Celebrating his first wedding anniversary with a long weekend by the beach in Cyprus wasn’t the romantic break Russ Lees, 39, had planned, after a seizure saw him admitted to hospital.
Worryingly, doctors dismissed his symptoms as too much alcohol and sun. “He was dismissed as a typical British tourist and they didn’t take his symptoms seriously at all,” says his wife Kelly, 38, a PA.
“I was so upset and frustrated – I knew something had happened to him.
“For 20 minutes Russ had been on the floor in our villa having a seizure. I knew it wasn’t just booze but they did a blood test and sent us home.”
Back at the villa about five hours later, Russ had what the couple now know was a stroke. “He stood up and looked at me saying ‘It’s happening…’ but before he could finish his sentence, he keeled over.”
Kelly called the ambulance again and this time the hospital performed a CT scan, which revealed a mass on his brain. The plant engineer was transferred to New General Hospital in Nicosia.
“I burst into tears and felt so frightened, especially as we were away from home in another country where I didn’t speak the language and didn’t understand the health care system,” says Kelly.
“It was also difficult to find out what was going on due to limited visiting hours due to Covid rules and the doctors didn’t make their rounds until after I left,” says Kelly. “I was terrified and worried about the impact on the kids at home.”
The couple went out on the weekend break in September.
“My mum had suggested that Russ and I went out to our villa for a long weekend when lockdown lifted as we hadn’t any time to ourselves since we got married in May 2019,” says Kelly, 38, from Farnham, Surrey.
“If only we’d known.”
Two days after his seizure, Russ’s biopsy results revealed his tumour to be a low-grade (non-cancerous) oligodendroglioma.
The diagnosis meant the couple’s planned four-day trip turned into a six-week stay on the Mediterranean island and a painful separation from their children Casey, six, and Chloe, two, and Russ’s daughter Bethan, 15.
The devoted dad was frightened he wouldn’t make it through surgery.
“He said to me. ‘What if I never see my kids again?’’,’ says Kelly.
Russ had surgery on October 8. “I was told it would take three to five hours but he was in theatre for over 11,” says Kelly.
“I was frantic with worry and it seemed like an eternity.”
Surgeons had removed the whole tumour which was 5.1cm x 9cm deep and had developed close to his spinal cord, which was why the operation took so long.
After a period of recovery, Russ was signed off as fit to travel and they returned home on November 9 to an emotional reunion with Casey and Chloe, who had been looked after by their grandparents.
But their joy was short lived when Russ’s biopsy was re-tested and his tumour re-graded as grade 3 cancer, requiring 33 daily sessions of radiotherapy and then months of chemotherapy.
“We were in shock and didn’t hear anything after the word ‘cancer’,” says Kelly. “It was such a shock for him and it affects the whole family.”
The couple are sharing their story to help The Brain Tumour Charity raise awareness and highlight the importance of its support services to help with the impact on emotional and mental health.
“When we reached out to the charity’s support team, we didn’t feel so alone anymore,” Kelly adds.
Eve Kelleher, The Brain Tumour Charity’s head of services, said: “Our hearts go out to Kelly and Russ.
“Being diagnosed with a brain tumour can be an extremely traumatic experience and it must have been so difficult to go through this ordeal while away from home.
“We are very grateful to them for sharing their story to help us raise awareness about brain tumours – the biggest cancer killer of children and adults under 40 in the UK.
“Like so many of our supporters, they are experiencing that a brain tumour diagnosis has a huge impact on the whole family and I am so glad that they have been helped by our support team.
“Being diagnosed with a brain tumour can make someone feel very alone, especially during the pandemic and lockdown.
“Since March 2020, we have seen a 40% increase overall in people seeking our support and nearly 50% more people have joined our online communities for support.
“Anyone affected by a brain tumour can call our free support and information line.We are here to listen, support and help with the latest information.”
Despite everything, the couple are determined to count their blessings.
“Going through this has brought us closer,” says Kelly.
Russ adds: “It was one of the scariest times in my life, and it makes you think about how easily everything can change – and not to take things for granted.”