Antiques Roadshow star shares health update after cancer diagnosis as she opens up on moment ‘life changed overnight’

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AN Antiques Roadshow expert and young mum with the same type of incurable brain tumour as Laura Nuttall has vowed to continue her legacy to help find a cure.

Theo Burrell, 36, was diagnosed with an aggressive grade four glioblastoma a year ago.

Theo Burrell was diagnosed with an incurable brain tumour a year ago

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Theo Burrell was diagnosed with an incurable brain tumour a year agoCredit: Andrew Barr
Theo, 36, with her partner Alex Leaver

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Theo, 36, with her partner Alex LeaverCredit: Andrew Barr

She immediately underwent surgery to try to remove the tumour and further treatment to shrink it.

The average survival rate for someone with a glioblastoma is 12 to 18 months – only 25 per cent of patients survive more than one year, and just five per cent of patients survive more than five years.

Laura, of Nelson, Lancs, long outlived her year-long prognosis after she was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2018.

And the fearless campaigner raised thousands for brain cancer charities before her death last month, at the age of 23.

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Despite her devastating diagnosis, Theo – who lives in East Lothian with her partner Alex Leaver, 37, and their two-year-old son, Jonah – plans to follow in Laura’s footsteps to help raise awareness and vital funds for research into the cancer that will eventually kill her.

The mum-of-one, who has been the ceramics expert on Antiques Roadshow since 2018, has been helping to organise an online auction in aid of the The Brain Tumour Charity, which is the largest dedicated funder of research into brain tumours.

They are the biggest cancer killer of children and adults under-40s but get just two per cent of research funding.

The online sale, called Piece of Mind: The Brain Tumour Charity, is being run by auction firm Lyonand Turnbull, where Theo has worked as an auctioneer since 2011, and is being backed by a host of celebrities.

The 40 auction lots include a personalised message from the voice of Paddington Bear, Ben Whishaw; a meet-and-greet with the cast of Mrs Brown’s Boys; and exclusive tickets to the Chris and Rosie Ramsey Show at Wembley Arena.

Tickets to see This is Going to Hurt author Adam Kay, plus a Michelin-starred lunch with him, are also up for grabs as well as a one-off vase hand-crafted by comedian Joe Lycett.

‘Everything changed’

Theo says: “Receiving my diagnosis, at the age of 35, when my son was one-year-old, was devastating.

“Overnight everything had changed. Suddenly I’d gone from being a healthy person in the middle of my life with a new baby, to having incurable cancer with maybe only a year or two left to live.

“What followed was months of surgery and treatment to try and prolong my life, and although I continue to make the best of each day, my tumour will return and it will kill me.

“My care has been excellent and new advances in science have helped me fight cancer so far. However, only by funding research into brain tumours can we get closer to a life-saving cure.”

Theo is a ceramics expert on Antiques Roadshow

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Theo is a ceramics expert on Antiques RoadshowCredit: BBC
She was forced to have emergency surgery last year

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She was forced to have emergency surgery last year

Theo never met Laura but, like the rest of the nation, she was touched by her story and it has inspired her to continue to raise awareness around brain cancer.

Theo says: “For me, the auction is very much about keeping up the work of people like Baroness Tessa Jowell and Laura Nuttall, who died very recently.

“When you get diagnosed with something like a glioblastoma in your 30s, you really need these people, you need to see that what they are doing and even though these tumours have killed people and we have lost Tessa and Laura, they turned a very difficult situation into something which helped other people.  

“They gave back at a time when they were having a really tough time, for want of a better phrase.”

She also says it was “honourable” for Laura and her family to be “willing to share so much” at what can be “a private time”.

Laura’s legacy

Theo says: “Just looking over what she had done, someone in her early 20s, for the brain tumour community, I thought, ‘yes, if I were to need a reminder about why we are doing this auction and why I am speaking out, I just need to look at what people like Laura have done.

“They have done so much for the community. They have raised so much money.”

She also praised Olympic diver Tom Daley whose dad Rob died aged 40 in 2011 of a brain tumour.

In 2021, Tom backed an appeal by the Brain Tumour Charity to help raise £450,000 needed to fund a three-year trial to treat recurrent glioblastomas.

Theo says: “We have not had improved treatment for such a long time so I think these people are putting the hard work in and if I am well enough to do it then I absolutely feel I absolutely have to do it.”

Strange symptoms

The mum-of-one was fit and well before she started experiencing symptoms, including headaches, tinnitus and disturbed vision, in December 2021.

She says: “I think there is often an assumption even by medical professionals that it is going to be so unlikely that what you have got is cancer that all other avenues are exhausted first.  

“It was really quite rare that I had this, especially for my age, so it was probably the last case scenario really in some ways from the medical professionals point of view.”

Then, last June, the pain became unbearable so she took herself to A&E at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, where a CT scan showed she had a glioblastoma.

Laura Nuttall, who died last month aged 23, inspired Theo to carry on her legacy

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Laura Nuttall, who died last month aged 23, inspired Theo to carry on her legacyCredit: PA
Theo nine months pregnant with her son, Jonah

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Theo nine months pregnant with her son, JonahCredit: Theo Burrell

Theo says: “It was just an extremely surreal situation, a sort of out of body experience.

“All of a sudden I had gone from somebody who was presenting with migraines to somebody…they knew immediately it was a cancerous brain tumour.”

She was immediately admitted and had surgery a few days later in a bid to remove the 5cm tumour.

Before the op, she was given a special “pink drink” that enables surgeons to precisely target brain tumours, something which Baroness Tessa Jowell campaigned for before her death in 2018, a year after being diagnosed with a grade four glioblastoma.

Theo explains: “It is almost like a shot of sort of vinegary, clear liquid you have a Couple of hours before the surgery.

“I think under a UV light this liquid turns the cancerous cells in your brain bright pink. So it really, really helps the surgeons being able to operate very well on tumours, because my understanding is that the tumour is quite similar in colour and texture to the brain so to have this additional help is brilliant. So I benefited directly from the work that she did.

“The plan was to get rid of over 90 per cent of the tumour, it is very difficult to get rid of all of it without either starting to damage healthy tissue.”

No prognosis

The auctioneer asked not to be given a prognosis when she was diagnosed but admits she “accidentally” discovered it.

Theo says: “I said right from the outset I did not want a prognosis or a life expectancy because I felt that I would focus on whatever number I was given and that I might cater how I was living my life to that number, and if I died before that number I was going to feel upset that I hadn’t made it to where I was supposed to.

“If I died long after that number I would have felt frustrated that I had lived my life according to an arbitrary number and if I died exactly as they said then what difference does it make.

“So I didn’t look at life expectancy for a long time after I was diagnosed and then I accidentally came across it which was really hard to see how short it was.”

She also had radiotherapy and chemotherapy to help shrink what was left of the tumour, which is now a couple of centimetres.

Theo, who is still too unwell to return to work, says: “When I first got out of hospital it was hard. I would be sitting in his room reading a bedtime story thinking, ‘how many more bedtime stories do I have left?

“That still makes me feel very emotional and upset but I have lost worry because I have actually had loads of bedtime stories and I’m hopeful I have got loads more left.”

She also says she feels lucky that she had Jonah, who turns three later this year, before she fell ill.

Theo says: “I had Jonah before I was diagnosed and chemotherapy can affect your fertility, you might be in a situation where you can’t have children or you might feel that with the diagnosis that you are not able to do that.  Being on and off chemo you wouldn’t be able to be pregnant, I don’t think.

“So I feel happy that the boys will go on together, even if I am not here. The thought of leaving my partner on his own, or my son on his own, those things would be emotional for anybody but to know they are there together is really nice.

“And I guess there is something quite nice about that you are leaving something behind in the form of another person.”

Love and support

She also praises her partner of ten years for his unwavering support.  

Theo says: “It has been a difficult year for all of us, especially for him. I think I would rather have the cancer than be watching the love of my life have it.”

She says she hasn’t discussed any plans on how she would like him to raise their son in the future.

Theo says: “My partner and I are very much on the same page. I fully trust him in terms of what he goes on to do with the care of our son so I haven’t and I actually feel by doing that I am suggesting that I am giving up hope in the situation and the power of hope is really important I think in this.  

“I have managed to do the full course of treatment, I have managed to have this surgery which was as successful as possible so I actually have been very lucky. Whilst I am well we just continue as normal really as much as we can.”

And Theo has now moved into “this 25 per cent of people who have lived more than a year with the glioblastoma.”

She says: “I have absolutely no idea what is going to happen.  Nobody can tell me.  I’d rather live day to day.”

She adds: “My surgery anniversary is the day before the auction launches. I didn’t think when I was given my diagnosis last year that I might even be here, so to be here and to be running the auction and doing all this, it is something very positive.

“And there are a very small amount of people who do manage to live for a very long time with this type of tumour and there is an amazing guy called Dave Bolton whose nearly ten year anniversary. “

The dad-of-two, from the Wirral, Merseyside, is still defying the odds after being given just six months to live in 2014.

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Theo says: “He has watched his family grow up.  I read all the predictions on his life and I spend time sort of focusing on people like Dave.”

To donate to Theo’s JustGiving page visit  https://www.justgiving.com/page/theodora-burrell-1684268829902



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