WHEN an otherwise healthy young woman came down with a nasty cough she brushed it off thinking it was just a bug.
Fearing it might be Covid she took multiple tests but when she spotted her neck was swollen she knew it was time to contact her GP.
Alix Burnard, 29, a sales manager from Berkshire, developed a cough in March 2021.
Initially, Alix was convinced she had picked up Covid.
But after several negative test results she assumed she must have a virus and thought nothing more of it.
However, soon after her symptoms began to get worse; she developed a swollen neck and was in serious pain.
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“I thought maybe I had slept funny and started looking at chiropractors, but it became so swollen on one side that it was quite obvious that something more serious was wrong,” the sales assistant told The Sun.
Alix also noticed her lymph nodes had started swelling around her chest and shoulders and that her collar bone could no longer be seen.
Concerned for her health, Alix contacted her GP, who at first recommended she take some cough syrup.
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Alix fell in during the midst of the Covid pandemic when GPs were not seeing patients, including Alix face-to-face.
By May, Alix was struggling to breathe. “I couldn’t talk without running out of air,” she explained.
“I was coughing up phlegm constantly, and couldn’t leave the house without a cup to cough up into.”
Alix said she experienced night sweats and lost a significant amount of weight.
“I was really struggling,” she said. “I would often cough so much that I would be sick.”
At this point she called the doctors again, who after examining her sent her straight to A&E.
Doctors initially feared Alix may be suffering from tuberculosis – a bacterial infection which mainly affects the lungs – but after testing ruled this out she was sent for a CT scan.
She said: “As soon as I’d had the CT scan, doctors started talking to me in a different manner, and it was then it was suggested that this was something more ‘sinister’.
“I spent a week living on the cancer ward, where I had a biopsy and a PET scan and was on several IV bags of antibiotics as I was suffering with pneumonia. It was during this time I was told that I had cancer.
“They weren’t sure of the primary location of my cancer, and were suggesting that it was likely lymphoma initially.
Lymphoma is a cancer that affects the lymphatic system, which is part of the body’s germ-fighting network. Tough lymphoma is a serious disease, good treatment options are available.
“I couldn’t believe what was happening to me – I wasn’t expecting any of this at all. I thought I had a chest infection, and I would get better. I was always really healthy, I’ve never smoked, rarely drink, exercise, and I eat plant based food.
“There was nothing in my lifestyle that would make me think cancer was even a possibility.
Alix spent her time in hospital alone because of visiting restrictions during Covid.
“I went through some of the hardest, most upsetting days of my life without a single familiar face, and I found it really hard”, she explained.
A biopsy later confirmed that Alix was suffering from a type of lung cancer known as adenocarcinoma which had spread to her liver, lymph nodes, shoulder, spine and pelvis.
Lung cancer: Need to know
A lingering cough, tiredness and losing your appetite could be a virus or common cold, it could also be a sign of lung cancer.
Other symptoms of lung cancer include:
- Having a cough most of the time
- A change in a cough you have had for a long time
- Being short of breath
- Coughing up phlegm which has signs of blood
- Aches or pains in the chest or shoulder
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
She said: “I didn’t really understand what this meant, and it took another doctor to explain to me that my cancer was incurable.
“I was heartbroken at the news. I remember telling a friend and saying to her that I’m likely to die of this disease one day.”
She was sent home for two weeks, growing weaker from pneumonia as a result of the cancer in her lungs.
“In those two weeks things got really, really bad – I was sleeping all the time and I was so weak I couldn’t really stand. My boyfriend had to carry me up and down the stairs because it was too difficult for me to do,” she said
“I had to move my bedroom down a floor so that it was easier day-to-day. I would be coughing all day and all night so I was only sleeping in short bursts.”
She started a targeted oral therapy and has had stints in the ICU relying on a ventilator to breathe.
Alix struggled to comprehend her new life, but did her best to enjoy what time she had, not even being able to plan more than a few weeks in advance.
She said: “My diagnosis came as such a shock, stage four lung cancer at 28. I was too unwell to process it at first, it took a while for me to recover from the pneumonia and for the oral chemotherapy to start to work.
“Eventually over time, I learned to understand that I am, and would be, living with incurable cancer. I would be too unwell to look after my dog, I couldn’t walk myself, let alone a strong bulldog.
“I would have to take time away from my job. I cut my hair in case I lost it due to treatment. I was still underweight. I looked different, I felt different – I felt like I had lost my whole identity to this diagnosis”.
Alix’s doctors also discovered that she had several blood clots, including one in Alix’s brain, because of this she will remain on blood thinning medication for the rest of her life.
The 29-year old was put on a series of treatments, including chemotherapy, to try and slow down the growth and spread of cancer in her body.
She said: “In June 2022, I started crizotinib. I had a biopsy which found a MET mutation in my cells, which meant that this was the next treatment line to try before IV chemotherapy – which may or may not work for me.
“I can only hope that this gives me much more time than my previous two treatment lines. All I want is to stabilise my cancer and live my life as well as I possibly can.
“I have regular PET scans to check for cancer activity, so it feels like I have to live my life in very small segments – waiting to find out if I am OK to continue my treatment and trying not to expect bad news.”
Alix remains optimistic in spite of her incurable diagnosis, but advises others to never ignore a cough.
She said: “I’ve learned that in this situation, as another lung cancer patient put it, it’s not how long you live, it’s how well you live, and it’s so important to make the most of the life you have – even if it’s limited.
“I just want to spend time with those I love most, I want to travel, I want to be in nature, and I want to be as well as I can be.
“I think it’s clear anyone with lungs can get lung cancer, and if you have a persistent cough, please don’t ignore it. Speak with your GP and get it checked, it could save your life.”
It comes as the NHS launches a major awareness campaign to boost early lung cancer diagnoses.
The Help Us Help You campaign targets those most at risk, including over-60s and people from working-class backgrounds who are often more reluctant to visit their GP.
Professor Peter Johnson, national clinical director for cancer, said: “For lung cancer, we have not seen referrals bounce back at the same rate as other cancers.
“It is vital that people stay alert against suspected lung cancer symptoms, so if you have a continuous cough or breathlessness, don’t ignore or assume it’s something else.
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“Please visit your GP and get it checked out – it probably won’t be cancer but catching it early can help save lives.”
Health Secretary Steve Barclay said: “We know that the earlier you catch cancer, the better the chances of survival.