A mother-of-two is fighting for her life after learning the blocked ear that had troubled her for months was actually cancer.
Sheena Schyma, 32, from Tooting, London, who spent four months trying to find a reason for her sudden hearing problems, was sent away twice by doctors before being diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer behind her nose.
After finally insisting on a private referral to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist, the finance worker was sent for a biopsy in September, after which doctors delivered the devastating news that Sheena had stage three nasopharynx cancer (NPC).
Now Sheena is desperately trying to raise over £70,000 to pay for pioneering proton therapy, which is not available in the UK, that could help her live to see her daughters Julia, two, and Freya, four, grow up.
Sheena Schyma spent four months battling to find a reason behind sudden problems with her hearing only to be diagnosed with a rare form of cancer
The cancer-stricken mother is now battling to raise more than £70,000 for proton cancer treatment that is not available in the UK so she can see her two daughters Julia, two, left, and Freya, four, right grow up
Sheena's husband Chris said: 'Sheena had a blocked ear and it really was just that – like you would get after going swimming, or on a flight when the pressure changes.
'She went to see her local GP twice and each time they said it was normal, it happens, and she would just have to learn to live with it.
'Sheena isn't pushy that way,' said Chris, who explained that when his wife insisted on being referred to a specialist doctors initially wanted her seen by a haematologist.
'She hates to think she is being a burden on someone else, but after a few months she insisted on a private referral to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist, where the GP wanted to refer her to [the] haematology [department] instead,' he said.
'The ENT consultant suggested that had we gone down the haematology route, there was a good chance that they would have missed the primary tumour site.'
After a number of scans and biopsies, doctors recommended Sheena undergo concurrent chemotherapy with intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT), but after doing her own research the mother-of-two became increasingly worried about the suggested treatment plan.
Chris said: 'Sheena was obviously very upset with the diagnosis – we all were – but her response was to research.
'She bunkered down for a week and researched everything about the cancer, including IMRT.
'Once we started to dig into treatment that's when things started to unravel.'
Sheena became concerned that IMRT could leave her with long-lasting problems and a string of side effects.
Sheena was turned away by her doctors twice before she opted to go private and had a biopsy to find out a diagnosis
Chris said: 'In the UK success is curing the cancer. And you're just expected to accept the long term issues that come with that, including the risk of recurrent cancer or metastasis, which can occur in one-third of NPC cases.'
Proton therapy works by accelerating protons until they reach half the speed of light.
They are then targeted at cancer cells with pencil-point precision.
Unlike traditional radiotherapy using X-rays it can pin-point the exact area to target, preserving healthy tissue in front of the tumour and preventing damage to the tissue behind it.
'But Sheena's attitude is that you can't just accept what someone is telling you based on what's available or standard protocol in the UK. There are other options and other things to consider – such as the latest research findings and patient experience through forums.'
While looking into Sheena's options the couple came across proton beam therapy, a pioneering treatment that is not yet available in the UK.
The NHS will not fund Sheena's proton treatment, and it's not covered under her health insurance because proton therapy is not currently part of the UK's treatment guidelines for NPC.
Two new proton therapy centres are being built in Manchester and London, but they will not become operational until 2019 – by which time it could be too late.
'Trying to make a judgement was really tricky,' said Chris, who claims the oncologists and specialists seeing Sheena were unwilling to give guidance on the alternative treatment.
Sheena's chemotherapy treatment has left her tired and lacking in energy but she is determined to seek out alternative proton treatment
'Their view is they have a job to do and they have tools they can use, and unfortunately proton therapy isn't one of them at the moment,' he said.
'And they are able to manage all the known side effects from IMRT from life long thyroid medication to cataract surgery, hearing aids as required and any secondary malignancy or metastasis.
'Proton therapy will not create a better opportunity to cure the cancer. IMRT and proton therapy offer exactly the same success rates. What we're looking at here is long term quality of life.'
Chris has established a JustGiving page which has already raised £20,000 towards the goal of £37,500, so Sheena can begin treatment at the Proton Therapy Center in Prague in the Czech Republic.
Proton therapy works by accelerating protons until they reach half the speed of light. They are then targeted at cancer cells with pencil-point precision
Two new proton therapy centres are being built in Manchester in London but they will not become operational until 2019 – which will be too late for Sheena
But there's still a long way to go.
Chris explained: 'I have been doing the communication between the UK and Prague because they won't directly send them any of the notes they need.
'There's a real burden on the patient to muddle through the process, which takes a long time.
'And then we have two young girls, I have a job, and Sheena starts her second course of chemotherapy on Monday.
'During the first round of chemo, she was so tired that she couldn't do anything but sleep – to the extent of falling asleep twice while trying to finish a meal.
'The girls are reluctant to come too close because she has a PICC line in her arm. So obviously that has caused some distance.
'We are taking a pragmatic approach and just try to keep solving problems, but getting over the target shouldn't be underestimated.'
To support Sheena's plight, visit her JustGiving page 'Cancer Treatment for Sheena'