When Kelly Ann Alexander realised her horse Aliyana wouldn’t stop sniffing the right side of her head, she was worried.
The 43-year-old had been having seizures for a few months and had been diagnosed with epilepsy but something didn’t seem right.
Seeing her beloved horse’s reaction, she insisted on more tests, which revealed a low-grade brain tumour.
Kelly Ann had just taken up her dream job as a groom in a professional yard in Aberdeenshire when she first became ill in October 2015.
Just weeks earlier she and Aliyana had completed in their first dressage competition together.
She said: ‘Aliyana was a wedding present from my husband Kevin.
‘Within days of the dressage competition, I had my first seizure and then was having up to 14 or 15 a day which were always preceded by a horrible metallic taste and smell.
‘I was prescribed the anti-epilepsy drug Keppra, but was still backwards and forwards to the doctor.
‘Kevin had been brilliant, but needed to get back to work, so I moved 200 miles back to be with my parents in West Lothian.
‘It was about five or six weeks before I next saw Aliyana, but when I did her reaction was incredible.
‘She galloped over to me and immediately started to sniff the right side of my head where, as we now know, the tumour was growing.’
Eventually, Kelly Ann, who now lives in Blackburn, Lancashire, was admitted to St John’s Hospital in Livingston, where the oligodendroglioma brain tumour was diagnosed.
She underwent surgery but challenged the neurosurgeon when told she could be left unable to walk or talk, insisting that she needed to be strong enough to ride.
Kelly Ann added: ‘My horse is the best therapy I could have.
‘Along with my husband Kevin, she keeps me going, she gives me a reason to get up every morning.
‘She has adapted her behaviour to help me and, looking back, I now realise she was the first to make any sense to what was happening to me.’
Kelly Ann said that Aliyana really motivated her to get better as soon as possible when she had her surgery.
‘My bond with Aliyana made me focused on recovering as quickly as possible,’ she said.
‘Doctors told me I wouldn’t be able to ride for a year, but I was actually back in the saddle after just seven months.
‘I trusted Aliyana would look after me and although I felt a bit apprehensive at first, I have found she always seems to know when I am tired and works extra hard for me.
‘She even knows when I am having a good day.’
Since the initial surgery, Kelly Ann has suffered from left-sided weakness but her horse has adapted and she can still ride.
Kelly Ann added: ‘Aliyana amazingly has learnt that she now needs to walk on my left side, not on the right as she was used to.
‘She has even worked out that if she wants a treat she needs to be near my left pocket.’
In 2017, a scan showed the tumour was back and she has undergone further treatment.
Kelly Ann is now working with the charity Brain Tumour Research to raise awareness.
Less than 20% of those diagnosed with a brain tumour survive beyond five years compared with an average of 50% across all cancers.
Despite her surgery, Kelly Ann’s tumour returned in 2017 and she is still undergoing treatment.
‘It was a shock to discover that the tumour had reoccurred,’ Kelly Ann added.
‘I underwent radiotherapy and then chemo, but the best therapy for me is being with Aliyana, even though I have to rely on friends to get me to the stables as I am not allowed to drive,” she said.
‘The uncertainty of my future makes it very difficult for my mental health. I am having to take things very slowly.
‘Added to that, because I am not allowed to drive, I have to rely on friends giving me lifts, including to the stables.’
Kelly Ann is still trying to compete in dressage competitions but says it is difficult because she gets brain fog and can’t always remember what tests she needs to do.
She said: ‘To me that doesn’t matter as the important thing is that I have made an effort to attend.
‘I don’t care if I win a rosette or not, because in my eyes I am a winner – I’m winning at life after being told I may not walk or talk again.
‘I’m determined to make the most of whatever the future holds for me and, with Kevin and my beloved horse, I know I can put on a brave face and make the best of every day.’
Joe Woollcott, community fundraising manager at Brain Tumour Research for Scotland and Northern Ireland, said: ‘We are very grateful to Kelly Ann for helping to raise awareness.
‘Kelly Ann’s story reminds us that brain tumours are indiscriminate; they can affect anyone at any age.
‘Brain tumours are the biggest cancer killer of children and adults under the age of 40 and yet historically just one per cent of the national spend on cancer research has been allocated to brain tumours.
‘We cannot allow this desperate situation to continue.’
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