A woman who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, bowel cancer and tested positive for Covid – all within a six month period – is hoping to raise awareness by speaking of her plight.
Kara Deighan, of Aberdeen, has been on what can only be described as a wild rollercoaster ride with her health throughout the pandemic.
From August to January this year, she was dealt one health blow after another, with little time to mentally process each illness between every diagnosis.
Kara, who underwent life-changing stoma surgery as a result of her bowel cancer diagnosis, is striving to remain positive and now wants to raise awareness in the hope of selflessly helping others.
‘My sight came back fully after a week, but that was a terrifying week’
Kara’s health problems first began in June last year when terrifyingly, she awoke to realise she had partially lost the sight in her right eye.
“After three days I couldn’t see a thing out of my eye,” she explained.
“Initially I just felt like my eye had gone a bit funny and it hurt when I moved it.
“Then I started feeling like there was a bit of a glare, almost like I’d looked at the sun and then looked away. I thought it was a bit weird.”
After being diagnosed with optic neuritis – swelling which causes damage to the optic nerve – Kara suspected she may in fact have multiple sclerosis (MS).
In 2011, she had been assessed by a neurologist after she raised concerns over a prickly feeling in her fingers. Following an MRI scan, she was diagnosed with transverse myelitis, a nerve condition which can lead to a person developing multiple sclerosis.
Fearing the worst after her 2011 spell of ill health, Kara contacted her doctor to express her concerns. She said: “I phoned my GP who referred me to a neurologist.
“But the wait to be seen by the NHS was three to four months, so I decided to go private.”
Two weeks after she lost her sight in one eye, Kara had a video appointment with a neurologist from Ross Hall Hospital in Glasgow. During that time she quickly and thankfully regained her vision.
“My sight came back fully after a week, but that was a terrifying week,” she said.
“I just didn’t know if my vision was going to come back. When it did the relief was unreal.
“At the video appointment the neurologist told me that after looking at my 2011 scan and reviewing my symptoms, it seemed that I did have multiple sclerosis.
“I went on to have another MRI scan in August and that confirmed that I definitely had MS.”
‘I felt like my life was over. I was devastated’
Understandably, Kara found the diagnosis hard to accept, she said: “When I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, it was my worst nightmare.
“I felt like my life was over. I was devastated. You can’t predict how MS will progress, so it’s a bit of an unknown.
“I was crying all the time – I was in a real state to be honest. I was always aware there was a chance, but I was just terrified of receiving the actual diagnosis.”
Triggered by stress, her condition worsened throughout August and she went on to suffer a symptom known as MS hug.
She explained: “It basically felt like someone had put a belt round me, like just where my bra would sit. It pulled so tight and I felt like I could hardly breathe. My torso was numb and my prickly fingers from 2011 returned.”
‘People say Covid is a hoax but it’s not at all’
Still reeling from her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis just one month later, Kara hadn’t had time to digest her new fate with the autoimmune condition when she was shocked to discover she’d contracted coronavirus.
“It was September when I just had a bit of a sore throat and cold symptoms, but after a few days they went away,” she said.
“I had none of the usual Covid symptoms. But then I started to notice I was ever so slightly breathless if I was speaking for a long time on work calls.”
Due to the pandemic Kara was living with her mum, Teresa, who had developed a continuous cough.
Erring on the side of caution, mother and daughter both booked in for Covid swabs at the testing centre in Dyce.
Having not suffered all of the typical Covid symptoms, Kara was shocked to receive a positive result.
She said: “When I tested positive I just thought ‘oh my God’. I couldn’t believe it.
“I’d followed the guidance. Both me and my mum had been so careful.
“Strangely my mum tested negative, which was so weird because she had the symptoms.”
Test and Protect advised Kara to self isolate away from her mum, so she returned to her own flat for 10 days.
“Isolating on my own was a mental battle for me,” she stressed.
“I had Covid, a new MS diagnosis and then asthma too.
“When I was isolating I came out in hives, which is apparently something that can happen with Covid, as it can cause an allergic reaction.
“Thankfully, antihistamines put the hives away, but then six days after my positive test I lost my sense of smell – that wasn’t an early sign of Covid for me.
“People say Covid is a hoax but it’s not at all.”
Isolating alone, struggling mentally and anxious about her health, Kara – on top of everything else – was also suffering with other symptoms which were not caused by multiple sclerosis.
“I didn’t realise it at that point, but I had bowel cancer,” she explained.
‘I was left with two choices; radiotherapy and chemotherapy… or a permanent stoma’
Initially Kara began suffering with a change of bowel habits at the start of last year – prior to her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis – and had been due to undergo a flexible sigmoidoscopy. This is where a camera is inserted into the rectum and the lower part of the colon.
However, the test was delayed because of the pandemic, and Kara hadn’t pushed for it as her symptoms gradually improved and she became caught up with worry over her multiple sclerosis symptoms.
But in August, just before she was diagnosed with Covid, her bowel habits changed for the worst again.
“I started noticing blood in my stools, not all the time, but sporadically,” she added.
“It wasn’t a lot but I knew I needed to chase up the sigmoidoscopy I was due to have earlier in the year.”
Kara underwent the flexible sigmoidoscopy at Aberdeen’s Albyn Hospital in December, three months after she had Covid and five months after she was diagnosed with MS.
Although she knew it was important to get her symptoms checked, she didn’t expect what was to come.
“After the procedure, Dr Lynn Stevenson came into my room and said she was concerned because she’d found some abnormal tissue in my bowel,” Kara said.
“I asked if it could be cancer and she couldn’t say for sure, but told me to keep an open mind.”
Dr Stevenson, a consultant and colorectal surgeon, urgently referred her for further testing at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary.
Speaking of how she felt at the time, knowing she was potentially facing yet another diagnosis, this time of cancer, she said: “I couldn’t believe it. I thought ‘how could this happen?’.
“It was just so much to take in on top of the MS diagnosis. I couldn’t get over it.”
‘The thought of not being able to have kids was actually more devastating to me than the cancer diagnosis’
In January this year, biopsies confirmed Kara had bowel cancer in her rectum and she was given the extremely difficult decision of having to choose between two very different treatment plans; radiotherapy and chemotherapy, or a permanent stoma.
Kara said: “I knew if I had radiotherapy I would go into early menopause… I hadn’t had the chance to have kids yet. I’ve always wanted children.
“The thought of not being able to have kids was actually more devastating to me than the cancer diagnosis.”
The oncologist at ARI gave her around two weeks to come to a decision before needing to press on with treatment. In order to strengthen her chances of having children in the future, Kara’s eggs were frozen during that time.
“In the end I decided to go for the surgery because of the fertility issue, but also there was a 95% chance of successfully removing the cancer if I went down that road,” she explained.
“Chemo and radiotherapy gave a 15-20% chance of success – even then I could have ended up with a permanent stoma anyway.”
The surgery successfully removed all of the cancer, as well as Kara’s rectum and anus, while a stoma was created in her abdomen.
With no cancerous lymph nodes, Kara will be monitored for five years.
‘I feel like I’ve coped pretty well… I’ve surprised myself’
Today, two months on from life-changing stoma surgery and nearly a year since her multiple sclerosis diagnosis, Kara is making a slow but successful recovery from her operation.
She said: “I’ve had major surgery and although I’m doing well, it’s slow. Mentally I feel like I haven’t even processed the stoma surgery – probably because so much has happened in a short time.
“I try to keep as positive as I can though and I have done throughout.
“When I knew all the cancer was gone I was obviously ecstatic, but I don’t want to get too excited.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever not be worried. But I feel like I’ve coped pretty well… I’ve surprised myself.
“That’s partly down to the care and support I’ve received.
“MS Together is an online support group and they have helped me through so much, even the cancer diagnosis. I don’t know how I would have managed without them.
“The staff on ward 206 who cared for me after my stoma surgery were absolutely amazing too – thank god for the NHS. I also can’t thank Dr Lynn Stevenson and (consultant colorectal surgeon) Ms Shaikh enough too, I’ve been so well cared for.
“And of course my mum, sister and friends have been supportive too.”
Looking to the future, despite life throwing her a curve ball which so many would struggle to bounce back from, Kara wants to live her life to the “max” and hopes to raise as much awareness of multiple sclerosis and bowel cancer as she can.
Kara said: “There’s a misconception that bowel cancer is an older person’s illness, but this diagnosis hit me at 35. It can effect you at any age and if anyone has concerns or symptoms they should get them checked.”
She added: “I just need to take each day as it comes and if speaking out helps even one person then that’s great.”