Local Heroes – Emma Bassett

In 2004 a brain tumour left Emma Bassett completely deaf and partially paralysed. Now she raises awareness about brain tumour symptoms for the charity Headsmart.

mma Bassett was just twelve years old when she had a tumour the size of a satsuma removed from her brain. Now 21, Emma manages not just to lead a normal life – but also to fit voluntary work into her busy schedule.

However, if Emma’s tumour had been diagnosed sooner, the effects that it had on her might have been less severe. In fact, she spent many years experiencing symptoms, before the true cause of her illness was discovered. “I went through primary school exhibiting all the classic symptoms of a brain tumour, but we put most of them down to less serious childhood illnesses.”

When Emma started secondary school, her symptoms became more pronounced. “I would get a really bad headache, my eyes would become bloodshot, I would be sick, and then five minutes later I would be completely fine.” But she and her parents still attributed her problems to the stress of starting a new school and the side effects of going through puberty. “I’d also been experiencing balance problems but this was just put down to being clumsy! I continued with life as a normal twelve year old.”

Emma’s mother, however, was concerned that there might be something wrong with her eyesight, so she booked Emma in for a check up at an optician. Emma was diagnosed with a lazy eye, and referred to Kingston Eye Hospital for further investigation. Still unaware of anything serious being amiss, Emma continued to lead a normal life while she waited eight weeks for her hospital appointment. “I even went to Thorpe Park – and I was later told that the rollercoaster might have saved my life, by draining away the cerebrospinal fluid which was building up inside my head!”

When she finally got to the eye hospital, the tests did not give any conclusive results, so Emma was booked in for an MRI scan. “I went back to school, excited to tell my friends about what had happened at the hospital.” Two days later Emma went back for the scan. “My parents and I got the train to Kingston. My balance was so bad at this stage, that my dad thought I was going to fall onto the train tracks.” After the scan, Emma and her parents were told to go to St George’s Hospital, Tooting, with Emma clutching an envelope containing the test results that she hadn’t yet seen.

On arrival at St George’s, Emma was seen by a consultant, who told her that she had a large brain tumour, and also hydrocephalus (water on the brain), and that she needed to have an immediate operation. “I was told that I might die. I didn’t know what to do. I broke down in tears, but then I realised that I needed to be strong for my parents.”

In the end, Emma was given four operations – two to deal with the hydrocephalus, and two operations to remove the tumour, which had wrapped itself around her brain stem. “The operations to remove the tumour each lasted over twelve hours. The doctors painstakingly removed it bit by bit. The final operation removed the last bit of the tumour, but left me severely disabled. I woke up from the operation unable to talk, walk, eat or do anything for myself.”

After intense physiotherapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy Emma’s condition gradually improved, and she feels that her life is pretty ordinary. “I now consider myself to be a normal adult. I have left sided ataxia [lack of muscle co-ordination], slight paralysis and complete deafness, but it’s an acceptable price to pay for the chance to live my life.”

Emma is currently in her third year of a degree in primary teaching at St Mary’s University in Twickenham, and she has spent the last two summers in America working at a Girl Scout camp. “Going through the experience of the tumour has had a positive impact on my outlook on life: I don’t take things for granted, and I appreciate all the opportunities that I’m given. From the beginning I was determined that I was going to beat the tumour, and that nothing was going to stop me.”

Despite the challenges that Emma has faced, and her busy schedule today, she still finds time to work for HeadSmart – an organisation which raises awareness of brain tumour symptoms in children from birth to 18. “Many people shrug it off as something that will never apply to them,” says Emma, “but children and young people have the same chance of having a brain tumour as they do of having meningitis.”

“I’m passionate about raising awareness of the symptoms, so that other people don’t have to go through the things that I did. If my school or parents had received the HeadSmart symptom cards, then maybe I could have been diagnosed sooner and been saved countless operations.”

As a HeadSmart Community Champion, Emma works with schools and health organisations, encouraging them to display posters and symptom cards, and she has also visited the House of Commons to encourage MPs to support the campaign. “HeadSmart is a special campaign, because it’s supported by people who have personally been affected by brain tumours, and I’m on the front line, getting symptom cards into schools. Making people aware of the symptoms will bring us one step closer to reducing the diagnosis time of brain tumours, and therefore helping the 500 children a year who, sadly, are diagnosed.”

Brain Tumour Symptoms:
• Persistent or recurrent vomiting
• Persistent or recurrent headache
• Behaviour change, particularly lethargy
• Fits or seizures
• Abnormal balance, walking or co-ordination
• Abnormal eye movements
• Blurred or double vision
• Abnormal head position such as wry neck, head tilt or stiff neck
Brain tumours are relatively rare, and if your child has some of the symptoms above this does not necessarily mean that they have a brain tumour, but you should get them checked out by a doctor.