Woman tells how tripping over a bramble on a dog walk led to devastating stage four cancer diagnosis

5th Nov 18 | Real Life

Rachel Watkins never dreamed the on and off hip pain she'd had for a year would be due to something so sinister.

PA Real Life-Rachel Watkins-Cancer

An animal lover has revealed how tripping over a bramble during a dog walk led to an earth-shattering diagnosis of stage four cancer.

Walking her four beloved dogs – Jack Russell, Maya, Springador, Ella and rescue Greyhounds, Bruce and Vinnie – near her home in Okehampton, Devon, Rachel Watkins, 40,  shattered her right hip, which had been painful on and off for a year, leaving her in complete agony.

Somehow dragging herself back to the car, she phoned for help and was raced to Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital, where a scan revealed that a tumour had been silently growing in her hip joint, weakening it over time.

Rachel at work before her diagnosis (PA Real Life/Collect)

Singleton Rachel recalled: “Doctors told me that my hip joint was so fragile it was like an egg shell, and the fall had shattered it.

“More tests revealed that the cancer had actually started in my left breast. When they told me, I just shut down with shock. I didn’t cry, I was almost calm – but not a nice calm.

“The doctors were amazing. Once they’d broken the news, they asked if there was anything I needed. I joked, ‘A stiff drink’ – but they actually bought me in a bottle of whisky the next day.”

Rachel (right) and Abi (left) (PA Real Life/Collect) 

In the lead up to her diagnosis, Rachel, who is currently unable to work, but was previously a McTimoney practitioner for animals – using her hands like a chiropractor to relieve problems with joints, muscles and bones – said there were few hints of what was to come.

She recalled feeling very tired and changing her deodorant, as she had an itchy armpit, as well as experiencing frequent aching in her right hip, particularly at night, which she assumed was bursitis – where the joints become tender and swollen – especially as it eased off after a month.

“In around 2016, I began running with my dogs, I remember being out one day and feeling a sudden sharp pain, again in the right hip,” she said. “But, because it got better with rest, I thought it was a simple sports injury.”

Rachel’s scan, showing where the tumour had eaten away at her hip bones (circled) (PA Real Life/Collect)

Things changed forever for Rachel, as she walked her dogs on March 9, 2017.

She continued: “I remember it so clearly. It was a stunning spring day, so I couldn’t resist taking the dogs out.

“Next thing I knew, I tripped over some brambles and landed on my right leg. The pain was like nothing I’d ever experienced. It was making me want to pass out. I knew something catastrophic had happened.”

Rachel (right) and Abi (left) (PA Real Life/Collect) 

She continued: “I knew I was in trouble, but I couldn’t bear to ring for help without knowing my dogs would be safe. Friends say that was typical of  me, but I wasn’t thinking properly and didn’t want them to be left alone for god knows how long.

“Neither me nor the paramedics have any idea how I managed to drag myself back to the car and put the dogs inside, but I did.”

After ensuring her pets were safe, Rachel phoned for help and was taken straight to hospital, where an X Ray and CT scan were performed.

Tragically, not only had she broken her pelvis and shattered her hip, but a number of tumours had been discovered.

Further investigations concluded that she actually had stage four metastatic breast cancer, which had spread to her hip and ribs.

“The primary tumour was in my left breast, which was malignant and hormone receptive, as well as a few other lumps which, though turned out to be benign, I had no idea were there,” she explained. “That was really shocking, as we all imagine lumps to be pretty obvious.”

Rachel having a radioactive substance injected into her before a bone scan (PA Real Life/Collect)

After her diagnosis, Rachel began a course of radiotherapy, as well as hormone therapy, in the form of Letrozole tablets and Zoladex implants.

Initially, it was feared surgery was not a viable option, because of the severity of her case, meaning she risked losing the ability to walk.

But, thankfully, orthopaedic surgeons at Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital were able to operate in the end.

Rachel in a hip brace (PA Real Life/Collect)

In April 2017, she had a full hip replacement and bone graft, then having a metal plate and mesh cage fitted to strengthen her limb.

“I’m still not fully recovered from that. I progressed from walking with a frame, to two crutches, to one, but still need regular physiotherapy and bone strengthening treatment,” she said. “I’m continuing to have hormone treatment, too, but because I’m classed as stage four, it’s more to keep the cancer at bay than to cure it.

“One of the hardest parts of everything is that it has scuppered any chance of me having children. Being a mum was always a dream of mine, but now, with the prognosis being so uncertain, it’s just not an option.”

Rachel’s X Ray when she was first admitted to hospital, showing where her femoral head had “pushed” through the fragile bone (PA Real Life/Collect)

Fearing her time could be limited, Rachel became intent on making new memories and making a lifelong wish come true, to take pictures of whales in the wild – marrying her twin passions for animals and photography.

Keen to visit either Canada, Sri Lanka, or Mexico, before her condition became too severe, she prepared to sell her car to help fund the trip.

Then, completely out-of-the-blue, her friend Abi Hall, the partner of a former colleague, made a remarkable offer – to run the gruelling South Devon Trail Marathon to raise money for Rachel.

A X Ray showing where Rachel was fitted with metal during her surgery (PA Real Life/Collect)

Now, ahead of the race in February 2019, Abi has set up a GoFundMe page for donations, and has even recruited a number of Rachel’s loved ones to run 5km, 10km and half marathon races.

“Abi is such an incredible woman. Although  she’s one of my newer friends, she’s one of the most supportive people I know,” said Rachel. “I’m so humbled by what she’s doing.

“Right now, I’m working to the six-monthly scans I’m having, but I do live in fear that it could all change at any time, so it would mean the world to be able to get out and live my dream while I still can. If my life is short, why shouldn’t I get these memories in now?”

Rachel also plans to donate any excess funds to the charity Children With Cancer UK.

She explained: “I’m an adult going through this and that’s tough enough. I can’t imagine the hell these children go through.

“At least I’ve had some of my life, when theirs has barely begun  It’s awfully unfair and I really want to help.”

Rachel (L) and Abi (R) (PA Real Life/Collect)

She also hopes that by sharing her story she will encourage other people to get checked out, if their health changes.

She said: “I was so tired before all of this happened, but put it down to being self-employed and slogging away.

“I think we live in a culture where we’re all going at a million miles an hour, so tiredness is expected, when actually, it can be the biggest indicator that something is wrong.”

To donate to Rachel and Abi’s page, visit www.gofundme.com/help-rachel-to-achieve-a-dream

© Press Association 2018

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