STEPPING up to collect an Open University degree is a big deal for anyone.
For Nicola Wilson, it was just that bit more special as it was a moment she feared she’d never see.
Mum-of-one Nicola, from Midlothian, was diagnosed with Burkitt Lymphoma and the future looked uncertain. But swift treatment meant the civil servant was able to celebrate such cherished moments.
And she’s hoping better recognition arising from September’s Blood Cancer Awareness Month means others will, too.
“I had studied for five years in my own time and had completed everything bar the very last assignment,” said Nicola, 56. “When I got ill I had to defer it but I was determined to finish it and got a first-class honours degree in sociology.
“It meant a lot being able to graduate, knowing I might not have been there.”
It was back in 2013 that Nicola noticed the first symptoms.
They were night sweats and resultant lack of sleep, but talking to others of a similar age who were going through the menopause, she assumed it was just that.
“I did go to the doctor and we decided between us that it was the menopause,” said Nicola, who has a son Andrew, 23, with husband Colin.
“I used to be a nurse and even with that knowledge I had no idea and no real concerns.”
But when Nicola found an almond-sized lump in her groin soon after and went back to her GP, the conclusion was very different. She was referred for blood tests and an urgent scan, by which time she was suffering from vomiting, tiredness and breathlessness.
“At the start they thought I may have had ovarian cancer with lymph nodes involved,” explained Nicola.
“There seemed to be new symptoms showing up really fast. It was scary how ill I got so quickly. I’m quite a rational, sensible person, but cancer is the word you don’t want to hear.
“What still sticks in my head, though, is the consultant who gave me the final diagnosis saying that it was good news that it wasn’t the initial ovarian scenario as there would have been little they could have done.”
While his reassuring words were something to hold on to, it was breaking the news to Andrew that was the hardest part.
“It was so upsetting. He was 18 at the time. He’s 6ft 2in and he stood there crying; it was awful. Thinking back to that still brings a lump to my throat. Despite being in bits, both he and Colin were a huge support to me during my treatment.”
Such was the urgency of the situation, she had her first intensive chemotherapy session the day after she was rushed into the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh.
She lost her hair, and the ever-present tiredness as well as being at risk of infection meant a lot of Nicola’s life had to be put on hold.
While much of it was expected, there were elements of the treatment that really took her by surprise.
“I lost loads of weight, a good couple of stone, and the dietician said I was to eat anything I could to try to counter that.
“The funny thing was the cravings. I wanted things I never had before and couldn’t stand things I loved like chocolate and coffee. I haven’t had them since but I absolutely loved Greggs sausage rolls covered in tomato ketchup. That was my big thing.”
Thankfully Nicola came through it all but she knows that much greater awareness is vital.
A new survey by charity Bloodwise found that only 11% of Scots are confident they knew the common symptoms of blood cancer and 55% didn’t know any.
Around 3,200 people are diagnosed with a blood cancer in Scotland each year.
“What this has done is really make me realise what and who is important and to cherish things like Andrew’s wedding next year,” added Nicola.
Visit bloodwise.org.uk for more information