'Covid Stopped Me Getting Cancer Treatment - Now I'm Fighting For My Life Aged 25'
Ella Wolff was on holiday in Cape Verde in 2018 when the vision in her right eye began to go blurry.
When she got back from the trip, she expected to be given a glasses prescription; instead the 25-year-old from Ashbocking, Suffolk, was diagnosed with ocular cancer - an incredibly rare form of the disease affecting just six in 1 million people.
Fast forward two years and Ella is fighting to raise money for life-extending therapy, her cancer is "incurable" and her options for treatment severely limited due to the financial strain the pandemic has placed on the health system.
"Never in a million years did I think I would be in this position," Ella tells Tyla. "At the time I just thought I'd need glasses or it would be something minor with my eyesight."
Despite the shock of her initial diagnosis, Ella was "pragmatic" about it at first; the tumour was contained in her eye ball, and three weeks after the appointment with her oncologist she got her eye removed.
"After that I thought we'd be done with it," she recalls. "I thought that would be the end".
Following the procedure, IT recruitment consultant Ella returned to work, resumed her passion for horse riding and continued her life with fiancé Calum - who she has been with six years - assuming that her new normal was about to begin.
She also begun fundraising for vital cancer research, given that ocular cancer makes up just one per cent of all cases in the UK, and has a prevention rate of just two per cent.
However, this new chapter was cut short after she attended a routine scan close to one year on, only to discover the cancer had spread to her liver - as it does with around 50 per cent of ocular cancer patients - and there was now nothing doctors could do to cure her.
"I remember I got scanned on my birthday, and [the hospital] took five weeks to get back to me," she says.
"I thought there was going to be nothing there. I thought if there was something there they would have looked at it and come back to me sooner."
A nurse rang just before she was set to jet off on holiday to Las Vegas to tell her that something was wrong, and in that heart-sinking moment she already knew exactly what they'd found.
It was then Ella begun her race against the clock to try and shrink her cancer, or at least stunt it, in a desperate bid to "buy more time".
If she didn't get treatment immediately, she was told she could have as little as six months to live.
Ella made a four hour round trip to Rickmansworth twice a week for her first round of immunotherapy - named IMCgp100 - but, after three months of back and forth, it failed to work.
She soon realised that her best hope was a groundbreaking new specialist targeted chemotherapy clinical trial named Delcath - which was so new many oncologists didn't even know about it yet, and has the potential to extend her life expectancy significantly.
But in a cruel twist of fate, Ella could not access the treatment; with intensive care beds at her local hospital reserved for Covid-19 patients, she was put on another type of immunotherapy - one that was statistically less likely to work.
To be eligible for Delcath, it was essential Ella's cancer didn't spread beyond her liver, and it needed to be no more than 50 per cent cancerous - during her second round of immunotherapy, she was already at 30 per cent, and this number was growing.
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"Because Covid came first, I felt like I wasn't being given a chance, and I was just worrying I was going to be over the threshold by the time it was over," she says.
When the second round of immunotherapy failed, Ella said she felt like she had "wasted three months for no reason".
At this point, the trial Ella had initially been denied was her only option left.
What's more, a potentially time buying six courses of the Delcath treatment - which was free just months ago - would now set her back a mammoth £240,000, as her clinical trial had been halted in order to funnel more resources into the pandemic.
Her cancer had also reached the maximum permitted threshold of 50 per cent, meaning she had just 19 days to pay for the first £40,000 treatment out of her own pocket so she would be eligible in time.
"I had to pay before the treatment or they wouldn't have me, and because of the percentage of disease in my liver, I had no choice - I either started it then or I didn't have it at all," she says.
"It was massively, massively overwhelming. When I got told I had 19 days to get the first £40,000 I thought there was no chance.
"With a longer amount of time you can sell a house, you can remortgage, but you can't do that in 19 days. It takes longer than that to free up money.
"I said to my parents, 'I'm never going to get this. It's just never going to happen."
Tragically, Ella is just one of thousands of patients to fall victim to Covid-19 cancellations and delays, which she fears it could be costing her months, if not years with her loved ones.
Macmillan Cancer Support report as many as 33,000 cancer sufferers are facing delays in starting treatment due to the pandemic; they estimate it will take the NHS as long as 20 months to to work through the backlog.
But despite the odds stacked against her, Ella chose not to give up hope, launching a fundraising campaign called Ella's Fight with her friends and loved ones, which - to her surprise - brought in enough money for the first two treatments.
"It was so overwhelming seeing people support the donations, I couldn't believe it," she reflects, as she looks back on her campaign so far, which has picked up support from multiple MPs, musicians like Professor Green and Love Island's Montana Brown.
"They're saying there's no cure for this type of cancer, although there are some people who have had Delcath and ended up with no evidence of disease.
"Really its just about how long you can hold the cancer off for. In this day and age science Is just incredible.
"I know the longer we can hold it off, the longer we have to find that potential cure or even just find more treatments. This could give me three or four years, then there will be something else we can do that may give me another three or four."
The problem, Ella says, is that she needs to make sure her campaign keeps up momentum in order to raise money for four more treatments. She's currently at just over £109,000, but she has £131,000 still to go.
Addressing anybody who might be able to help her with a donation she adds: "It means the world to me and my family."
You can follow Ella's Fight and donate via her Go Fund Me page.
Featured Image Credit: Handout
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