A mother who discovered a strange lump on her thigh has tragically died at the age of 44 after losing her battle with a rare cancer.
Mother-of-eight Karen Gillingham, from the Central Coast of New South Wales, first noticed a painless lump on her upper left thigh in February 2020 – but a doctor assumed it was just a fatty deposit.
But after undergoing surgery to remove the 3.5cm tumour from her leg a month later, the lump was a sign of something much more sinister after she was diagnosed with pleomorphic rhabdomyosarcoma – an aggressive form of soft tissue cancer.
As she fought against the disease, the family were told on January 6 she had just two weeks to live after the cancer had spread throughout her body.
Her husband Glen Gillingham confirmed the devastating news his wife of 14 years died on the night of January 21 where she was surrounded by her loving family.
‘Karen passed away peacefully in her home in my arms, her children, parents and family are devastated and heartbroken. Karen’s greatest wish was to have peace and now she has it. Karen’s painful journey with cancer is now over,’ Mr Gillingham said.
‘The tumour in Karen’s left chest was more than 25cm in diameter (and growing) and pressing on her heart. And unexpectedly for us, Karen’s heart could no longer cope with this disease that was ravaging her body.’
Karen Gillingham (pictured left in 2020 and right in 2021) has tragically died at the age of 44 after losing her battle with a rare cancer. Her husband Glen shared heartbreaking photographs of his wife, taken one year apart, showing just how much her health has rapidly deteriorated
Her husband Glen Gillingham confirmed the devastating news his wife of 14 years died on the night of January 21 where she was surrounded by her loving family (couple pictured together)
What is Rhabdomyosarcoma?
Rhabdomyosarcoma (RMS) is a type of sarcoma made up of cells that normally develop into skeletal (voluntary) muscles. These are muscles that we control to move parts of our body.
Most rhabdomyosarcomas develop in children and teens, but they can also occur in adults.
Adults are more likely to have faster-growing types of RMS and to have them in parts of the body that are harder to treat. Because of this, RMS in adults is often harder to treat effectively.
Common sites of RMS include:
* The head and neck (such as near the eye, inside the nasal sinuses or throat, or near the spine in the neck)
* Urinary and reproductive organs (bladder, prostate gland, or any of the female organs)
* Arms and legs
* Trunk (chest and abdomen)
In a heartbreaking tribute to his late wife, Mr Gillingham revealed how he ‘genuinely thought, hoped and prayed that we had Karen for much longer’.
‘Instead, we grieve the loss of this beautiful person. Gift to the world, who at 44 years of age, has been taken from us,’ he said.
‘Whilst for Karen we ran out of time to beat this horrible disease, in Karen’s honour, I am dedicated to spreading the word, advocating and acting to help as many as I can to beat this horrible disease.
‘Rest in peace my beautiful, wonderful wife Karen. I love you and miss you deeply, more than words can express.’
Before her tragic death, the family launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds for Mrs Gillingham’s medical expenses in a last ditch effort for her to survive.
However, the distraught father has since vowed to use the funds to advocate for changes to the Australian Government subsidised cancer treatment system to help cancer sufferers have access to treatments at a ‘cost that is affordable for them’.
‘Whilst for Karen, I learn this all too late and I ran out of time to save her, I will now work to help as many as I can to beat cancer, to remain living with their loved ones,’ Mr Gillingham said.
‘I have learned much about cancer during the course of Karen’s journey. I have learnt that when a person is diagnosed with cancer, that they need to act quickly to radically change their lifestyle, like their life depends on it, because it does.
‘My darling, Karen, suffered and paid with her life, so that I can bring this message to many many people living with cancer.’
Before her diagnosis, Mrs Gillingham first noticed a strange lump (pictured) on her left thigh in late February last year. Over the year, the cancer had spread throughout her body
Mrs Gillingham leaves behind four children who she shares with her husband, aged 20, 17, 15 and five, and she’s a step mum to four kids, aged 33, 32, 26 and 22. She also has eight grandchildren.
Before losing her life to cancer, Karen underwent four surgeries, radiotherapy and a gruelling round of chemotherapy – but was told by doctors to get her ‘affairs in order’ due to the aggressive nature of the cancer.
‘We take every day as it comes, there has been a lot of tears. Telling the children she has just weeks to live was an ordeal. She’s been saying her goodbyes,’ Mr Gillingham told Daily Mail Australia on January 20.
He shared heartbreaking photographs of his wife, taken one year apart, showing just how much her health rapidly deteriorated.
Before her diagnosis, Mrs Gillingham – who moved from Ireland to Australia at the age of six – first noticed the lump on her left thigh in late February last year.
‘The first sign she noticed was just the lump, it wasn’t painful at all. She could press on it and there would be no pain associated at all,’ Mr Gillingham recalled.
‘The doctor assumed it was a fatty deposit but she had it removed just to be on the safe side. But other doctors reading the scans were concerned because the lump was quite an irregular shape.’
As a precaution, the mother had the 3.5cm tumour removed, along with a tennis ball-sized amount of tissue.
But after undergoing a second procedure to remove more tissue, the tumour led to her cancer diagnosis.
‘We were shocked, absolutely shocked. But at that state, we thought it was only in her left thigh so there was a great chance for resistive by the end of it,’ he said.
‘Even though we were shocked, we remained hopeful.’
Despite undergoing her first round of chemotherapy on December 15, the cancer had spread to her liver, lungs, right thigh, chest and bicep
Mrs Gillingham shares four biological children with her husband Glen, aged 20, 17, 15 and five
But despite undergoing her first round of chemotherapy on December 15, the cancer had spread to her liver, lungs, right thigh, chest and bicep.
‘It was quite an aggressive form of chemotherapy. We were told it worked best for her condition. After the surgery, she had very few side effects, she lost all her hair,’ her husband said.
‘But the surgery actually didn’t do anything to her cancer. Her cancer grew rather than shrink… The tumour in Karen’s left chest was now over 25cm in size and pressing on her heart.’
Far from getting better, Karen was told by her doctor in early January they were ceasing all active forms of her treatment.
‘She was too weak to have any further chemotherapy and in any event the cancer was not responding to chemotherapy,’ Mr Gillingham said.
On January 6, the family were told to prepare for the worst as she only had a ‘life expectancy’ of two to three weeks.
‘There has been nothing left unsaid between us,’ her husband said, as he broke down in tears, adding: ‘The reality is, life will go on, I have children to look after.’