‘I’ve learned what’s important’: Lancashire woman who can't remember her wedding day due to rare cancer renews her vows
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“I just had this massive headache,” says Sarah, 56, from Bispham. “It got so bad that I couldn’t see, so I went to bed to try and get some sleep to see if that’d make me feel better. But then that was it: I fell unconscious and I don’t remember anything else for about three months.”
Unbeknownst to her at the time, Sarah had suffered a massive brain aneurysm, which is a bulge in a blood vessel caused by a weakness in the blood vessel wall. The aneurysm caused a leak from the artery, leading to bleeding on her brain - a condition known as a hemorrhagic stroke. She was rushed to surgery and put into an induced coma.
The long road to recovery
“The operation was a success for a Grade 4,” says Sarah, before casually mentioning that a Grade 5 stroke means death. “But the after effects were hidden and different from a stroke which results from a clot [an ischaemic stroke] - you don’t necessarily get things like not being able to walk and talk. My issues were more with short-term memory and balance.
“I just wasn’t the same and I knew it,” she adds. “Even though people said I looked well, I wasn’t right and I couldn’t even work - I’d been a practice nurse in Fleetwood and had just moved to another surgery where I was getting my teeth stuck into the new role, doing loads of courses and whatnot. I was excited for my career, then it ended. It was devastating.
“The transition from that to not working at all left me feeling totally depressed,” continues Sarah, a deep sense of melancholy in her voice. “I’ve never felt the same since. I almost feel worse because I’ve still got all my knowledge, but I just can’t physically go back to work. That’s been so hard to come to terms with, but it’s also what motivated me to volunteer.”
Having been forced to give up her dream job five years ago, Sarah instead turned to helping others going through what she herself went through. Aiding The Stroke Association, she would do her rounds on the stroke ward, speaking to and reassuring those in the first few weeks post-stroke whilst acting as an example of where they could get to themselves.
“I loved it,” Sarah says wistfully. “From the very start, volunteering helped me so much and I even got to go back to UCLan where I trained as a nurse. I was in a lecture hall and said ‘the last time I was here, I was like all of you, now I’m a stroke survivor’. I got into it all more and more, helping with online meetings during Covid.
“I volunteered right up until my recent diagnosis,” she continues. “Which was horrendous.”
‘I knew something was wrong...’
Five-and-a-half years after suffering that initial fateful subarachnoid haemorrhage which had robbed her of her profession, Sarah had only just started to find her feet again through volunteer work, helping others who were newly-disabled to move on with their lives. But, tragically, she received news that she would be unable to move on herself.
In February of this year, she was diagnosed with Glioblastoma, an aggressive type of cancer that can occur in the brain or spinal cord. Almost always lethal, the cancer is inoperable and incurable, with Sarah told by medical experts that she had 12 to 18 months left to live.
“It’s weird, because I knew there was something wrong,” says Sarah. “So many years after having a stroke you start thinking ‘oh, I should be getting better’, but I’d felt a change in my mood and my personality - I was quite aggressive leading up to my diagnosis - and it turns out that the issue was in my temporal lobe, which affects things like your personality.
“Because of Covid, I hadn’t gone for an MRI scan for two years, but I knew they were going to find something,” she adds. “And, when I found out what it was, I knew it was a death sentence. There’s no cure. I’ve had chemo and radiotherapy, which has shrunk it, but it’s going to come back. And they found a blood clot, so I could have another stroke, too.
“Something’s going to get me one way or another.”
Coping, new outlooks, and the bucket list
How do you even begin to cope with such a diagnosis, to start living what’s left of your life? “You know something?” Sarah says, a noticeable edge of determination in her voice. “I’ve dealt with it and, all of a sudden, I’ve found a purpose. I’ve become more spiritual and what’s happened is that I’ve taken a sigh of relief thinking ‘right, I’ve done all I need to do in this life’.
“That’s why I’m going at this age,” she adds. “I’ve had a hard life in many regards, but I think I’ve done all I need to do. I wanted to be a mum and I’ve got two beautiful children who now have children themselves and I’m at peace with it. I’ve not cried once. Whether I will when it comes to it, I don’t know. I think we’re all here in this life to learn things.”
Almost at peace with her fate, Sarah has refused to let her condition define her, focusing instead on making a bucket list of things she wants to do before her time comes, one of which was to renew her vows.
“The idea for the bucket list came from me watching too many movies, I think!” she says with a chuckle. “I wanted to tick things off and I really wanted to renew my vows because I don’t really remember much of our wedding because of the haemorrhage. There’s a lot missing from that day, so I wanted to make sure I remembered it all by doing it all over again.
“The charity Gift of a Wedding pays for you to get married if you’re terminally ill, so we applied,” explains Sarah, who tied the knot with Mark for a second time at Ferrari’s Country House Hotel & Restaurant last month with their French bulldog Nellie acting as a bridesmaid. “Mark’s been amazing since the moment I met him. He looks after me so well, he’s perfect.”
‘I’m at peace… I don’t feel unlucky’
A smile painted across her face and with Nellie in her lap, Sarah beams at me once more, radiating an unfathomably content energy of tranquillity with her fate. “This whole thing has made me feel at peace with myself,” she says finally. “I’ve learned what’s important and I can’t explain it any other way than saying that you rise above it all.
“I don’t feel unlucky, I feel lucky,” she adds, laughing gently at my expression of mild disbelief. “I feel lucky because I’ve been through trials and tribulations and I’ve won. Maybe this is the last test of my life, but I know the joke will never be on me because I never lost that positive outlook.”