A super-fit triathlete says having the coronavirus saved her life when a sore throat she would normally have ignored lingered for weeks and prompted her to see a doctor, as she thought she had Long Covid, only for it to be cancer.
Sales development officer Jemma Falloon, 41, suspected she had Long Covid – defined by the NHS as symptoms that develop during or following the virus “that continue for more than 12 weeks and are not explained by an alternative diagnosis” – when she felt ill weeks after having the coronavirus.
But when Jemma, of Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, who had Covid in October 2020, saw her GP the following month, saying she had a sore throat, back pain and had found blood in her urine, she was sent for tests – resulting in a diagnosis of thyroid and kidney cancer in December 2020.
Jemma, who lives with her train service controller husband, Mark, 43, their children, Louis, 17, Magnus, four, and Bronwen, three, said: “It’s a really strange thing to say, but Covid saved my life.
“Had I been working and not been off, I would have just carried on as normal.
“I lost a colleague to Covid and a good friend is very poorly with it. It’s hard when you see the impact on those people, but it also has meant my two cancers were found when, otherwise, they possibly wouldn’t have been.”
She added: “I’ve been quite lucky.”
Jemma, who has now had three rounds of surgery to remove her cancerous tumours, succumbed to Covid-19 while she was training for a triathlon in October 2020 and says she was “knocked sideways” despite priding herself on her fitness.
She said: “I really struggled to get upstairs to go to the bathroom and even struggled to breathe.”
She continued: “It took me a while to recover – not just the 10 days I spent in isolation.”
A month later, she was still suffering with a sore throat and had noticed a lump in her neck, so decided to see a doctor.
“I was still not feeling great, but I thought maybe it was Long Covid,” she confessed.
Phoning her GP, Jemma was asked to come in for blood tests and an examination and was swiftly referred for an ultrasound at Ellesmere Port Hospital four days later.
Just 48 hours after that, her doctor called to tell her a “suspicious nodule” had been found on her thyroid, a small gland at the base of the neck that produces hormones.
Jemma said: “Within a week I spoke to a consultant and went in for a fine needle biopsy, where they put a big needle into your throat and take a little bit of the tumour away for tests.”
She was also concerned by her backache and the blood she had passed in her urine.
She said: “I travel a lot by car for work, so I do get water infections when I can’t get to the loo when I need to, as it puts pressure on the bladder. Driving can also give me back pain.
“But I wasn’t working, so neither of these things applied.”
Suggesting she could have kidney stones, which can also be linked to the thyroid, her GP sent her for a further ultrasound on her right kidney – only for a mass to be detected on the organ.
Following an MRI and CT scan, Jemma was called into the hospital on New Year’s Eve, 2020.
“They told me it was suspected cancer and that they’d need to operate as soon as possible,” she said.
She continued: “When I was first diagnosed, I was on autopilot. All I was focused on was the operations.”
Transferred to Merseyside’s Arrowe Park Hospital in Birkenhead, Jemma’s partial kidney removal – a procedure known as a nephrectomy – was scheduled for mid-February 2021, but because of Covid, was delayed to March 8.
Meanwhile, her ear, nose and throat specialist was keen to operate on her thyroid but, with her kidney being a major organ, medics agreed to prioritise this procedure first.
Jemma, who had to isolate for ten days prior to and ten days after her surgery, said: “Having my kidney out was tough.
“It was performed by a robot, so I’ve got six scars in my abdomen rather than one big scar.
“Getting up hurt and walking hurt and I struggled to go to the toilet, so I had to come home with a catheter in.”
She added: “Mentally that was quite tough. I expected recovery to be easier than it was.”
Once she was back on her feet, she went under the knife again – this time for surgery on her thyroid, as neither form of cancer was treatable in her case with chemotherapy or radiotherapy.
She said: “I’m quite a positive person and I went straight into the next operation as soon as I felt better.”
On May 21, at the Countess of Chester Hospital, in Chester, Cheshire, surgeons removed half her thyroid, finding papillary thyroid cancer – the most common type – on the right side of the organ.
“The protocol is that they then remove the full thyroid,” Jemma said.
Her second operation was performed four weeks later on June 24, at the same hospital, followed by checks on her lymph nodes.
Now awaiting further scans on her thyroid and kidneys, which she will have every three, six and 12 months for the next 10 years, to monitor for regrowth, she also takes daily thyroid medication to replace the thyroxine hormone the organ made.
“Medics will perform regular blood tests, too, which would show any regrowth or thyroid hormones occurring naturally – which I shouldn’t have, as I now don’t have the organ,” Jemma explained.
“My kidney wasn’t great news when they did the biopsy, as a little bit has been possibly left in – but I was told it is a slow-growing cancer.”
She continued: “I’m still really tired, as I’m trying to manage the thyroid tablets and I still have a lot of back pain.
“All things considered, though, I’m in great shape, but I’m not at the ‘no evidence of disease’ stage yet.”
Another concern for Jemma is a nodule which has been spotted on her right lung.
She said: “They’re not sure if it’s Covid or something else, so I have full-body scans to keep an eye on the size. If it doesn’t grow at all for five years, then it’s classed as non-cancerous.”
She is also looking into genetic testing, to find out whether she is biologically prone to any other forms of the disease – and to determine whether doctors need to keep a close eye on her children.
“We were very honest with Louis, my oldest,” she said. “I didn’t want him to hear it from anyone else first, so if I had any scans or results, I told him and my husband first.”
Jemma added: “The little ones just knew Mum was poorly and they couldn’t cuddle me too much or jump on me!”
Jemma is now readjusting to normal life – and getting back to her usual active lifestyle – taking part in the Macmillan Mighty Hike last month, walking 13 miles across the Lake District with her husband and a close friend, to thank the Macmillan nurses who supported her throughout her treatment.
“That was horrendous,” she laughed. “It was really tough, but mentally did me the world of good just being able to show myself that I could still get out there and do things.”
She added: “The nurses were amazing, and I can’t thank them enough.”
And she hosted a Macmillan coffee morning on Saturday, September 25 to support the cancer charity, which is encouraging people to get together with friends and family to raise funds during the month.
She said: “We’ve also been trying to have some fun as a family.”
Jemma continued: “We went to London in August and took in the sights – the London Eye, Tower of London and the Natural History Museum – just trying to give our children lots of fun experiences.”
Now Jemma’s message to anyone with similar mysterious symptoms is crystal clear.
She said: “In the last month or so, I’ve just been coming to terms with having two primary cancers.”
She continued: “If you have a sore throat, sometimes you just ignore it and hope it goes away, but it’s better to get it checked out than leave it.
“The sooner they find these things the sooner they can deal with them.”
Sarah Page, from Macmillan also stresses the need to have any troublesome symptoms checked by a doctor.
She said: “Jemma’s story shows how important it is to get checked out if you feel like something’s wrong. Going to see the doctor really has helped to save her life.
“It has been a difficult 18 months and we’ve lost time in cancer care. At Macmillan we’ve lost over a year of vital fundraising. We’re sadly down by millions, which is money desperately needed.
“Coronavirus will leave a lasting legacy for cancer care. If we are going to be there for everyone with cancer from day one, we need your support.”
To sign up to host a coffee morning, visit, https://coffee.macmillan.org.uk/