Joanna was given weeks to live, her body wracked by chemotherapy. The truth is she didn't have cancer at all.
Daily Mail, July 9, 1996
FOR A woman who had battled with breast cancer and won, the consultant's words came as a final, devastating blow.
Joanna Johansen was attending St William's Hospital in Rochester, Kent, for a referral appointment with consultant radiotherapist Dr David Geraint Jenkins. This, she was told by the surgeon who had operated on her breast, was to ensure that the cancer had been eradicated.
But following a brief check-up, Dr Jenkins looked up at the smartly-dressed mother of a grown-up son and uttered the words that would irrevocably change her life.
'He proceeded to tell me there was a possibility that I had bone cancer,' said Mrs Johansen, now 58.
The date was February 15, 1982. In the 14 years that followed the new diagnosis, Joanna was treated with radiotherapy, chemotherapy and steroids which, she alleges, caused fractures of her spine and ribs, osteoporosis and a premature menopause.
But the truth is, she never had bone cancer. And two weeks ago in the Royal Courts of Justice, Medway and South-East Thames health authorities were forced to admit that Dr Jenkins' diagnosis was wrong.
However, the authority denied that her subsequent treatment had caused her injuries and she walked away from court virtually empty-handed, forced to accept an out-of-court settlement — rumoured to be £20,000 — that does not even cover her legal costs.
Hers is a frightening story that began on a cold winter's morning back in 1982. Joanna set off in the car with her first husband, Richard, feeling only a slight twinge of nervous anticipation. Just two weeks previously, a post-operative body scan had revealed she was clear of the cancerous tumour which had resulted in a single mastectomy.
She had been warned that she might require a couple of top-up radiotherapy sessions, but it was more likely she would be sent home requiring little more than convalescence. That, it now transpires, is what should have happened. What did happen, however, was quite different.
"The consultant asked me about my general medical history," says Joanna, who fives in Torquay, Devon, and is married to second husband Derek Johansen, 66, the former author of the Johansens guides to upmarket hotels.
She told the doctor that two years previously she'd undergone a hysterectomy because of aching pain in her lower back.
She lay on the couch and the consultant tapped her back with a small metal hammer, the type commonly used to test reflexes.
'He prodded me quite a few times with the hammer and asked me if my lower back was tender,' says Joanna. 'With all that pushing, of course it was going to be tender. Without any X-rays, blood tests or anything, he said I would require radiotherapy treatments.'
It was then that he delivered his flawed diagnosis.
'I couldn't believe it,' says Joanna. 'I went into shock.'
'I expected to have part of my chest treatd, but he told me be was also going to concentrate on the lumbar region where I was experiencing the ache.'
Joanna was led to a treatment room where a thick, black pen was used to map out regions of her body to be treated. Then, lying across a treatment bed, a camera-type machine was lowered on to her body and radiotherapy commenced.
The same pattern continued day after day. The cancer-destroying radio waves zapped not only her chest and spine but her ribcage, lower abdomen, femur and lower region. Joanna underwent five months Intensive treatment.
'I thought I was going have only two sessions and was told there would be no side-effects,' she says. 'I thought I'd have no problems apart from feeling a bit tired but the more treatment I had the more ghastly I felt. It began with nausea, passing out and a terrible churning in my stomach.
'I'd lie there and think: "When am I going to get out of here? This cant be happening." One minute my prognosis was good and the next I was being told: "We're not quite sure but we think you have cancer in your spine." And still no exploratory tests had been conducted.'
Each morning, Joanna would wake feeling exhausted after a long sleep: She was collected by ambulance, to be taken for further treatments.
'I became so ill I couldn't stop vomiting in the ambulance,' she says. 'There were other people with me and I couldn't stand it any longer, so for four months I paid to be privately driven to hospital.
'In the end I found some effective sickness pills. But after each treatment
I'd sit down, try to drink a glass of water, collect my composure and think how
I was going to leave the hospital without being sick.
FRIENDS would telephone but I felt so ill that I couldn't speak to them. I had no appetite and was totally exhausted. I'd go to bed and the next thing I knew it would be time to go to the hospital once more.'
A month into the treatment programme, Joanna's blood count had dropped so low that her skin had turned yellow.
'One particular morning I woke up and just couldn't be bothered with life at all,' says Joanna. 'My husband took one look at me and knew something was seriously wrong. He carried me into the car in my nightclothes and drove to the hospital
'When we got there he kept on telling the staff that the treatment was doing this to me. They then discovered how low my blood count was and I underwent an emergency blood transfusion.'
After a week's reprieve, Joanna continued the radiotherapy treatment until she was rushed to hospital for a second time.
'It was May and I started to have the most horrific burning sensation in my stomach where the radiotherapy had burned me inside,' she says. 'The pain was unbelievable. Swallowing caused excruciating pain and my mouth had completely dried up. I had the most violent thirst but couldn't stand the pain of drinking so much as a drop of water.
My relatives drove like crazy to get me to St William's Hospital. It was a Bank Holiday Monday but luckily my consultant had attended a fair in the hospital grounds and was checking on one or two of his patients when we arrived.
'I was crying as I told him how bad I was feeling. He told me to sit down. "Oh, you'll get over it —you're not drinking enough water," he said before telling me to take milk of magnesia. I tried to explain that anything I had managed to drink was brought straight back up, causing even more agony.
'I went back home distraught. I sat up in bed with my knees tucked right up
to my chest as it was the only way I could get any sort of relief from the
JOANNA started further therapy the next day — chemotherapy, which resulted in her losing her hair. She desperately tried to put a stop to the treatment, but to no avail.
'I was pleading with another doctor who was administering the treatment,' she says. 'I told him I couldn't stand it. I broke down and begged him to see if he could have it stopped.
'He fetched my doctor who said I had to complete the treatment, before adding: "I think it's in your mind. Just keep taking the milk of magnesia." I tried to tell him that each time I did, it came straight back up but it was hopeless. He wouldn't listen.'
That same day, Joanna happened to mention feeling a slight pain in the upper part of her left leg. It was a remark she would soon regret.
The next thing she knew, her leg was being mapped out with a thick, black pen. She was strapped on to a rotating table and first the front part of her leg was zapped before she was flipped over for treatment on the back of it.
'I couldn't take any more,' she says. "Things were getting so bad that I was constantly breaking down. On top of everything else, I started to develop a pain in my ribs. It felt as if they were being gripped by a vice. I thought the pain, which then spread to my back, was the cancer.
'Soon after that, the doctor treating me went on two weeks' holiday. Acting on his instructions, a locum examined my tummy. He said: "I don't like the feel of this — it's suspicious."
'I underwent yet another course of treatment which radiated my ovaries and induced a premature menopause.'
But there was worse to come. In June, four months after her first consultation, Joanna was called to a meeting with her consultant.
'Pointing to X-rays on a viewer, he told me: "I've got some films here. I'm afraid your liver and spleen are affected." I thought to myself: "Well, that's the end."'
He took both my hands. I said "This is very serious, isn't it?" and he said: "Yes. Do you want to know the truth or are you one of those patients who'd rather be shielded from it?"
'I told him I already guessed how seriously ill I was — I was riddled with cancer. I asked him how long I'd got and he said: "It's weeks rather than months." I just looked at him and began sobbing.
'He told me we'd have to make the best of It and that we'd continue with treatment. I could hardly believe that I would have to undergo more therapy. What was the point? My liver was affected and I was going to die In just weeks.'
Joanna was admitted to hospital where her condition rapidly deteriorated. Her gullet was so badly burned that the pain of drinking was intolerable and she became dangerously dehydrated.
'I was in a sort of daze and was looking around at the fruit juice on the bedside cabinets,' she says. 'I wanted to drink and drink and drink. Finally, my arm was laid on a pillow and I was given a glucose drip. It was as if I was expected to be dead the following morning. I was being given tablets which I could hardly swallow. I'd be sick almost Immediately they hit my stomach, which was agony.
'The next thing I knew, my gynaecologist, Mr Longin, who'd become a good friend, was sitting at the side of my bed. He said: "What's going on? I could hardly speak and just lay there looking at him. "Oh, Joanna," he said, "none of this drip is going into your system — it's just seeped into the pillow."'
He ordered the nurses to hand-feed Joanna tiny ice cubes. Milk was frozen and fed to her in the same manner. The ice slowly anaesthetised her burned gullet so she could withstand the pain of swallowing.
"The following day I felt so much better, but I'd barely started to regain any strength when I was told I was being taken down for radiotherapy on my liver and spleen,' she says.
'I was just about to be taken down when Mr Longin phoned the hospital and insisted that any further treatment must be stopped. He'd arranged for me to have a second opinion.'
By this stage, Joanna was in a wheelchair as she was too weak to walk. A course of steroids had left her once slender body swollen beyond recognition.
Although he insisted, 'I know cancer when I see it', Mr Jenkins provided a referral letter for a consultant she was to see to King's College Hospital London.
'That day I underwent a whole series of tests. Then the consultant said she was going to wean me off the steroids and that I was to go home and stay away from any doctors for the time being.'
A week later, the consultant telephoned Joanna to tell her she had some wonderful news. Tests had revealed that there was no cancer in her body.
'Part of me was absolutely elated; another part felt total disbelief,' says Joanna. "I even began to wonder if she was right.
'It was so difficult to accept I'd been through hell for nothing; that I'd been clear of cancer all along. I gasped as I thought of what would have happened if my doctor had been allowed to treat my liver and spleen. I'm sure I would have died.'
Joanna sought legal advice but was more preoccupied with what she describes as a 'murderous' pain coursing through her spine and ribcage. She believed her physical and emotional torture could not get worse. She was wrong.
ONE EVENING, I sat on the bed to take off my tights. I bent over and ray back just went "snap". I was bent double, my ribcage was digging into my stomach and I could hardly breathe.'
For the next four months, Joanna languished in a private clinic where tests revealed five collapsed spinal vertebrae, the incurable bone disease osteoporosis and damage to her left hip and femur which Joanna alleges was caused by the unnecessary .radiotherapy treatment.
She was admitted to a specialist spinal injuries hospital for further tests. 'I was told I'd probably never walk again,' says Joanna. 'I was severely disabled and confined to a wheelchair for the next four years.
'I'd have to link my arms around the nurses' necks and they'd haul me up saying: "It's all right, darling. It's all right. It was desperate.'
Joanna, whose marriage break-up in 1989 was unrelated to her radiotherapy ordeal, hired four solicitors to bring civil suits against two health authorities.
In 1993 she married Derek Johansen, who is suffering from the life-threatening cancer multiple myeloma.
Last week, she saw what she describes as the 'soul-destroying' culmination of her 14-year quest for justice and compensation. Following a two-day hearing, she had no choice but to settle out of court.
'While liability was admitted, I was secretly filmed walking around town with a friend,' says Joanna. 'I can't walk more than 500 yards without having to sit down. They tried to make out there is nothing wrong with me and that I don't need the money because my husband is a wealthy man.
'I've endured unspeakable trauma and irrevocable injuries which aren't going to get any better. I can't socialise, play tennis or even go shopping for a dress. I'm in constant pain and have terrible/ spasms which last for days and are eased only by physiotheragy.
'I wouldn't think twice about advising others not to take legal action. Only the legal profession has gained anything from my pain. I feel tremendous anger.
'I used to be confident and outing. That's all gone and I'm having to rebuild my life. I used to be placid but now I'm so nervous that I'll scream at the simplest thing, even the phone ringing. When I stop to think about it, it seems so mad.'
Surprisingly, Joanna says she has started to come to terms with her ordeal. But she has never received an apology for what happened.
'I've no doubt that my life was endangered and had I died there would have been no post-mortem because I was a cancer patient. Thankfully, my gynaecologist stepped in and, I firmly believe, saved my life.
'I can't help but wonder whether this has happened to other people ' who haven't been as fortunate.'