Nichola Petermann was just 26 when she learned she had Hodgkin lymphoma and needed immediate chemotherapy, with Blood Cancer UK warning symptoms are similar to Long Covid
Image: Nichola Petermann)
A young woman who was in excruciating pain for months was diagnosed with stage four cancer after her symptoms were mistaken for long Covid.
Nichola Petermann was just 26 when she learned she had Hodgkin lymphoma and needed immediate treatment – forcing her to leave her dream job months after she started.
Medics believed her symptoms, which included fevers, abdominal pain and night sweats, were a result of her contracting coronavirus in January.
But as her illness got progressively worse she found herself taking painkillers six times a day in order to continue her day-to-day life.
In the absence of answers Nichola, from Glasgow, repeatedly sought medical attention, but the likelihood of it being long Covid masked the advanced stage her cancer had reached.
It was only after a visit to her grandma’s home that Nichola realised just how ill she actually was – because she needed more sleep and ate even less than her elderly relative.
Charity bosses say they fear Nichola’s cancer experience could be replicated across the UK, as signs of cancer can be very similar to the long-term effects of coronavirus.
When she was finally diagnosed with stage 4b cancer, her condition was so advanced that she was advised to start chemotherapy the following day – forcing her to leave her dream job working in TV which she’d started in December.
Nichola told The Mirror: “I did think it was long Covid for a long time, I had no idea how serious it was.
“Because I was working and it was harder to see GPs, it was really hard.
“I treated it myself with pain relief, but eventually it got to the point where I couldn’t handle it anymore.
“I was taking paracetamol six times a day, I don’t think they believed me when I said how much pain I was in.”
It was only when she visited her grandmother, who is herself battling stomach cancer, that she realised how ill she was.
“I noticed that I was sleeping more and eating less than she was,” she said. “That’s when I knew for certain that something was wrong.”
When the pain in Nichola’s abdomen and lower back became too much to bear, she contacted NHS 24, which referred her to an Immediate Assessment Unit because staff were worried about the amount of paracetamol she was taking.
However, when ultrasounds and X-rays did not reveal a gynaecological problem Nichola was on the verge of being discharged before a final set of tests finally revealed how ill she was.
“I was told I was possibly going home, even though I was clearly in a lot of pain,” she said. “I was scared about having to leave.”
It was only after an ultrasound revealed ovarian cysts and trapped fluid that medics were finally able to give her a life-saving cancer diagnosis.
By that stage her lymph nodes were swollen – another symptom she put down to long Covid – and doctors had to break the news that Nichola had Hodgkin lymphoma.
“I hadn’t heard of it, I didn’t know what it meant,” she said.
“It’s a very aggressive cancer, but that does mean it can be easier to treat. As soon as it was diagnosed they realised how serious it was, I started chemotherapy the next day.”
Such was the urgency to start chemotherapy that Nichola was advised there was not time to undergo fertility preservation.
She spent 10 weeks in hospital, with the treatment leaving her unable to walk and having to be fed through a tube due to muscositis.
Nichola lost three stone during her time at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow, and had to be helped by nurses to move around.
She praised the dedicated medics who supported her during her treatment.
“Although they were also clearly short staffed, I never felt like it impacted my care at all,” she said.
Nichola was finally discharged in August, and a month later she was given the welcome news that her cancer is in remission.
Still suffering from chronic fatigue and struggling to walk long distances, Nichole is hoping to be able to return to work in the New Year.
“I’m much better but I’m still being quite slow, I’m still struggling a lot with a lot of pain. I’m getting there, I still have a lot of fatigue, but I’m really eager to get back to work, I will hopefully start looking for something after Christmas.”
In the meantime Nichola is determined to do something to support Blood Cancer UK, a charity who she said has been a huge help during her illness.
Over the course of November she has been walking every day in a 26.2 mile challenge, and her fundraising page has already raised more than £2,500.
Kate Keightley, head of support and service development, said: “During the peak of the pandemic, we saw far fewer people being diagnosed with blood cancer, and one of the reasons for this could be that some of the symptoms of blood cancer are easily mistaken for Covid.
“Symptoms such as fatigue, fever and night sweats can sometimes be dismissed or downplayed and the result can be devastating.
“More than half of British adults cannot name any symptom of blood cancer despite it being the third biggest cancer killer in the UK. If you have symptoms that cannot be explained and are persistent, you should urgently make an appointment with your GP.
“While it is unlikely to be anything serious, it’s so important to get checked out.”
To sponsor Nichola and support Blood Cancer UK, click here.