When Lanarkshire mum Arlene Gilchrist was admitted to hospital for tests following persistent throat infections, it couldn’t have come as more of a blow when investigations led to a shock diagnosis of kidney cancer.

After the otherwise fit and healthy hospitality worker was given a CT scan in February last year to establish the extent of the abscess on her throat, doctors discovered evidence of a 10cm fluid-filled tumour on her right kidney.

“I went in with something completely different, and I came out with cancer,” said Arlene.

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“I’d had no symptoms at all, no urinary tract infection (UTI) symptoms. I had normal, everyday tiredness and a sore back I put down to my work as a barmaid. I didn’t think anything of it.”

When medics asked Arlene if her partner, Martin McKay, was with her before renal cancer specialists came to break the news, she knew instinctively something was wrong.

“They told me there was no option of saving my kidney. It had to come out,” she said.

“It was classed as stage 2 cancer due to its size. Martin was devastated. We both were. It was such a worry, because I do have a young daughter. We just tried as hard as we could not to let it get to us.”

At the beginning of April, just weeks after the pandemic hit, Arlene received a call requesting that she get a PCR test.

Arlene puts her recovery down to the love of Martin and Ellis

Three days later, she was admitted to the Golden Jubilee National Hospital in Clydebank to have her kidney removed.

“My daughter, Ellis, was just six. She was told I was in to get my kidney taken out,” she recalls.

“I said I had a bad kidney, and I would be alright after it. I had to tell her something.”

Arlene, who explained that renal cell carcinoma does not respond to chemotherapy or radiotherapy, continued: “People would say lockdown must have been such a hindrance – when, in actual fact, I saw it as a godsend.

“I could not look after my six-year-old daughter. Because of lockdown, Martin didn’t have to go back to work and could look after me properly. I had to keep stockings on, but I had no energy to put them on myself. He could spend so much time with us, which let me get over it.”

After two weeks, Arlene’s pain subsided and she came off morphine. But she wasn’t able to walk any distance due to her scar, and it was six weeks before she felt able to move around and return to work as a cleaning supervisor at Ellis’s school, St David’s Primary in Plains, Airdrie.

“I didn’t want to upset Ellis at the time. It was all hush-hush. I asked people not to speak about it in front of her,” she said.

“When I felt, as her mum, that I was in a better position mentally, I explained to her what was going on. Even though she didn’t quite understand, she took it well. She has been a wee godsend. She doesn’t know how amazing she has been.”

Having cancer has given Arlene a new lease of life

Because complications arose when the kidney ruptured during surgery to remove it, 39-year-old Arlene has to have scans twice a year for five years to ensure she remains cancer-free.

“The prognosis is keeping a very close eye on me in case anything happens in the future, in case they find it in any other part of my body,” she explained.

“This is the way they do it. They just watch and wait. The kidney function is absolutely great. I’ve had no issues with it at all. They told me I can have a normal life, even though I’ve got only one kidney.”

Her battle with cancer has been life-changing for Arlene, who saw it as an opportunity to make new choices.

Since August, she has been studying remotely for a HNC in administration and IT, with digital marketing and social media at Coatbridge College.

At the end of the one-year course, her ambition is to work in the office at St David’s Primary or another local school.

“I absolutely love it,” she Arlene.

“It has given me a new lease of life. And it’s given me a lot of hope. You change when you have cancer. Your life changes. It has given me the confidence to grab these opportunities and run with them and see where they go.”

Arlene, Ellis and Martin make memories together

The new treatment option – a combination of cabozantinib and nivolumab whose agents block the growth of blood vessels in cancer tumours and those which harness the body’s immune system to help find and fight cancer – is not open to Arlene at present.

But she says it is something she would request should her cancer return.

“The more treatments that are available, the more hope it gives to so many more people,” continued Arlene.

“A lot of people ask me; ‘How can you come through this and still smile?’ I have too much to lose. I am a positive person. I am certainly not going to give up now.”

And she urged other people who’ve received a cancer diagnosis: “Never give up. There are lots of treatments that can help. Kidney cancer treatments have come so far in the last five years.

"It is a hurdle to overcome, but it does not mean it’s the end. Never lose your hope.”

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