A 37 year-old father of two and former personal trainer has revealed the devastating effect brain cancer has had on his life since he was diagnosed with a tumour just days after his first son was born.
One minute Gavin McMahon, 37, was welcoming his firstborn, Theo, into the world on October 15, 2009 at Surrey’s Kingston Hospital.
Then mere hours later, he was in a nearby room in the same hospital having a brain scan, and four days later was told he had meningioma – a tumour.
After surgery to remove the growth – which was benign to begin with – it grew back a number of times and eventually became a life-threatening malignant cancer.
Now, after eight years of brain operations and radiotherapy which have devastated his life and body, Mr McMahon is raising money to pay for private drugs to help combat the tumour and rebuild his deteriorating muscles and eyesight.
Doctors say they have not seen someone in his circumstances before and call him a ‘trailblazer’.
Mr McMahon used to have a job in the city and was in the process of starting a family – his first child, Theo was born the same week as his tumour diagnosis
Now, Mr McMahon’s life has been devastated by the tumour and gruelling cancer treatment, causing him to lose his hair and his muscles to weaken
Now Mr McMahon has been almost blinded by the tumour, lost his hair during radiotherapy and takes steroids to try to rescue his weakening muscles.
Recalling his rollercoaster of emotions, Mr McMahon, of Caterham, Surrey said: ‘I couldn’t wait to be a dad and was delighted when Theo was born.
‘Then I had the scan and was called back into the hospital and told I had a tumour.
‘There was so much going on, I didn’t really have time to digest it all, but I just wanted to get better, so I could enjoy being a dad.’
At his fitness peak when he first started experiencing migraines, Mr McMahon thought the pain might be down to his gruelling training at a boxing gym in Covent Garden.
But when they persisted, he went to his GP and was referred for a CT scan at Kingston Hospital.
Pushing his health worries to the back of his mind, instead he focused on his then partner, whom he is no longer with and does not wish to name, as she was in the final stages of her pregnancy with Theo.
Mr McMahon’s children, Amelie and Theo, now live with their mother and he is not strong enough to visit them as often as he would like
Diagnosed four days after his son’s birth
However, his joy was short-lived when, four days after his son’s birth, he was told he had a slow-growing brain tumour called a meningioma.
The tumour was grade one, meaning it was slow-growing and less likely to spread.
Meningiomas account for around a quarter of all brain tumours in adults, and are usually slow-growing but can be unpredictable.
Symptoms include headaches, vision problems, weakness and seizures.
Although Mr McMahon’s tumour was benign, doctors still recommended an operation in case it became more aggressive.
Mr McMahon used to be a personal trainer and originally thought he had migraines because he was training too hard
Referred to St George’s Hospital in Tooting, south west London, Mr McMahon met with surgeons who discovered the growth was next to a major blood vessel.
Mr McMahon said: ‘They weren’t sure if they would be able to get it all out.
‘If they accidentally cut the blood vessel, there was a risk I’d have a stroke right there on the operating table. But I trusted them to do all they could.’
Now, Mr McMahon’s muscles have been so damaged by the tumour and treatment that he needs steroids to be able to support his own weight
2010 surgery was thought to be a success
Doctors were confident that his first bout of brain surgery in February 2010 had been a success.
And, after a few weeks recovering, returning home, he could not wait to start being a hands-on dad.
But, in time, he began having problems with his sight – experiencing persistent flashes and floaters – drifting shapes in front of the eyes.
Placed on anti-seizure medication for 18 months, things seemed stable.
Then, in November 2012, after the birth of his daughter, Amelie, now five, Mr McMahon’s migraines returned with a vengeance.
An MRI scan revealed that his tumour was growing again.
‘I was referred for radiotherapy, which I started in early 2013. I’d have sessions on my lunch break,’ he said.
‘Thankfully, there didn’t seem to be any major physical effects, aside from hair loss.
‘It seemed to be working. All I wanted to do was carry on as best I could and get back to my normal life.’
Life-threatening seizure in the street
But in 2013, Mr McMahon ended up in intensive care at St George’s after suffering a life-threatening seizure in the middle of the street, landing on his face.
After that, 18 months passed with him attending regular check ups.
Then, after suffering with nausea and headaches for a number of weeks, it emerged that there was new growth detected in the tumour.
Three bouts of brain surgery have taken their physical toll on Mr McMahon and he is still battling against the tumour that has ruined his life
Toward the end of 2015 he had another operation, again at St George’s, to remove more of the original tumour.
During the procedure surgeons noticed further regrowth, meaning that, in January 2016, Mr McMahon went under the knife once again to remove more of the tumour.
Tumour is now more aggressive than ever
He then suffered another seizure in August 2017, before a routine MRI scan in November 2017 showed the original tumour is growing once again.
‘My eyesight has really deteriorated since then, and I’ve had to move back in with my parents, Helen and Nigel Plank,’ he said.
Now, the tumour – which is growing quicker than ever before – is malignant and classed as a grade three.
Mr McMahon continued: ‘In my mind, I tried to separate the tumour from cancer. But now I know that I am dealing with brain cancer.
‘Consultants say they haven’t seen a case like mine before. It’s all unprecedented. They call me a trailblazer.’
With muscle wastage to the point where he struggles to support his own weight, Gavin says he is dangerously close to needing a permanent wheelchair.
What is meningioma?
Meningioma is tumour of the tissues that protect the brain and spinal cord.
Around one in 38,000 people suffer.
Such tumours do not spread and are benign in 90 per cent of cases.
Yet, they can cause disability, be life-threatening and regrow.
Meningioma’s cause is unknown, however, it has been linked to genetics and breast cancer.
A sufferer’s senses, movement and ability to swallow may be affected.
Meningioma may also cause fits, muscle weakness and severe headaches.
Treatment options include surgery and radio- or chemotherapy.
Source: Meningioma UK
To combat this, medics have given him steroids and gemcitabine – a chemotherapy drug usually used to treat bladder, breast, pancreatic and lung cancer.
The family believe Gavin may be the first patient to have gemcitabine to treat his particular type of tumour.
‘Wonder drug’ could help his body survive treatment
But now, after extensive research, his parents believe they have found a possible wonder drug – bevacizumab.
Medics have agreed it will help ease the swelling in his brain and the muscle atrophy caused by the amount of time he’s been on steroids.
Not available on the NHS, Gavin needs finance the treatment privately, and his family have set up a GoFundMe page to help raise the money needed.
‘It’s hoped the drug will help improve my stamina and strength, so I won’t become wheelchair-bound. If it helps with the swelling on my brain, my vision could improve, too,’ he said.
‘The response to the GoFundMe page has been phenomenal. People I haven’t seen in years have donated substantial amounts of money, which is mind blowing.
‘I see the kids as much as I can, but it’s been hard with being in hospital so much. I’m working as hard as I can to build my strength up, so I can see them more.
‘I’ve still got a long way to go before I’m out of the woods, but I’m feeling very positive.
‘Brain cancer is desperately underfunded, and once diagnosed, the prognosis can be pretty grim. As a family, we’re keen to raise the profile – the time is now to call for further research.’