"I thought I had freshers flu, but Drs said I could have died within a week"
- Credit: Katherine Hawkes
A 22-year-old student is hoping to raise awareness of the early warning signs of a rare cancer after a visit to her GP for what she thought was 'fresher's flu' saved her life.
Katherine Hawkes, a 19-year-old fresher at the time, was told had she not visited her GP that day she could have died from acute promyelocytic leukaemia (APL), a rapidly developing rare form of blood cancer, within the week.
The psychology student at York University first started noticing symptoms in September, 2018 while away from her family home in Palgrave, near Diss.
But she realised something was not right in October that year after feeling weak to the point that her body "couldn't hold itself up".
Ms Hawkes said: "I went to the GP hoping there was something they could do for what I had assumed was a mixture of fresher’s flu and anxiety."
She was experiencing fatigue, proneness to infection, bruising, headaches and a lack of appetite at the time, and also tried to control heavy periods by using heavy pads and tampons at the same time.
She added: "I still bled through and began trying not to sit down, and if I had to, to sit on my waterproof coat."
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Following a blood test at her GP, she was told to go to York Hospital the same day for further tests on the assumption she was "severely anaemic".
Blood tests and bone marrow biopsies were carried out, and a doctor at the hospital revealed to Ms Hawkes it was "highly likely cancer".
"I didn’t immediately want to cry or yell, I just felt numb", she said.
"I tried to find any reason not to believe them as I didn’t think I was that sick. I thought maybe there had been an admin error and they thought someone else’s tests were mine."
She was later told by a consultant that had she not visited the GP she could have been dead within the week
Ms Hawkes said: "You trust those the doctors, the nurses, and other NHS staff to get you better. I was told I had a choice - I could cry and die, or fight harder than I ever had before and live.
"I remember deciding to be the second option."
The psychology student was transferred to St James’s Hospital in Leeds for the formal diagnosis and first round of chemotherapy.
She was later transferred closer to home to Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge.
Her treatment ended in February 2019 and she has been in complete molecular remission since November 12, 2018, with just two more check-ups to go before they end.
The 22-year-old said: "As far as the cancer goes, I’m fine.
"In so many ways, I was incredibly lucky. Not just because the cancer was diagnosed in time, not just because I survived, but because it has opened my eyes to just how much I took for granted.
"In some ways, it was exactly how we see it portrayed in the movies - a healthy person gradually losing everything. Their individuality, mobility, and hair.
"However, there were moments we’d never seen in movies. Moments where we laughed more than we ever thought we could, moments I can only describe as pure bliss."
Ms Hawkes said the experience has left her with PTSD, psychosomatic pain, health anxiety, body image issues, and low self-confidence.
But hopes sharing her story will help others spot the early signs of cancer and encourage people to seek help.
"If something is happening and it’s not normal for you, then its not normal at all and needs to be checked out. Your GP would rather give you the all clear than see you once you’re beyond help.
"To anyone scared to trouble their GP or worried what the result will be, only one of two things will happen. You’ll either be healthy or you won’t.
"If the worst happens, you can only take each day as it comes.
"The movies and TV shows we watch make us believe that a cancer diagnosis is an unstoppable force, plunging a person’s world into darkness. In reality, the darkness can be broken by moments of joy."
Describing APL, she said: "For the biology of it, it’s the body producing too many immature white blood cells. I’ve previously explained it as my body creating an extremely large army in half the time it usually takes, meaning none of the troops have any training on how to defeat the enemy."
What is acute promyelocytic leukaemia (APL)?
APL is a type of blood cancer that affects cells called promyelocytes, which are white blood cells at an early stage of development.
Blood Cancer UK says APL occurs when the promyelocytes do not fully develop and become cancerous, and develops quickly.
The build up leads to a shortage of normal white and red blood cells and platelets in the body.
Symptoms may include blood clots, excessive tiredness, pain in affected area, loss of appetite, weight loss, unexplained bruising or bleeding, and infections that last longer or happen more often than normal.
APL is rare, with around 160 people being diagnosed each year in the UK.