Shropshire

How Shifnal raised thousands to save two of their own

Christel with her mask Image copyright Christel Callow
Image caption Christel Callow with the mask that was used during her proton beam therapy treatments

Tumours in the brain and skull are the ninth most common type of cancer. The chances of two people who live within minutes of each other being diagnosed with the disease are slim - even more unlikely is that their small town would raise money for both to pay for life-saving treatment.

Christel Callow had been having headaches for some time when she booked what she assumed would be a routine eye test in July. Within days, she had surgery to remove a brain tumour the size of a tennis ball called an anaplastic astrocytoma.

"It was a shock, when you realise it is cancer, you obviously think the worst," said the 26-year-old, who lives in Shifnal in Shropshire.

Although she had the majority of the mass removed, she was told she would need radiotherapy to treat what remained - a procedure that risked damaging parts of her brain affecting speech and movement.

Her family began to research alternatives and discovered proton beam therapy, which could target the cancer with less impact on the surrounding parts of her brain. But they were told it was not be available to Christel on the NHS because she was over the age of 24.

Instead, they were left looking at a £60,000 bill to have the treatment done privately.

Image copyright Christel Callow
Image caption Christel Callow was found to have a tumour about the size of a tennis ball

Meanwhile, Nick Haves was looking at the same price tag. The 46-year-old had been diagnosed with a meningioma and had been told he also he did not qualify for proton beam treatment on the NHS.

Nick, who lives in the village of Sherrifhales - three miles outside Shifnal - appealed against the decision but said he was also told "point blank" it was not available to him because of his age. His only option was to start fundraising, which he was "adamant" he didn't want.

"I had said I'll just take the conventional therapy," said the father-of-two, who had radiotherapy for acute lymphoblastic leukaemia 23 years ago.

"Just because of that feeling of going cap in hand to people and because I am quite a private person."

For Christel, fundraising was her only hope and they needed to raise the cash within a month.

"My dad said 'don't get your hopes up' because it was a lot of money to find," she said.

What is proton beam therapy?

Image copyright Getty Images
  • Proton beam therapy is a specialist form of radiotherapy which uses a high energy beam of protons rather than high-energy X-rays. It was first used in 1990
  • It targets certain cancers very precisely, increasing success rates and reducing side-effects and does less damage to surrounding healthy tissue
  • It is particularly appropriate for highly complex brain, head and neck cancers and sarcomas, and for certain cancers in children who are at risk of lasting damage to organs that are still growing
  • Cancer Research UK estimates only 1% of people with cancer are suitable for proton beam therapy. The Brains Trust says there isn't enough evidence to say it is more effective than conventional radiotherapy
  • Patients can get proton beam therapy on the NHS at The Christie in Manchester and for eye tumours at the Clatterbridge Cancer Centre in Merseyside. A second NHS centre is being built at University College London Hospitals
  • The NHS funds treatment in the USA and Germany for patients who qualify in line with strict criteria. It said the eligibility and suitability of patients is determined by a national panel of specialist doctors on a case-by-case basis but said it might not be the best treatment option for some patients
  • It added: "There is no age limit for proton beam therapy - eligibility is determined on a clinical basis and the type of rare tumours that patients have."

Christel's friends launched a fundraising page which within hours amassed £10,000 in donations. They organised a family fun day at Shifnal's War Memorial Club, a charity football match, raffles, and collection tins appeared in newsagents and pubs.

"It was like being instantly famous overnight," said Christel. "Everybody was saying hello and wishing us well, the shops in Shifnal were asking us for donation pots.

"It wasn't put on anybody, they chose to do it which was great - especially at that time because I couldn't think about what I was going to do tomorrow, let alone organise all of this."

Image copyright Nick Haves
Image caption Nick noticed symptoms when he started to get double vision and his left eye began to droop

Amid charity football matches, family fun days and donation boxes, the fundraising team hit the target in about three weeks.

"Everybody came together, everyone wanted to help, to do their bit. I was overwhelmed by it," said Christel's best friend Christie Farnell, who helped launch the drive.

"I didn't think the target would be reached. I thought if we get half, then we can keep on going, perhaps she can get a loan, and I was preparing her for that. It seemed so out of reach at the start."

By coincidence, Nick and his family attended one of their events.

"We got speaking to Christel's family, they said what they were doing and were almost insistent that we try as well," he said. "At that point my wife, who has been fantastic through this whole process, picked up the mantle."

Image copyright Christel Callow
Image caption Christel, pictured with her mother Judy and fiance Rich, said she tried to attend as many of the fundraising events as possible

Christel's friends diverted their attention to supporting Nick and again, fundraising events were organised across Shifnal, which has a population of 7,900. He was also supported by the nearby community in Newport, with fundraisers by the town's rugby club and his children's schools.

Incredibly, he too managed to reach his target in a matter of weeks. He said the way people had come together to help him "restores your faith in humanity".

"I was absolutely overwhelmed by it all," he said. "It is people you don't know, it is friends you haven't met or seen for 10 or 20 years sometimes.

"At a time when everything is doom and gloom, it is a little bit of light that can be seen in a funny situation."

Image copyright Nick Haves
Image caption Nick undergoing his treatment at the Rutherford Cancer Centre

Both Christel and Nick had treatment at the Rutherford Cancer Centre in South Wales, a private facility which sees patients with a range of cancers beyond those funded by the NHS if they are privately insured or self-funded.

Since its launch in Spring 2018, its three sites have treated 63 patients with proton beam therapy.

Christel started her six-week treatment at the end of September, returning home in early November. She has now started 12 months of chemotherapy, with an MRI scan scheduled for February to give an indication of how it has worked so far.

"Shifnal is a small place and it is just dead lovely to know everybody is genuine and kind," she said.

"I do think, if I didn't live here, what could have happened, what would have happened? I am lucky with where I live."

Image copyright Christel Callow
Image caption The people of Shifnal helped raised thousands for Nick and Christel to have specialist radiation treatment

Nick finished his treatment on 11 December. He also expects to have an MRI scan around February to assess how the therapy has affected his tumour. He said it won't be a cure, as it is inoperable, but will hopefully stop it from growing and causing further damage.

"I'm doing really well. It is nice [to be] coming home when I can have some quality time with the kids. [The help] has been absolutely amazing - as I said, it restores your faith in humanity, all you hear is bad news, everything is bad.

"It shows how amazing this place is, but I have always known that, being Shifnal born and bred."

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