Mum shares sepsis warning after breast cancer reconstruction leaves her fighting for life again
'I could barely stand and everything just became a bit of a blur.'
When Donia Youssef was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer she thought that beating the disease would be the hardest battle she’d ever have to face.
But after gruelling treatment, she was at home recovering, when she woke up with her heart racing and a fever, and knew something wasn’t right.
She wondered if it was a panic attack, but at hospital, the mum-of-two learnt that she’d have to fight for her life once more, as she was diagnosed with sepsis.
Now, she’s sharing her story and the warning signs of sepsis, so others know what to look out for.
Speaking of her ordeal, Donia, 45, from Essex, tells Metro.co.uk: ‘Life can change over night. I’ve learned to be more present and live more in the now.’
Donia noticed a golf ball sized lump under her armpit in March 2017, after a night out to celebrate her 39th birthday.
She says: ‘It felt like hard bone, not a lump, and it was flat, but a weird shape. I started freaking out a bit and I was like, “Oh my God”.’
She went to her GP who found two lumps in her breasts and referred her for a mammogram and biopsy a month later.
The biopsies were sent off and the doctors called Donia back for her results earlier than expected. ‘The consultant said, “We’re really sorry to say you’ve got cancer”,’ remembers Donia.
‘I just went into fight or flight and said, “Thanks very much I’ve got the information and I’ll speak to you soon.” I just got up and tried to leave.
‘My mum was crying, my sister was crying, my husband, Thomas, was crying. It was all too much of a burden and I couldn’t cope with everyone’s emotions around me at the time.’
Doctors said there was a 40% chance she wouldn’t make it through the year, and she went on to have her double mastectomy that December.
How to check for signs of breast cancer
CoppaFeel! offers these simple steps on how to check your own chest for signs of cancer.
- Look at your boobs, pecs or chest.
- Look at the area from your armpit, across and beneath your boobs, pecs or chest, and up to your collarbone.
Be aware of any changes in size, outline or shape and changes in skin such as puckering or dimpling.
- Feel each of your boobs, pecs or chest.
- Feel the area from your armpit, across and beneath your boobs, pecs or chest, and up to your collarbone.
Be aware of any changes in skin such as puckering or dimpling, or any lumps, bumps or skin thickening which are different from the opposite side.
Notice your nipples
- Look at each of your nipples.
Be aware of any nipple discharge that’s not milky, any bleeding from the nipple, any rash or crusting on or around your nipple area that doesn’t heal easily and any change in the position of your nipple
Her fallopian tubes and ovaries were also removed as her cancer was oestrogen receptive.
Suffering through several rounds of chemo, Donia lost her hair and put on 3st in weight. She endured lung clots, heart and liver failure, as well as picking up pneumonia.
Donia says she remembers feeling angry at the impact her treatment was having on her family, including her children, Aaliyah, 11, and Tiana, 8.
‘My little babies wondered why I wasn’t home and my baby was really clingy with me,’ she says. ‘I started getting really angry because of the cancer doing that to my kids. They used to come and visit and cry “mummy come home” and it was heart-breaking.’
‘It was a rollercoaster,’ she adds. ‘I thought the kids would be better off with a mum who didn’t have all these issues with her.
‘I was practical and put wills in place. I was trying to see if there were any suitable partners for Thomas if I went.’
But in January 2018, Donia was finally in remission, and was ready to get back to normal life.
Only, in May 2019, she was at home recovering after surgery to correct a previous breast reconstruction and began to feel unwell again.
‘I half put it down to recovery,’ she says. ‘Not only did I have an unshakable fatigue and a painful swelling across my body, but my heart was racing and my blood pressure kept creeping up.’
She called her mum, thinking perhaps it was a panic attack, but soon, she says she was crippled by the ‘swelling, fluctuating fever and chills’ and a rapid heart rate. Then a rash materialised.
What you need to know about sepsis:
‘If you’re worried that you have an infection, and something doesn’t feel quite right or you’re getting worse rather than better, look for the following signs:
S for slurred speech or confusion
E for extreme pain in the muscles or joints
P for passing no urine in a day
S for severe breathlessness
I for “it feels like I’m going to die”
S for skin that’s mottled, discoloured or very pale
Any one of these six in the context of infection go straight to A&E.’
Dr Ron Daniels, BEMFounder and Joint CEO of UK Sepsis Trust
An ambulance took her straight to A&E where they confirmed that Donia was actually battling sepsis, a deadly illness which occurs when the body’s immune system has an extreme response to an infection. She was immediately given antibiotics.
After already enduring so much, Donia was terrified. ‘It was horrible, I didn’t want to continue with life,’ she says.
‘I could barely stand and everything just became a bit of a blur and then my heart was under pressure so I got transferred to the cardiac arrest ward where I was closely monitored.
‘After a few days of being in hospital and a lot of drugs, I started to feel better.
‘When the day came to leave the hospital, I remember walking outside feeling quite traumatised and just burst into tears!’
Donia was finally out of the woods, but shockingly, just three years later, she faced yet another health scare in January 2022.
‘After experiencing persistent bloating, stomach pain, and noticing blood in my stools, I had biopsies, ranging from the antral region of my stomach to the descending colon,’ Donia says.
She describes waiting for the results, to see if she had cancer for a second time, as ‘agonising’. ‘Those days were filled with anxiety and the looming fear of the unknown,’ she says.
And, her worst fears were confirmed when medics revealed she had a tumour in her bowel and she was diagnosed with colon cancer.
‘Although it was in its early stages, measuring only 8mm, the surgeon emphasised the importance of its timely removal, suggesting that if left untreated, it could have progressed to the rest of the body.’
Donia went under the knife again, and the tumour was successfully removed. Shockingly, she also had to beat sepsis for a second time.
The mum-of-two now has annual colonoscopies as a preventive measure and is under observation at the Royal Marsden Hospital.
Despite so many set backs throughout her cancer journey, Donia is now an author and film director. She will remain on oral chemo tablets for another five years.
‘I don’t look too far in to the future,’ she says. ‘You feel a bit like a ticking time bomb.’
‘I’m very care free now. That was my way of saying f**k you cancer. You’re not going to take this away from me. I’m just me.’
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