Back in October 2015, Andrea Sheardown from Sandbach had been experiencing a number of sharp pains inside her ribcage, which she says came on and off for a few weeks.
Initially, doctors thought it was a strained muscle or simply a case of indigestion, but the pains increased in intensity and eventually after a few trips to A&E they agreed to do an x-ray.
The x-ray identified a mass on Andrea’s liver and, following a CT scan and MRI scan, she was told that they thought it was the rare bile duct cancer called Cholangiocarcinoma.
Andrea explained: “The initial prognosis was that nothing could be done, and I was told I had just weeks to live.”
However, within days of the earth-shattering news, meetings took place between Leighton Hospital and The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham.
Liver specialists at the Queen Elizabeth contacted Andrea to say that they were willing to try and remove the tumour but that they wouldn’t know whether or that would be possible until the surgery itself was underway.
On the 18th November 2015 Andrea had major surgery to remove the tumour (the size of a small pineapple!) and following the surgery, it was decided the best course of action was a 6 month course of chemotherapy.
With the rare type of cancer Andrea had, there was still no proven course of chemotherapy that was known to work but doctors decided to use one that was being used in a clinical trial at the time.
Cholangiocarcinoma, although rare, is on the increase across all age groups and has one of the worst survival rates of all cancers: less than 5% of people survive beyond 12 months after diagnosis.
Andrea said: “My husband and I were struggling to digest the news ourselves let alone telling our children. Our three children were aged just 14, 13 and 4 at the time.
“They could sense something was very wrong as I had been in hospital for a week when they were initially doing the tests/scans and had started to look very poorly.
“My youngest was too young to understand but my teenage children understood that my condition was serious and that they might lose their mum. My daughter found it very hard and started to suffer with some anxiety issues because of it and the fear of losing her mother.”
Andrea continued: “I went through a full range of emotions – from feeling numb to start with, then anger and upset at the thought of not being able to see my family grow up.
“I questioned ‘why me? What have I done so wrong? Is it heredity? Could it affect my family too?’ All sorts of emotions but ultimately, I knew I had to fight this evil cancer and be able to watch my children grow up. Giving up wasn’t allowed to be an option!”
Following the surgery and gruelling chemotherapy – which finished in July 2016 – Andrea has undergone regular CT scans and blood tests every 4-6 months.
The type of cancer Andrea had doesn’t show up in routine blood tests and doctors have found no way of early identification other than via a CT scan.
Andrea said “I have survived against the odds so far and the only statistics out there seem to indicate it is more likely to return than not, but I am remaining very optimistic that I can continue defying the odds going forward.”
Most people would have left it there, feeling very fortunate to have been given extra time with their families. Not Andrea, however.
As soon as she’d finished her chemotherapy, she knew she wanted to do something to mark her treatment finishing and to raise money for the only charity in the UK set up to research this type of cancer.
It’s called The AMMF Cholangiocarcinoma Charity and Andrea says: “The AMMF charity became a godsend to me as they helped point me in the direction of the best medical professionals that could help me going forward and they provided support/information to me and my family at a critical time in my life.
She set up her first JustGiving page up in November 2016 with an initial fundraising target of £5,000 and thought that since it felt like climbing a mountain throughout her treatment, it was apt to try the real thing!
Andrea decided to climb Snowdon in November 2016 with her husband, children and other family members.
Andrea told us: “This was a huge challenge as I don’t like heights and the weather conditions for that time of year weren’t favourable either.”
She then quickly followed this with climbs up Scarfell Pike and Ben Nevis – completing the ‘3 Peaks’. She surpassed the initial fundraising target and raised £6,645 during the challenges.
“At times throughout my treatment I was left feeling very ill and weak and was in and out of hospital but giving up never entered my head,” explained Andrea.
“That’s when I realised it was time to start fully living my dreams and saying yes to life’s adventures.
“Every seemingly impossible journey, starts with a single step and taking the step to climb the Three Peaks might not have happened if it weren’t for my cancer diagnosis.”
Andrea was conscious of the need to raise awareness of the disease, and the work of the AMMF too.
“I’ve had tremendous support along the way from my close friends and family. After completing the three peaks challenge, I knew I needed to set myself another bigger challenge and decided that was going to be to climb (the world’s largest free-standing mountain) Mount Kilimanjaro.”
Andrea was joined by ten loyal friends and supporters – known as “Andrea’s AMMF Army” – and by her 14-year-old son Sam, all of whom have supported her fundraising efforts, whatever they might involve and irrespective of location.
A new fundraising target of £10,000 was set – and to date Andrea has achieved over double that, bringing in £20,000 on this page alone. This means the combined total stands at more than £26,800 raised for AMMF since November 2016.
Andrea commented: “There were very mixed emotions setting off, as Kilimanjaro in itself is a huge challenge for anyone to undertake and having had the extra ordeal of dealing with the emotions of my cancer battle over the last 2 years and leaving family members behind was very emotional and the added pressure of wanting to succeed and get to the top of this mountain.
“We started our 6 days climb on Monday 19th February, the climb was very challenging as we ascended around 1,000 metres per day and altitude sickness caused problems for most of us at some stage of the trip.
“This involved people suffering with sickness, diarrhoea and extreme fatigue. However, I’m pleased to say that on the morning of the 23rd February, 6 of us (myself included), reached the summit of Kilimanjaro 5850 metres (19,341 feet)!
“I’m extremely proud of my son Sam who managed to get to 15,000 feet before he had to turn back and everyone else on our trip.
“These lovely friends – Michelle Johnson, Laura Beck, David Wiley, Fi Bryne, Ash Findler, Erica Cordock, Mike Bull, Andrew Suter, Simon Gregory & Glynne Jones – all gave up their own money and time to join me on this trip and endured all sorts of challenges along the way, I am extremely proud and grateful to each one of them!”
Andrea added that the reception upon her return has been incredible – from local media, family and friends all congratulating us and even complete strangers who have heard about her challenge and are continuing to donate to the JustGiving page.
“I feel very humbled by everyone around me and have already made it very clear that I will continue my fundraising and awareness campaigns for this awful deadly cancer and am already planning my next bug adventure!”
Andrea has also been contacted by other people who’ve lost someone to Cholangiocarcinoma or are currently fighting it and her story has helped to inspire them, giving others hope going forward.
Andrea has also been asked to talk at the annual AMMF conference in May about my story and fundraising efforts and how Cholangiocarcinoma has affected her life.
The yearly event is attended by medical professionals from all over the world, along with surgeons, scientists, researchers and those who have an interest in this type of cancer.
People have described Andrea as inspirational, and there’s absolutely no doubt that as well as raising funds, she has done a tremendous job in raising awareness of The AMMF Cholangiocarcinoma Charity.
Many thanks to Andrea for taking the time to tell us about her experiences, and congratulations for being such an incredible inspiration to us all.
To donate, please visit Andrea’s JustGiving page: www.justgiving.com/fundraising/andreasammfarmy