In January 2006, Laurel was suffering with a sore throat. After a couple of visits to the GP, she was sent for tests in hospital. These began in February and went on for a few months until she was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer in June.
Laurel says, “I went from having a sore throat and feeling unwell, with hot and cold spells, to being unable to even swallow my own saliva without gagging. I was losing weight fast and knew something was very wrong.”
Laurel says: “I had a lot of tests. The hardest part was when I was told I needed an endoscopy as I was frightened. The uncertainty of not having a diagnosis immediately was difficult. I wanted answers but for a long time nobody could give them.”
After the endoscopy, Laurel had a biopsy which showed she had a cancerous tumour blocking her oesophagus, which was why she couldn’t eat.
“I was in shock, but my consultant told me, ‘Miss Johnson, we are going to get you better,’ and I believed him.”
Surgery was deemed too dangerous – the cancer was aggressive – so Laurel had courses of chemotherapy and radiotherapy at the same time. The treatment really knocked her out, and she was in hospital for 12 days after her first session. The rest of the year was also tough – Laurel had to be fed through a tube because she couldn’t swallow, and she struggled to walk because the therapy and her extreme weight loss left her weak. “I had every possible side effect,” she recalls. “But I’m a strong woman.” Laurel stopped treatment in October and started slowly getting better.
At the time of her diagnosis her youngest child was just 13, and she says, “It was very hard for them. By far my biggest challenge was having to tell them I had cancer.”
Laurel had particular support throughout her treatment from her sister Alice. Alice is the oldest of seven siblings, while Laurel is the youngest. “Alice was one of the first people I told about my cancer. We sat and cried together, and then she said she’d take me to Jamaica when I was better. From that moment on, that was my motivation to get better. Alice was there for every single one of my appointments and sat with me in hospital day and night. When I was very ill, I’d wake up, see her there, and be able to drift off again.“
The following March, Laurel went into remission. “I came home walking on air. I had my sister and my daughter, my youngest child, there. It was totally amazing.”
By the summer, she was able to start eating soft foods again and by the end of the year, Laurel was feeling better. However, she says her full physical and mental recovery took almost three years. Although she has suffered permanent hearing loss due to treatment, Laurel says, “I never complain about it, because I’m alive. Since having cancer, I’ve gone back to college to train in British Sign Language and have gone back to work. I’m a different woman since I had cancer. I’m a million times more positive. I see the best in everything and I love life.
Laurel has raised awareness as a Media Volunteer for Cancer Research UK since 2016 and has appeared on ITV news, the Metro newspaper and in our Annual Review to name a few. Laurel said, “To all those people who are thinking of volunteering or giving, go ahead because it changes lives – not just for me individually - but for people everywhere.
“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for research and the medical care I got.”