A mum has revealed how an eye test uncovered a hidden tumour the size of a lemon in her son’s brain.
Karen Williams 58, from Romford, Essex, initially thought her 24-year-old son Mark’s headaches and neck and ear pain were caused by stress, but a check-up at the opticians proved otherwise.
Having been told by doctors at A&E his blurred vision, headaches, and tinnitus were likely caused by vertigo, Karen accompanied her son for an eye check at Specsavers.
Opticians noticed a shadow on the back of Mark’s eye – leading him to have emergency surgery that he and his mum believe “saved his life”.
In early 2020, Mark first began experiencing headaches and pain in his neck and ears, but Karen initially put his symptoms down to general stress.
“I always had a reason for it," she explains. "I put it down to something like stress or not drinking enough water or needing a better pillow, or his ears syringed – the list went on and on.”
By June, Mark’s symptoms had worsened, his vision had begun to blur and he was suffering ringing in his ears.
“Mark was telling me he had headaches and was vomiting, had ringing in his ears and blurred vision," Karen says.
“I phoned 111 and was told to go straight to A&E.”
Having been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as a four-year-old, Mark often struggles to communicate with people other than his mum, so Karen was concerned he might struggle while in hospital.
“Mark finds it hard to interact with people," she explains. "He has a very literal understanding of language and thinks people always mean exactly what they say.”
But due to COVID-19 restrictions and as Mark is an adult, he attended A&E at Queen’s Hospital in Romford without Karen and came home with a diagnosis of suspected vertigo.
His headaches persisted and just days later, when Karen took him for a pre-booked eye test on 26 June, alarm bells started to ring for the optician.
“Again, I had to wait in the car because of COVID,” she says.
“Mark phoned to tell me we had to go back to A&E – the optician had phoned the hospital to explain what she saw and had given him papers to take in.”
At hospital, Mark spent 10 hours having blood tests, MRIs and CT scans before being admitted.
This time Karen had been allowed to accompany her son and was with him when a doctor revealed the test results and diagnosis.
“Unbeknownst to anyone, he had a slow-growing tumour,” Karen explains.
“The doctor told me the optician had saved Mark’s life."
Mark was diagnosed with a slow-growing central neurocytoma – an extremely rare form of non-cancerous brain tumour.
Karen says the tumour had grown so big it was causing pressure, swelling and trapped fluid in Mark's brain, and affecting his senses and nervous system.
Mark was kept in hospital as medics urgently needed to drain the fluid which was collecting on the brain due to the growth.
Once the fluid was drained, his symptoms receded – as the life-threatening pressure on his brain had been removed.
Mark's operation, which took place on 3 July, involved surgeons removing the majority of the tumour from inside his brain – in a 10-hour long process.
“The tumour was about the size of a lemon and the part they left was so linked to his nervous system it was too dangerous to take it away," Karen explains.
“It would have caused a lot of damage if they had removed the whole thing.
“It had grown so much it stopped everything working and caused tinnitus, blurry vision, dizzy spells and affected his balance."
Watch: Tom Parker's Stage four brain tumour has 'significantly reduced' following treatment.
Despite the surgery going well, Mark’s road to recovery was far from over.
His mum feared that he would struggle due to finding communication difficult, and during the eight weeks Mark spent in hospital, as Karen had feared, he was unable to speak to anyone.
“On the sixth week, I got a phone call from the speech therapist saying Mark hadn’t spoken to anyone all the time he was there,” Karen says.
But with his mum's help in explaining to the medical team how Mark felt, for the remaining two weeks of his hospital stay, he soon began to improve.
During his hospital stay, Mark was also diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a neurological disorder that affects communication and is a form of autistic spectrum disorder (ASD).
This has meant he and his mum now have a much better understanding of one another.
Finally discharged on 10 August, Mark was able to continue his recovery at home.
Though he will need regular scans to monitor his progress, Mark has been able to carry out a phased return to work at Asda, where his colleagues raised £250 for him via a collection.
Now the mother and son duo want to urge others to get their eyes tested.
“We were so lucky we had that appointment at the opticians,” Karen says.
“I cannot stress enough how important it is to have your eyes tested no matter how old you are.
“I will be eternally grateful to Specsavers for saving my son’s life.”
Sarah Lindsell, CEO of The Brain Tumour Charity, said: “Everyone who has been touched by a brain tumour diagnosis will know just how important it is to recognise symptoms as early as possible.
“Early diagnosis is crucial in treating this disease.”
Symptoms vary across age groups. For more information, visit headsmart.org.uk
Additional reporting PA Real Life.