WHEN Sophie Burchill was just eleven months old she was diagnosed with brain tumour. Her parents were distraught - the news that their little girl was suffering from cancer devastated them.
Sophie had two life-saving brain operations - one of which lasted 14 hours.
“It’s amazing how these doctors do these jobs – the tumour was actually entwined around her brain, it wasn’t isolated, so any kind of slip and it could all have gone wrong,” said her father, Pete Burchill.
A biopsy carried out on the mass which had been removed discovered it was an ependymoma tumour – described by doctors as an “aggressive” type.
This was another blow to Pete and Abigail Burchill. Having just gone through the nerve-wracking ordeal of Sophie’s surgery, they were told that she would need a 12-month course of chemotherapy.
In the event, with various complications – including three more operations to fit devices to administer the drugs and several blood and platelet transfusions – the whole process took around 16 months.
But now - touch wood - Sophie, aged three, is doing well. She is deaf in one ear but her October scan came back clear and she’s about to have her first haircut.
Reflecting on the awful 16 months of her diagnosis and treatment, Pete Burchill, aged 35, from Hillsborough, says: “It was extremely hard on the family, financially, emotionally and physically. But she was so brave throughout the whole thing.”
In her name, Sophie’s friends and family set up Sophie’s Wish, a brain tumour charity that aims to raise funds and awareness of the life-threatening cancer, for which the five-year survival rate is just 14 per cent - a statistic that haunts Sophie’s parents every day.
But the Burchills remain positive. And this week, as part of International Brain Tumour Awareness week, volunteers across Sheffield are busy working hard to raise money for the charity.
The Army Foundation college gave Sophie’s Wish a chunk of the £2,500 its staff raised after doing a gruelling 122-mile cycle and run.
Another volunteer, Hayley Toothill, who lives in Sheffield city centre, raised £408 for the charity after doing a long country walk.
“We had to negotiate three fields of aggressive cows and were almost attacked by a horse,” she says.
But Hayley, 22, is no ordinary volunteer. She went through similar hard times to Pete and his partner Abigail when her mum died of a brain tumour six years ago.
“It was a shock and very sudden. She felt unwell on the Friday night and took her to hospital but they said she had a water infection.
“She then collapsed on the Saturday so I took her in and they kept her overnight. The next thing I knew she was covered in wires and died from a secondary brain tumour by Sunday night. She didn’t have a chance.”
Hayley - who was raised without her dad - was left homeless.
“I had to go into care at 16 and then at 17 I packed my bags and got a job in Manchester.”
She worked her way through her part time college course and is now studying an MA at Sheffield Hallam University.
Looking back on her mum’s illness she said: “She had the tumour for about three years but didn’t know about it. She suffered from schizophrenia so it was hard to tell when she was suffering because sometimes she could be quite child-like. She did say she suffered from a headache behind her nose, though.”
The symptoms of a brain tumour depend on the type.
As a tumour grows it will increases its pressure on the brain, which in turn create symptoms such as ‘pressure headaches’, which are often most severe in the mornings and can worsen with coughing, sneezing or any hard physical work. This increase in pressure can cause nausea and vomiting.
Brain tumours can also cause drowsiness and weakness in one side of the body. Speech and balance can be affected, but again, this depends on the type of brain tumour.
With Sophie, because she was only a baby, she couldn’t communicate her illness, but she had a stiff neck and she kept vomiting - a common symptom. Various problems were suggested as the cause before her condition deteriorated and she was taken to Sheffield Children’s Hospital.
Sophie’s resilience and bravery landed her a Little Stars Award from Cancer Research UK, designed to recognise the courage shown by children and young people when they are faced with such an ordeal.
“During this whole process she has grown up from a baby into an active toddler. Towards the end of her time in hospital she was running up and down the ward, her drip stand trailing behind her! It’s amazing how resilient she has been.
“It is a huge relief that her scan was clear but as a parent you are always living in constant fear.”
Pete believes there should be more awareness about brain tumours, something that the family’s charity, Sophie’s Wish, is at least helping to achieve.