Sheffield mum's 'nightmare' over huge brain tumour misdiagnosed as 'panic attacks' for 20 years

A single mum-of-three has spoken of her “nightmare” after she was misdiagnosed with panic attacks - which were actually a brain tumour she had for over 20 YEARS.

By Joe Pagnelli
Thursday, 18th June 2020, 11:59 am
Updated Thursday, 18th June 2020, 12:00 pm

Courageous Catherine Wilcockson, 37, was given the devastating news the panic attacks she’d been suffering on a daily basis were actually seizures caused by a tumour.

The mum says she suffered her first severe panic attack in December 2018 - when she experienced second-long blackouts or absences, felt tired and panicked at her daughter’s nativity play.

She saw her GP shortly after and was told she may be suffering with derealisation - a mental disorder that creates a sense of disconnection from the world - and was prescribed antidepressants.

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Catherine Wilcockson had the undiagnosed tumour for 20 years

But in May 2019, she had a sudden seizure while she was asleep and fell off her bed and smashed her head on the ground.

The mum says her daughters Shani, then nine, and Christie, then 15, saved her life after they rang their grandfather Terry for help who called an ambulance.

She was rushed to Northern General Hospital in Sheffield, where a CT scan revealed she had a tumour in her brain the size of two apples.

Doctors were able to successfully remove 80 percent of the tumour in a “terrifying” operation which lasted over nine hours - while Catherine was awake and conscious.

Doctors were able to successfully remove 80 percent of the tumour in a “terrifying” operation which lasted over nine hours - while Catherine was awake and conscious.

Catherine, from Sheffield, said: “It was an absolute nightmare - I couldn't understand why I was feeling the way I did.

"I got this awful feeling come over me - I felt really panicky and like the world was closing down on me.

“I was blacking out for short periods of time but it kept happening over and over.

“It was quite scary and I realised something must be wrong.

Catherine was initially told she might be suffering from a mental disorder and was prescribed anti-depressants

“I couldn’t tell you what happened, one night I just woke up on the floor - I was confused and my girls looked terrified."

She added: “If not for my little girls I wouldn’t be alive today - they saved my life.”

After the cancer diagnosis, Catherine was transferred to the oncology ward at Royal Hallamshire Hospital, in Sheffield.

She was told the cancer, an astrocytoma brain tumour grade 2, had likely been slowly growing in her brain for at least 20 years - as it normally presents in children.

An X-ray of Catherine Wilcockson's tumour , which was the size of two apples.

A month later, on June 18 2019, doctors performed the life-saving surgery which left her with 34 staples in her head.

The hairdresser said: “The surgeon was outstanding - I couldn’t praise him enough.

“To do something so terrifying but make you feel confident and positive is an amazing thing.

“He kept me positive throughout and I felt safe - but it was so scary.

“It’s a surreal experience to have someone open your head while you’re awake.”

Looking back at the “panic attacks”, Catherine says she feels lucky as it could have ended far more tragically.

Doctors in Sheffield performed the life-saving surgery which left her with 34 staples in her head.

She recalled: “When I first started suffering with panic attacks it was terrifying - I didn’t know the extent of it yet but when you can’t explain something wrong it’s unnerving.

“Looking back on it, it's even worse because I was putting myself and others in danger. I wasn’t suffering with panic attacks, they were seizures.

“I was driving every day, I was with my girls, it could have gone so wrong.”

Almost exactly a year on since her operation, the mum has kept in good spirits after successfully undergoing radiotherapy for six weeks and chemotherapy for six months.

In March of this year, she had a double celebration as she was told her tumour had shrunk to five percent of its original size on the day of Shani’s 10th birthday.

She said: “Since the surgery I’ve just stayed positive.

“It’s been a surreal year - from the diagnosis to coronavirus - but I choose to stay optimistic.

“I could have died, but I’m here. And I’ve been able to spend so much time with my girls who mean the world to me.

“I celebrated my daughter’s 10th birthday - which is something I won’t take for granted.

“This year has been a complete whirlwind and roller coaster but I know I have to keep going forward - for me and for my girls.”

The mum says she wants to inspire others who may be faced with the numbing news that they have a devastating disease.

She said: “I want to tell others who might be going through the same thing that they can get through this too.

“I remember all of the news I read was always so negative and bleak but you can come across the other end of this devastating news as strong as ever.”

Catherine is working with the charity Brain Tumour Research to share her story and, together with Shani, is taking part in its 'Wear A Hat Day With Flowers' this Friday (June 19).

The day will see people wearing their favourite hats adorned with flowers to raise money for the cause.