A woman believes having coronavirus could have saved her life after a visit to the doctor for a sore throat she thought was caused by long COVID was actually diagnosed as cancer.
Jemma Falloon, 41, from Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, suspected she had Long COVID, when she started feeling unwell weeks after having the coronavirus in October 2020.
But as her sore throat continued for more than a month after having the virus, she decided to visit her GP.
The sales development officer said she would usually have ignored the symptom but went to the doctor in November 2020 with a sore throat, back pain and blood in her urine.
“It’s a really strange thing to say, but COVID saved my life," she says.
“Had I been working and not been off, I would have just carried on as normal."
Having lost a colleague to COVID and knowing that one of her good friends is very poorly with the virus, Falloon, who lives with her husband, Mark, 43, their children, Louis, 17, Magnus, four, and Bronwen, three, says she feels very lucky.
"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.”
Falloon originally contracted COVID while she was training for a triathlon in October 2020 and says she was “knocked sideways” by the infection despite priding herself on her fitness.
“I really struggled to get upstairs to go to the bathroom and even struggled to breathe,” she explains.
“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.
A month later, the mum of three 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 says.
Having telephoned her GP, Falloon was asked to come in for blood tests and an examination and was quickly 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.
“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.
"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," she explains.
"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, Falloon 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 says.
Transferred to Merseyside’s Arrowe Park Hospital in Birkenhead, Falloon’s partial kidney removal – a procedure known as a nephrectomy – was scheduled for mid-February 2021, but because of the pandemic, 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.
“Having my kidney out was tough," she says. “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.
“Mentally that was quite tough. I expected recovery to be easier than it was.”
Watch: Sophia Vergara opens up about being diagnosed with thyroid cancer aged 28.
Once she was back on her feet, she went under the knife again – this time for surgery on her thyroid, as neither form of her particular type of cancer was treatable with chemotherapy or radiotherapy.
“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,” Falloon explains.
The further 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 ten years, to monitor for regrowth, she also takes daily thyroid medication to replace the thyroxine hormone the organ made.
“Doctors 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,” she explains.
“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.”
“All things considered, though, I’m in great shape, but I’m not at the ‘no evidence of disease’ stage yet.”
Another concern is a nodule which has been spotted on her right lung.
“They’re not sure if it’s COVID or something else, so I'm having 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 cancer – and to determine whether doctors need to keep a close eye on her children.
Falloon is now readjusting to normal life – and getting back to her usual active lifestyle – taking part in the Macmillan Mighty Hike last month, which involved walking 13 miles across the Lake District with her husband and a close friend..
She saw the hike as a way of thanking the Macmillan nurses who supported her throughout her treatment.
“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 explains.
“The nurses were amazing, and I can’t thank them enough.”
Falloon has also hosted a Macmillan coffee morning to support the cancer charity, which is encouraging people to get together with friends and family to raise funds during the month.
Her message to anyone with similar mysterious symptoms is very clear.
"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," she says.
"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.
"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," she says.
To sign up to host a coffee morning, visit, https://coffee.macmillan.org.uk/
Additional reporting PA Real Life.