It was just like any other ordinary night out for a young woman in south Wales.
Layla Phillips was getting ready to go out clubbing with her Swansea University friends, but when she began putting on her necklace she noticed something troubling.
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“I felt a lump in my neck, and I thought it was a bit strange, but we had mumps going round university halls, so I thought it was that,” the 22-year-old, who was 20 at the time, recalled .
“The lump felt huge – probably just a little smaller than a golf ball. I sort of forgot about it but when it didn’t develop into mumps I started to worry. It was visible, and if I looked up and swallowed in the mirror, I could see it moving up and down.”
Miss Phillips returned to her see her mum in Bath a few weeks later for the Christmas break, and her mum advised her that she should get the lump checked out.
“I booked an appointment with my GP, they were absolutely amazing,” Miss Phillips said.
“I had a phone call with them, then the next day they had me come to the surgery, then referred me to hospital for an ultrasound and needle biopsy. Because the Covid-19 pandemic had started, I had to go by myself. It was a little strange, but I just had to get on with it.
“The biopsy came back indeterminate and they couldn’t tell what was wrong with me. Biopsies are rated on a scale from one to five, with one being completely benign and five being definitely cancer, and mine was at a three.”
Miss Phillips was given the choice of having the lump removed and tested, which she chose to do, undergoing an operation in June, which also saw the left side of her thyroid removed.
“I had to go into the hospital for the operation by myself as we were in the middle of the pandemic,” she said.
“It was probably harder for my mum and dad that they couldn’t be there, and they felt so helpless. None of us had been through anything like this, and they just had to wait at home for me to call to say that the operation went ok, and I had woken up. The staff were all amazing though.”
But there was to be some shocking news to come for Miss Phillips and her family. She was diagnosed with Papillary Thyroid Carcinoma, also known as thyroid cancer.
“I was told it was a very slim chance it was cancer, and a call was scheduled to check in post-op,” she said.
“I was recovering really well and was expecting positive news, it was a total shock. To be in your bedroom at home and find out you have cancer on the phone is awful.
“I went downstairs and told my mum, and she’d already guessed it was cancer from the length of the phone call. She said, ‘let’s take some deep breaths’ and then I remember that because I had to isolate for two weeks before hospital, that we were very practical about it and went food shopping!
“The doctor was so apologetic on the phone and overall, I think it was better that I got the news quickly, so my treatment could begin as soon as possible. Otherwise, because I was back at home in Bath, I would have had to go to Swansea for the news, then go back to Bath to self-isolate for two weeks in preparation for another operation, so it was quicker to just deliver the news over the phone.
“It probably would have been easier for me to hear it face-to-face, but I appreciate the fact that they wanted me to start my treatment as soon as possible.”
Miss Phillips’s contact details were passed onto Teenage Cancer Trust’s youth support co-ordinator, Anna, who was able to give her extra support through texts, phone calls and Facetime sessions.
“My medical team were amazing, but they were so busy, and I didn’t feel like I could ring them and ask random questions,” Miss Phillips said.
“With Anna, I knew that I could call her at any time in the day and get a response. If she didn’t know the answer, she had better access to the people who would.
“She got to know me a person and knew what was important to me. She got the little things, like she’d ask me what it was like going between university and home or ask if I was on top of my Uni work or if I needed to ask for extensions. If she wasn’t used to people my age, she wouldn’t know to ask those things.
“She remembered when appointments were coming up, often better than I did, and she checked in with me afterwards.”
The second operation Miss Phillips underwent was in July, then she had radioactive iodine treatment.
“I was in and out of hospital for four days and it would have really helped to have had someone with me. No matter how grown up you are, you still get nervous,” she said.
“Because I was radioactive, I had to stay in lead-lined room at the hospital on my own for 48-hours after my first treatment. It was absolutely bizarre – I was attending university lectures on Zoom in there!
“After my last treatment they did a full body scan to see if the cancer had gone, but it was unclear, so they said to come back the next day and I went back to the house I share with my university friends.
“I had to stay in my room on my own that night, nobody could come close to me as I was still slightly radioactive. I spent the night panicking that the cancer had spread – was it now in my head or my heart? I coped well during treatment so this was definitely my lowest point, I couldn’t cope with the uncertainty. I called Mum in a panic and she drove to Swansea from Bath, and my friend let her stay in her room downstairs. Knowing she was there helped.”
The young student said her support network in Swansea during her period of illness was “amazing”.
“I chose to stay in Swansea rather than heading home for treatment because that’s where I was diagnosed and met the team who would support me,” she said.
“My boyfriend and friends became like a little family – they took me appointments and picked me up. They probably know more about what’s happened to me than I did.
“It definitely wasn’t the university experience I was expecting! But I’ve managed to keep up with my studies and when I graduate hope to do a Masters, and then become a child psychologist.
“Anna has been like an extra layer of support through all of this. She’s also been running online social events through the pandemic, and I get a pack every month telling me what’s coming up. There’s no pressure to do anything and it was nice knowing I can dip in and out and join in when I want to. Just knowing it was there helped and I am going to join more events now that I am back at university.
“That support at the time I was ill in particular was so important because face-to-face interactions are medical, so it was nice having some online social support. It means that you don’t feel as isolated and shut away. It also helped me to know that I’m not the only person my age who went through something like that. I was put in touch with a young man who had the same treatment as me a month before so I could ask questions like: ‘how did that feel? and: ‘was that scary?’ It was great to have advice from someone who had just been through it. There should be someone like Anna for everyone.”
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At Easter of last year, Miss Phillips had a face-to-face appointment where she received news she had long been hoping for.
“They showed me the screen and told me there was no evidence of cancer left,” she said.
“Although it was an immediate relief to hear that – and easier to believe with the photos and a written ‘no evidence of cancer’ note, it definitely took a few days to fully sink in.
“My favorite part of this whole journey was getting to tell all the people that I love that I was clear and healthy, and seeing their reactions a year on from my diagnosis was amazing after having to see their initial shock and worry.
“I count myself very lucky because I think I have the most incredible boyfriend, friends and family that scooped me up and looked after me through every step of my treatment– even in the weird situation where the world was in lockdown.”
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