seek a diagnosis.
Here, ANGELA EPSTEIN talks to five people whose serious illnesses came to light quite by chance.
Roddy Riddle’s customers said he looked trim after he dropped two and a half stone in six weeks. It turned out he had type 1 diabetes
WEIGHT LOSS COMPLIMENTS REVEALED DIABETES
Roddy Riddle, 51, who owns a cycle shop, lives in Inverness with his wife Lynn, 51, a secretary, and their three children, Alasdair, 15, Isla, 14, and Finlay, ten. He says:
‘I wasn’t remotely concerned when customers started telling me I looked trim. There was a ‘cycle to work’ scheme in our area and business was booming.
‘I’d get to the shop at 4am to assemble new bikes ready for the first customers at 9am, and work on through. I’d eat normally but my weight was dropping and people were telling me I looked great.
‘I’m 5ft 9in and in six weeks I lost 2½ st. I just thought all this activity was burning off the calories.
‘The constant comments prompted my wife to Google ‘sudden weight loss’ — and up came type 1 diabetes. She urged me to see my GP, but I had tickets to see Glasgow Rangers play St Petersburg and didn’t want to miss the game.
‘In the end, I gave in and cycled to my doctor’s surgery, where he checked my blood glucose levels. They were sky high at 45 [a normal level is between 4 and 7]. I was astonished.
‘My GP sent me straight to hospital where I was told I had type 1 diabetes. It means your body can’t make a hormone called insulin to regulate your sugar levels. It is irreversible and can be genetic. Apparently, it was only because I was so fit that I hadn’t fallen into a diabetic coma.
Mr Riddle, 51, from Inverness, now uses an insulin pump and has cut back on sugar
‘I’m now using an insulin pump and continuous glucose monitor, and have cut back on sugar.
‘If you can keep your diabetes under control, you can live a healthy life. But I hate to think what could have happened if I’d just enjoyed the compliments about losing weight and done nothing.’
EXPERT COMMENT: Dushyant Sharma, a consultant diabetologist at the Royal Liverpool University Hospital, says: ‘Undiagnosed type 1 diabetes causes blood glucose levels to rise, and this glucose is passed out in the urine. Glucose is highly calorific, so Roddy would have been losing weight even if eating normally.
‘With later onset type 1 diabetes — say, when the patient is over 40 — classic symptoms such as thirst and fatigue are not as obvious.’
Lara Buckle, from South London, had a lump on her eye lid which turned out to be cancer. It was pointed out by her beautician
BEAUTICIAN SPOTTED MY SKIN CANCER
Lara Buckle, 33, is a trainee nutritionist from South London. She says:
‘I treat myself to a facial every few months, and last November, while assessing my skin, my regular beautician pointed out a lump the size of half a pea on my right eyelid.
‘I’d noticed it itching a few weeks before but assumed it was a stye. I’ve had them before and they’re no big deal. But my beautician insisted I get it checked out at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London.
‘The doctor there gave me some anti-inflammatory drops to stop the itching and took a biopsy.
‘I didn’t give the whole thing much thought, even at this stage. So I was stunned when I was called back a couple of weeks later and told I had a type of skin cancer known as basal cell carcinoma. Hearing the C-word was so shocking.
‘I had to have a specialist type of surgery called Mohs, where the surgeon progressively removes thin layers of skin and examines them until only cancer-free tissue remains.
‘Fortunately, the cancer was contained, although my consultant said it was very unusual to see someone so young with it. I did use sunbeds for a summer in my 20s and lived for a year in Australia, but now I always use SPF 30.’
EXPERT COMMENT: Dr John Ashworth, a consultant dermatologist at Warrington Hospital near Manchester, said: ‘Basal cell carcinoma is slow-growing and normally occurs on the eyelids or nose. People often mistake it for an ingrown hair or spot.
‘Although it rarely spreads throughout the body, it can grow, making it very difficult to remove surgically. I have had patients needing three-quarters of an ear removed.’
Adrian Banks, 52, was told to see a doctor after a shop assistant saw him veering to the left. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s
MY GAIT WAS A SIGN OF PARKINSON’S
Adrian Banks, 52, a wealth manager, lives in Cornwall with his wife Bernadette, 54. They have three children. Adrian says:
‘Before I was diagnosed, I ran 18 miles a week and barely even caught a cold. I never took a day off work.
‘Then one day in 2017 I took my son to buy some running shoes. I had a go on the treadmill in the shop and the sales assistant said I was running ‘like a crab’ — I kept veering to the left. He suggested I see a doctor as something didn’t look right. I told myself that perhaps I had a knee problem.
‘I went to my GP the next day, who referred me to a neurologist.
‘There is no definitive, objective test for Parkinson’s, a degenerative neurological condition, but gait can be a strong indicator, the specialist said as he broke the news.
‘I disputed it. I told him I had a busy life, clients to see. I was a runner, fit and active. It didn’t make sense.
‘He asked me to tap my index finger and thumb together as quickly as I could — slowness doing this is associated with Parkinson’s. I couldn’t do it; my fingers kept missing.
‘It was awful breaking the news to our twin boys, then aged 20, and our daughter, 16, that there was no cure
‘I’m now on a drug called Sinemet which helps control my symptoms. I can’t run any more and I do limp. But I keep fit by swimming and am working full time. I don’t intend to give in.’
EXPERT COMMENT: Professor David Dexter, deputy director of research at the charity Parkinson’s UK, says: ‘Parkinson’s, at first, affects only one side of the body, as it initially only affects one side of the brain. That’s why there can be a delay in diagnosis.
‘People may go for physiotherapy, thinking it is a mechanical problem. There is no cure at present, but the earlier the diagnosis, the better the response to drugs to manage the condition.’
Taomi, pictured with Lydia, noticed a a strange circle of white light in her daughter’s left pupil in a holiday snap
Lydia Sharlotte, three, lives in Leeds with parents Taomi, 22, a hairdresser, and Danny, 23, who works for a wholesale market. Taomi says:
We were on holiday in Turkey when I took a picture of our happy, lively, 18-month-old Lydia. But when I looked at the photo I saw a strange circle of white light in her left pupil.
It wasn’t red-eye or glare from the camera flash, and in the back of my mind I remembered reading about a woman who had discovered from a photo that her child had a form of eye cancer.
I was frantic to get home. As soon as we did, Lydia was referred to the hospital, where they confirmed our worst nightmare. She had retinoblastoma, a rare childhood eye cancer.
Lydia had a Group E tumour — the most aggressive form. The only possible treatment was removal of her eye. We were told that retinoblastoma could spread quickly and once in the bloodstream was hard to cure. This awful thing could kill our daughter.
Luckily, the cancer hadn’t spread, and when the eye socket healed she was fitted with a realistic artificial eye. Thank goodness for that photo.
Lydia, pictured, ended up having retinoblastoma, a rare childhood eye cancer
EXPERT COMMENT: Andrew Lotery, a professor of ophthalmology at the University of Southampton, says: ‘ “Red eye” is a reflection of the flash off blood vessels in the retina, at the back of the eye. Retinoblastoma is a white tumour that grows there, so when light shines on it, white is reflected back. It’s vital to act if you suspect the disease, as it can pass down the optic nerve to the brain.’
The Childhood Eye Cancer Trust (chect.org.uk) is a UK charity dedicated to helping the families of children with retinoblastoma.
Becky Shorrocks, 37, used to get nervous before auditions and it turned out she had arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy
‘STAGE FRIGHT’ WAS A HEART CONDITION
Becky Shorrocks, 37, an actress, lives in London with her husband Paul, 40, a stand-up comedian. She says:
‘I’d get a bit agitated before auditions, so one particular morning I went out for a run first, to calm my nerves. But as I walked back to the car, I felt palpitations in my chest and a sense of panic.
‘I stumbled through the audition despite my fluttering heart, and I intended to sleep off what I thought was just nerves. But my husband said I looked quite grey in the face and persuaded me to ring 111, the NHS helpline. They sent me to A&E.
‘Tests revealed I had arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy (ARVC), a potentially life-threatening abnormality of the heart muscle.
‘I had an implantable cardioverter defibrillator put in my chest to regulate my heart rhythm. I’m now on beta blockers and I don’t drink any more or have stimulants such as caffeine. I can also no longer exercise like I did as this could accelerate the condition. I do yoga instead.
‘I’ve since learned my dad carries a gene responsible for ARVC. I keep in touch with people in similar circumstances through my blog, thebeatgoesonuk.com.’
EXPERT COMMENT: Dr Glyn Thomas, a consultant cardiologist at the Bristol Heart Institute, said: ‘Becky was very lucky to have been diagnosed when she was as, unfortunately, 80 per cent of cases are found post mortem. It’s vital to tell your GP if you feel palpitations when you’re stressed or working out.’
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