A nurse who planned her own funeral after being told she had terminal cancer has returned to work ten years after her diagnosis.
Brave Gemma Wensley, 37, began planning her own send-off after finding out she had months to live due to an inoperable brain tumour.
But against all the odds, she has survived her cancer and nearly five years of treatment – and is now back working part-time at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital.
Although she still has a tumour in her brain, annual scans have continued to show there is no change in the mass and Gemma, of Exeter, Devon, said she remains hopeful that will continue.
To mark the landmark 10th anniversary, Gemma – with the help of family and friends – is now resurrecting a popular fundraising festival which was previously held annually in her honour.
Gemfest, a unique indoor music and performance festival, is being staged at Exeter Phoenix.
And ahead of the April event, Gemma has reflected on her miraculous survival story.
She said she had just turned 23 and was living in London when she came back to Exeter for the weekend and first began experiencing problems with her sight.
An initial scan showed a benign growth on her brain but she was continually monitored and just before Christmas 2009 something more concerning showed up on a further scan.
She said: “At that point I was told it was quite bad and that I had an inoperable brain tumour. I started treatment at the beginning of 2010.
“Four months later in May, doctors were saying I was looking at a matter of months left to live because the tumour had tripled in size.”
Gemma, who had moved in with her aunt in Exeter, began making preparations for her death such as giving back cards and gifts people had bought for her to remember her by, and was planning her funeral.
“I was very practical about everything,” recalled Gemma. “It was such a strange feeling as all I wanted was to do things so that people didn’t have to worry about anything when I was gone.
“I was really poorly for quite a while so I couldn’t achieve a bucket list. As I have lived in different parts of the country, I have friends visit me and I suppose they came to say goodbye.”
However, Gemma gradually started to get better and the more time that passed, the more hopeful her prognosis became.
She added: “I had radiotherapy and chemotherapy together for six weeks and then monthly doses of chemotherapy in tablet form. In total I had just over 50 rounds in four and half years.
“I lost a lot of my hair and the steroids I was on made me put on a few stone; I was massive.
“To this day they still don’t really know what happened to change my diagnosis. Radiotherapy can cause a tumour to suddenly grow and gradually shrink again, but mine happened so much later.
“The tumour is still there but it is not growing and it appears to be non-maligant.”
For Gemma, it has been a long and difficult journey to go from accepting her fate to trying to not live in fear of what her next scan could reveal.
She said: “It’s been slow, single steps and after every scan I have got a little bit more confident. For years, every time I had a scan and had previously had earache or a headache, I would get quite panicky and think it had come back.
“It has been a very gradual process learning to live with still having a tumour, as well as realising it would not kill me.
“Every year I was a little bit better and now 10 years on I still don’t feel I’m completely recovered, but I’m more confident that I will now probably make it to an oldish age.”
When it comes to birthdays, one Gemma will never forget is her 30th which was two years after her terminal diagnosis.
It was an age doctors never thought she would reach and to mark the occasion, family and friends, including her sister Yazmine Robinson, organised a surprise party dubbed Gemfest.
It was based on Gemma’s love of music festivals and it sowed the seed of an idea to organise annual Gemfest’s to raise money for Hospiscare’s Exeter day hospice – where she received physical, physiological and emotional support during her darkest days – and for the Brain Tumour Charity.
The first one was held in 2014 and then five more consecutively raising more than £25,000 for the two charities.
It is now back again this year to mark Gemma’s 10th anniversary of being diagnosed.
She said: “I took a couple of years out as I went back to work part-time as a recovery nurse at the RD&E. I really enjoy it so it’s good to be back.
“I do suffer a bit from short term memory loss and I get very tired very easily as my brain has been through a lot.
“I also have Type 2 diabetes as a result of the steroids I took and my body is covered in scars.
“If I look back at pictures from 10 years ago it almost feels like a bad dream and I can’t quite believe it ever happened. It’s a funny feeling.
“Now that it has been a whole decade I’ve just got to try my best to put it behind me. I will never be able to as I have to have a scan every month, and the tumour is still there, but now I’m not that girl who has a brain tumour; I’m just me and I need to adapt back to being that person.
“It’s a very unique situation because people ask if I have had the all clear. I will never have it because the tumour will always be there, but I need to get to the point where I try and forget it’s there.
“In the meantime I’m really looking forward to organising another Gemfest. I did not expect to be doing one 10 years later as I didn’t expect to be alive.
“This year will be emotional as it’s a big thing for me. It will also be sad because it is also being held in honour of my friend Gemma Shire. We went on our cancer journey together and she passed away in August 2018.
“She was always known among my friends as ‘the other Gemma’, but she lost her fight, so this year’s festival is bittersweet, but it will be a tribute to her.”
Gemfest is being held on Easter Sunday, April 12, with free, family-orientated events for children of all ages during the daytime from 11am to 4pm, and then in the evening, from 6pm until 12am, there will be an eclectic mix of live music over two stages, a silent disco and other entertainment.
Gemma’s friend and fellow Gemfest organiser, Susan Luscombe, said: “We are so very proud of Gemma in all that she has achieved in the last few years. Returning to work as a nurse has been a huge milestone for Gemma.
“We all love her dearly and I personally feel very privileged to call her my best friend.
To her friends and family, Gemma is a true inspiration; she has maintained a positive attitude throughout.
“Gemma was given the worst possible news 10 years ago but she has never given up hope of recovery and look where we are now.
“After a break from organising the festival so she could return to work, we are now back and hoping for our best year yet!”