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Festival of celebration after defying cancer

By Exeter Express and Echo  |  Posted: February 07, 2013

By Tom Bevan

  • Gemma Wensley

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TWO years ago Gemma Wensley was preparing her own funeral after being told her cancer was terminal. She was given just months to live.

But after baffling medical staff with her recovery from an inoperable tumour in her brain stem, the 30-year-old from St Leonard's in Exeter is now busy organising her own festival.

Despite her miraculous recovery she still faces an uncertain future, and knows she is just one scan away from returning to her darkest times.

But one thing she has learnt during the rollercoaster ride which began with her devastating diagnosis is to live every day like it could be her last.

She is currently putting her energies into organising Gem Fest – an event featuring various performers at the Exeter Phoenix, taking place on March 31, to raise money for Brain Cancer Charities.

The idea for the event came after her friends and family organised Gem Fest to celebrate her 30th birthday, last March, a landmark she thought she would never see.

Gemma, a former pupil at Exeter College who worked as a nurse at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital before her illness, was first diagnosed with cancer after going for a routine scan towards the end of 2009.

She said: "I had six weeks of radiotherapy and chemotherapy every day. I came through that ok, but a few months later I took a massive turn for the worse.

"I could not see or hear anything. I was put on a high dose of steroids but was not getting any better.

"I was told that if it carried on growing the way it was I was looking at just a few months to live.

"I was preparing for the worst. In my head I was planning my funeral and saying goodbye to friends. They said they could not give me any more radiotherapy, and because the tumour was in the brain stem it was inoperable. They decided to carry on with the chemo to see what would happen, but told me realistically it would be a matter of months.

"I was a hospice patient and things were pretty grim. Although I carried on with the treatment in the hope something may happen, it is still very unusual to be on a drug for that long.

"But then out of nowhere it started getting better."

Gemma went for a scan in November 2011 she was amazed to discover the tumour had started getting smaller.

"My doctors were baffled at the sudden improvement, so I began to wean myself off the steroids," she said.

"I had looked a lot better and had more energy in the months before the scan, but I still could not believe it. The doctors were pretty baffled but said they did not want to take me off the chemo as they couldn't be 100 per cent sure that wasn't what was having the impact. They cannot take a biopsy from the brain stem so they don't know.

"I take the chemo in tablet form for five days every four weeks. The tumour is still there and needs to be treated, and I just take things a scan at a time. As long as my body can tolerate the chemo I will keep plodding along with it.

"I am a lot more positive about my future, but I do remember how I was before and that at any point things can just change. I felt ok when I first got my diagnosis and had no idea what was coming. Now, more than ever, I just take every single day as it comes."

Gem Fest was christened in March last year as a surprise birthday party for Gemma Wensley.

"I never felt I would get to my 30th birthday, and it was a miracle I did," she said.

"My sister and a group of friends planned a surprise party for me at Exeter City Football Club where everyone was dressed in wellies and festival gear. It was a proper festival and the best birthday party ever."

Afterwards, Gemma and her friend Susan Luscombe decided to make it an annual charity event.

"I love festivals and go to Glastonbury, Isle of Wight and V Festival, among others, so it just made sense," she said.

This year's Gem Fest is taking place on Sunday, March 31, at the Exeter Phoenix, which has offered its building free for the whole day.

The day will be divided into two sections. It begins with a free family-orientated day between noon and 5pm, with activities including arts and crafts, story-telling, stalls, a cinema, face painting and various games and competitions. There is a small charge for some activities.

The second part of the day takes place between 6pm and 2am and costs £12 a ticket. This will feature two music stages with both local and national performers. There is also a lounge upstairs which will be converted into an acoustic stage, a DJ set in the terrace and comedy in the black box.

Gemma said: "We began planning it in October last year and we are getting there. The bands are almost together and there are a few loose ends to tie up. The performers are doing it for free so we hope to raise at least £6,000 for charity."

Tickets are available from Exeter Phoenix Centre on 01392 667080 or atwww.exeter phoenix.org.uk

For more information or to make a donation visit www.just giving.com/Gemfestexeter

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