A medical student has told how a cough and change to her voice that left her with a ‘squeaky laugh’ and sounding like a ‘seagull’ were actually signs of cancer.
Maddy Elleby, from Farnham in Surrey, first started feeling unwell with a cough while on holiday two years ago but brushed it off as the flu.
The 18-year-old said her symptoms persisted after returning the UK and doctors prescribed her antibiotics and an inhaler.
However, the medicine didn’t keep her cough at bay and she developed numbness down her arm and a lump on her collarbone.
After returning to her doctor and undergoing tests, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma — a cancer that starts in the white blood cells.
While she is now cancer-free, Ms Elleby undergoes regular checks to monitor whether it has come back.
Maddy Elleby (pictured during treatment), from Farnham in Surrey, first started feeling unwell with a cough while on holiday but brushed her symptoms off as the flu
The 18-year-old said her symptoms persisted after returning the UK and doctors prescribed her antibiotics and an inhaler
Ms Elleby was in Sweden with her family two years ago when she first fell unwell.
But a month after returning to the UK, she was still suffering from a cough that left her voice sounding like a ‘seagull’.
Doctors prescribed her antibiotics and an inhaler but neither eased her cough and she developed numbness down her arm and a lump in her collarbone.
Ms Elleby looked up her symptoms online, which initially suggested she had glandular fever — a viral infection that causes a fever, sore throat and swollen glands.
But she eventually landed on a page for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which is a cancer that develops in the lymphatic system — a network of vessels and glands spread throughout the body.
What is Hodgkin’s lymphoma and what are the symptoms?
Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a type of cancer that develops when certain types of white blood cells stop working properly.
It’s one of the most common cancers diagnosed in 13-24-year-olds.
It develops in the lymphatic system – a network of glands and thin tubes that run through your body.
Certain types of white blood cells, called Reed-Sternberg cells, stop working properly and multiply and collect around glands and other parts of the lymphatic system, which causes tumours to form.
It’s usually diagnosed with a biopsy of the lump
It’s usually treated with chemotherapy, sometimes combined with radiotherapy.
What are the symptoms?
- Weight loss
- High temperature
- Sweating at night
- Feeling tired
- lumps in your neck, armpits or groin
- feeling itchy
- Pain or vomiting when drinking alcohol
Source: Teenage Cancer Trust
It occurs when infection-fighting white blood cells called B-lymphocytes multiply in an abnormal way and collect in certain parts of the lymphatic system. This can cause a painless swelling in a lymph node — usually in the neck, armpit or groin.
Other symptoms include a persistent cough, a fever, night sweats and weight loss.
Around 2,600 people in the UK are diagnosed each year, meaning it accounts for fewer than one per cent of cancers. In the US, 8,800 cases are spotted annually.
Ms Elleby said: ‘All of my symptoms matched. That worried me, along with the fact that I was feeling under the weather and had a persistent cough.
‘(The lump I found, on my collarbone) was unusual because my collarbones had always been quite pronounced.
‘I went (to talk to) my older sister and said: “I think I have cancer”.
‘Typically of an older sister, she said: “Shut up, you’re being so dramatic you don’t have cancer — stop trying to freak me out”.’
However, the lump started to grow and Ms Elleby convinced herself she had cancer.
She went back to see the doctor again, who sent her for a neck X-ray and ultrasound.
The medical student said: ‘I wanted to go into (study) medicine, so I was medically aware. The doctor listened to me and was fantastic. She got me booked into an ultrasound and an X-ray within a week and did blood tests.’
In January 2021, Ms Elleby was told she had Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
She said: ‘All of my family were sitting around with tissues and glassy eyes.
‘They thought the news was going to shock me but I just said: “I have cancer don’t I?”
‘I’d already been researching wig companies and looking at videos of people having chemotherapy.
‘Having prepared myself helped but it was still an overwhelming experience and I was worried about losing my hair.’
Ms Elleby chose to only tell the news to her closest family and friends and continued going to college.
In February 2021, she started chemotherapy at The Royal Surrey County Hospital and organised her sessions around her class schedule.
She was diagnosed as stage 4, which is typically very successful with this treatment.
Ms Elleby said: ‘I shaved my hair and wore a wig and pretended I’d had a haircut.
‘I had a picc line (catheter) so wore long sleeves all of the time, too.
However, the medicine didn’t keep Ms Elleby’s (pictured with mother, father and sister) cough at bay and she developed numbness down her arm and a lump on her collarbone
After returning to her doctor and undergoing tests, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma — a cancer that starts in the white blood cells. While she is now cancer-free, Ms Elleby undergoes regular checks to monitor whether it has come back
‘That was fine when I started chemotherapy in the winter, but I had chemo through to July, so it was hard to explain to people why I was still wearing long sleeves when it was boiling (outside).
‘I had around 30 pills a day and my bag rattled when I put it down.
‘I constantly thought: “I don’t want to get stopped on a train as they will think I’m a drug dealer.”‘
After finishing her chemotherapy on July 19, 2021, she received the long-awaited all-clear from doctors.
Ms Elleby organised a 17th birthday bash and announced to the remainder of her friends that she had been going through cancer treatment.
She said: ‘I announced that I’d had cancer with a cake that said “F**k cancer”.
‘I told them I’d just finished chemo and people couldn’t believe it.
‘There were screams and tears and people were hugging and kissing me.
‘I’d held it in for so long, so it felt good for it to come out.’
However, just three months later in October, the teen found another lump in her collarbone on the first day of her new job.
After finishing her chemotherapy on July 19, 2021, she received the long-awaited all-clear from doctors. Ms Elleby organised a 17th birthday bash (pictured) and announced to the remainder of her friends that she had been going through cancer treatment
She said: ‘I announced that I’d had cancer with a cake that said “F**k cancer”. I told them I’d just finished chemo and people couldn’t believe it’
Ms Elleby said: ‘I felt it in the staff toilets and had a breakdown because I knew it was back instantly. The staff at the hospital didn’t believe it could be back so soon, but I knew I was right.’
Once again, she had to undergo intense chemotherapy and spend prolonged amounts of time in hospital.
However, her consultant at The Royal Marsden told her about a drug trial for 16 to 18-year-olds and Ms Elleby was eager to participate.
She said: ‘I had the right type of cancer and I was at the right stage, so I got to take part.
‘The first scan showed that it was working well, but the second scan showed the progress had stopped and the tumour (was) growing back.’
She was forced to stop the trial and have chemo, immunotherapy and then a stem cell transplant in May 2022.
Two years since her diagnosis and now 18 years old, Ms Elleby is once more cancer free.
She will have scans every three months for a year and then once every six months for three years after that so medics can monitor her.
While receiving treatment, the student repeated her first year at college and has now gone off to study medicine at the University of Liverpool.
She added: ‘People thought that I would be put off, but I still want to do medicine, just not oncology. That is too close to home and I’ve had enough of cancer.’
Two years since her diagnosis and now 18 years old, Ms Elleby is once more cancer free. She will have scans every three months for a year and then once every six months for three years after that so medics can monitor her
Ms Elleby is backing Teenage Cancer Trust’s new ‘What not to say’ campaign, which launches on November 8, with young people like herself sharing the most uncomfortable, bizarre and insensitive things people have said to them during cancer treatment
Although Ms Elleby first noticed a cough and a change in her voice, the most common sign of the cancer is a lump in the neck, armpits or groin, said Dr Louise Soanes, chief nurse at Teenage Cancer Trust.
She added: ‘Other symptoms can include sweating at night, a high temperature, losing weight, feeling tired, feeling itchy, coughing, breathlessness and pain or vomiting when drinking alcohol.
‘A change of voice is a less common symptom, but if you have any worries or concerns about your health, please do visit your GP at the earliest opportunity to discuss these and keep going back if symptoms persist and you’re not satisfied with the response that you’re getting.’
Ms Elleby is backing Teenage Cancer Trust’s new ‘What not to say’ campaign, which launches on November 8, with young people like herself sharing the most uncomfortable, bizarre and insensitive things people have said to them during cancer treatment.
She has shared how phrases such as ‘can I try on your wig?’ and comments about weight fluctuations during treatment caused upset.
As talking about cancer can be awkward, Ms Elleby and others are also sharing tips about the most helpful things people said or did to help them through treatment on the charity’s website.
She added: ‘My recovery was a testimony to the incredible clinical care I received at the Royal Marsden and Royal Surrey Hospital, for supporting my mental and physical wellbeing – which enabled me to continue my studies and get to where I am now.
‘I would want anyone struggling with cancer, newly diagnosed or not, to be assured there is a bright light at the end of the tunnel.’