In autumn 2010, Agnes and her best friend were looking forward to a horseback safari in South Africa. While at the GP's surgery getting her holiday vaccinations, she mentioned a lump she had found on her neck. She says: “I wasn't worried about it, I just felt tired and thought I’d probably been burning the candle at both ends. The doctor said to leave it, and see if it went away.
[Related feature: 5 health symptoms women should never ignore]“But by the new year it was still there and getting bigger. If I turned my head, you could see this bulge. I used to call it my golf ball.
“Eventually I was referred to an ENT specialist, and on the 19th of May 2011 I had a fine needle aspiration. They told me there was more than one lump. My neck was full of them.”
The next morning, after a night out with her boyfriend, Jack*, Agnes woke feeling anxious. She explains: “I had a bad feeling about the results, so I asked him to come with me to the hospital. He said ‘Don’t be ridiculous, we’re both just a bit hungover. They told you it was nothing to worry about.’
The bombshell hits
“In hospital, I was told the consultant wanted to see me. At this point, I started to sweat a little bit. He sat me down and very calmly said: ‘It’s thyroid cancer. And it has spread from your thyroid to the lymph nodes in your neck'.
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“I didn’t even know you could get cancer there. I had thought I was invincible.
“I tried to focus but I could barely get the words out. I was squeaking, and then I just burst into tears. I felt embarrassed that I was crying in front of a room full of strangers, and didn’t want to cause anyone any trouble.
“The doctors were hurrying around me, booking appointments and surgery dates, handing me a load of Macmillan stuff.”
Breaking the news
“Having to tell people and deal with their reactions was the hardest thing. I heard myself saying to them ‘Everything is fine, I am trying to be fine.’
“My boyfriend couldn't believe it. He just sat there, while I cried on his shoulder. His way of dealing with things was not to acknowledge it. As a marine, just about to go back to Afghanistan, he had his own fears. He didn’t have room for mine as well.“The next four weeks were a blur. I needed to get my life organised because when I came out of surgery I knew I wouldn't be strong enough to do anything.
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“The day my boyfriend went to Afghanistan, I was hysterical. He had told me about things that he'd seen and friends he had lost.
“I moved out of my flat and into his parents' house. His mother was amazing. There’s a lot I couldn’t have done without her.
The day everything changed
“I wasn't frightened about having an anaesthetic, but I was about not waking up again. Of dying on the operating table. What if they found something worse?
“The day I went into theatre, I had made up a box of stuff to send to my boyfriend: a letter, some sweets and some photographs. I remember my main concern was making sure it got to him.
“I said goodbye to my dad and was taken through the double doors.
“The anaesthetist told me I was remarkably calm, but then she put heart electrode pads on my chest and said, ‘Er, perhaps not!’
I had a complete thyroidectomy and neck dissection in which, as well as removing my entire thyroid, they removed the infected lymph nodes, including my ‘golf ball’ lump.
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“When I came round I felt so sick, but I couldn’t even lift my head up off the bed to throw up. To add insult to injury, I was really desperate for the loo and the nurses tried to make me use a bed pan. Completely off my face on morphine, I said: ‘I may have just had an operation, but I’m not going to wet the bed!’
“I got pushed out to the ward and the first person I saw was my dad. I burst into tears. I had thought I was never going to see him again.
“I hadn’t yet figured out what had been done to my neck, but I could see he was shocked.
“My best friend arrived and I said ‘I look awful, don’t I?’ Then I saw myself in the mirror.
“I had huge big metal staples running from under my right ear down across my neck. It was like something out of a horror film.
“I soon realised I had problems moving my right arm. There was nerve damage where they'd gone quite deep. I honestly thought I might never be able to move it again.
“A physio gave me some exercises to do, so even though I felt bloody awful I forced myself to do them. No one had ever told me this could happen.
“Then I started to get a tingling sensation in my hands and feet. But because I was pumped full of anaesthetic and painkillers, I wasn’t sure what was normal and what was drug related.
“The feeling took hold. It crept up both arms and legs. I looked down at my hands, and my fingers were cramping and turning into claws, and all my joints were locking.
“I couldn’t do anything. I was a dribbling mess. The doctors came running over. I remember looking down at my body thinking, firstly, how the hell am I going to ride a horse again, and secondly, who is going to love me if I get stuck like this?
“They managed to unravel me, and gave me intravenous calcium. It was a problem with my parathyroids - the glands around the thyroid, which control the calcium in your body - and because of the trauma to that area, they had seemingly been damaged in some way.
“I wrote to my boyfriend every day while I was in hospital. I thought that when he came back everything would be OK.”
To destroy any cancerous thyroid tissue not removed by surgery, Agnes had to have radioactive iodine therapy. Something she will keep having until the cancer has definitely gone.
She says: “I was taken into a lead room and a physicist came in with a radioactive iodine pill. I had to pick it up with a special instrument and then swallow it.
“After that I had to stay over a metre away from other people. But it's about this time that you really want a cuddle, and for someone to tell you it's OK.”
“When my boyfriend returned, the radiation had diminished to a point that I was safe to be close to people again. But he could barely sleep in the same bed as me. He was so cold. There was no sympathy. I think he had just shut it off. It was complete denial.
“All I wanted was for him to hug me, but he ignored it all. I knew then that it was over. I felt like he had stabbed me in the back at the point I was at my most most physically and emotionally fragile.
“I am still waiting for the 'I’m sorry', but I don’t think it will ever come.
“Thanks to the physio and doing Alexander Technique, my body almost feels normal.
“I still think, 'Why? Why did this happen to me?' I don’t understand. Sometimes I look in the mirror and feel revolting. When I turn my head the scar feels so tight it feels like I’ve got a noose round my neck.
“The surgeon did a great job, but as a girl, it’s hard. I think men who once may have fancied me now look at me in pity.
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“I have had tremendous support from friends, but sometimes you just feel so alone and you worry about being a burden.
“Cancer changes everything, how you view the world, how you see yourself. Maybe in some ways it is a good thing. You go through life constantly pushing for something. Then you start wondering what the end goal is to all of this? Now is the time to do something for me.
“I don’t want to die feeling I wish I had done X, Y and Z. I have a new respect for life. I am not going to waste the time I’ve got left.
The trek for Help for Heroes
“I chose to do the trek for Help for Heroes because for the last couple of years I’ve been a civilian support rider for the Household Cavalry, so on that level I have a connection. I’ve also got several good friends in the military.
“I’ll never forget the moment I thought I'd lost the full use of my body. It made me think about the servicemen and women who don't get their bodies back after being wounded serving our country.”
“Doing this trek is my way of coming out the other side, I am trying to be empowered by my cancer experience. It gives me a physical goal to work towards and raises money for people less fortunate than myself.”
Have you or your family been affected by cancer? Do you relate to her story? You can sponsor Agnes' horse trek through Mongolia in aid of Help for Heroes at her charity page.
*names have been changed.