'I'll never forget day the specialist told me I had a tumour behind my eye - but you have to fight whatever this life throws at you'
James Campbell went to bed one night feeling fine, but woke up the following morning with blurred vision. The Portrush father-of-one tells Stephanie Bell how a prompt referral by his local Specsavers led to a worrying diagnosis - and why he's now glad to be back at work.
It was a Saturday which Portrush fireman James Campbell will never forget and never in his wildest dreams could have imagined.
The fit firefighter and father-of-one woke with unusual blurring in his eye and within just a few hours was being given the devastating diagnosis that he needed urgent life-saving surgery for a cancerous tumour.
That was in June 2011 and today - as he continues to feel only gratitude for the speed with which his condition was crucially picked up by his local Specsavers' optician - he recently joined the company at the House of Lords in London to launch an important new campaign.
The £3m Transforming Eye Health awareness campaign has been organised by Specsavers in association with the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) and James was there to help spread the word about the importance of eye health.
His story is all the more remarkable because of the speed with which he was diagnosed and treated, undergoing major surgery within days. Incredibly, he was back at his work only three weeks later.
He says: "I was so happy to go over to London and support the campaign and meet other people and talk to them about their experiences.
"Mine was nothing compared to some of them and I can't stress enough how important it is to get your eyes tested.
"I was never one for sitting down and not doing anything. You have to get up and fight what life throws at you. I just thank the Big Man for every day that I do get up."
Now in great health, James (50) who is married to Fiona (52), an accountant, and has one daughter Shannon (15), recalls how he woke up with a slight blurring in his left eye and immediately rang his local Specsavers in Coleraine to book an appointment.
Using specialised equipment, optician Jill Cummings spotted signs of a tumour. As an optician she couldn't give a definite diagnosis, but she was instantly aware from the detailed picture taken of the back of James's eye that further investigation was needed.
Judith Ball, store director at Specsavers Coleraine, said: "James is a longstanding customer since 2009 and would regularly have been in to see us to get safety glasses for work as a firefighter. When he rang saying he was experiencing a slight blurriness in one eye, we told him to come in straight away just for a routine check.
"Using a digital retinal camera and other relevant equipment, our optician, Jill Cummings, spotted signs of a tumour.
"This sophisticated piece of equipment allows our opticians to take a detailed picture of the back of the eye and is part of the service we offer at no extra charge.
"As opticians we can't give a definite diagnosis for something like this, but we are instantly aware of any potential issues and can recommend further investigation by a doctor and the need for urgency."
Now back to full health, James is keen to warn others of the dangers and recalls how events unfolded in the days after his diagnosis.
"It is a day I'll never forget," he admits. "I woke with this slight blurring on the top and left of my eye which hadn't been there on the Friday night. I rang Specsavers and they told me to come in at 11.30 that morning.
"The optician, Jill, looked at my eye and said 'You're for Altnagelvin or the Royal, as you need a specialist to take a look at your eye'.
"It all happened very quickly. I saw an eye specialist, Mrs Brennan, in Altnagelvin in Londonderry later that afternoon and she did tests. At about 5pm that evening she sat me down and said: 'This is where you get the bad news'.
"She told me I had a tumour at the back of my eye and it was cancerous and also that it was pushing on my retina and that I would need surgery.
"My mind was racing and I wasn't really taking it in at that stage.
"She told me there was nothing that could be done for me in Northern Ireland and I would have to go to Liverpool or the East Midlands."
James was told he had a choroidal melanoma, or potentially cancerous tumour, behind the eye. Within two weeks he was in Royal Liverpool Hospital having a consultation with one of the world's leading specialists in eye cancer, Professor Bertil Damato.
"My wife travelled with me and we thought we would be back home again that night," says James.
But Professor Damato told James that he needed surgery urgently and that it could be carried out the next day - otherwise there was no guarantee of when it could be done. James says: "I was sitting in the waiting room just trying to let it all sink in.
"He told me my eye was also leaking fluid from the tumour. We had no clothes with us and no toiletries and my wife had nowhere to stay, so we had to organise all of that.
"My tumour was the size of two peas and they were able to remove it.
"I was kept in for 10 days but that was it, I haven't needed any other treatment."
Amazingly, just three weeks after leaving hospital, James was back at work with the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service in Coleraine.
He says he has nothing but admiration for everyone in the National Health Service and also for the Specsavers staff who ensured he was treated so quickly and so thoroughly for what was a potentially life-threatening condition.
That is why he was delighted to travel to London to lend his support for the launch of the new eye health awareness campaign.
The event at the House of Lords was hosted by Lord Dow of Dalston CBE, co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Eye Health and Visual Impairment, and was attended by leading figures from the optical, healthcare and charitable professions, including RNIB President Dame Gail Ronson DBE, RNIB vice-president and campaign ambassador Penny Lancaster (Lady Stewart), as well as Specsavers co-founders Doug and Dame Mary Perkins.
Attendees at the launch heard the findings of a State of the Nation: Eye Health 2016 report which revealed that sight loss is costing the UK economy £28bn annually. Written by RNIB, supported by Specsavers and supplemented by an independent YouGov poll of more than 10,000 UK adults, the report is the most significant and comprehensive insight into the health of the nation's eyes in recent years. It supports a £3m multi-media public health awareness campaign by RNIB and Specsavers to transform eye health and reduce preventable sight loss in the UK.
More than six million people in the UK live with sight-threatening conditions or uncorrected refractive error. Some may not yet be experiencing any symptoms and may have no idea that anything is wrong.
Of these, more than two million people are living with sight loss that has a significant impact on their daily lives.
This figure is set to increase to more than 2.7 million by 2030, driven by an increase in the UK's ageing demographic.
Although nearly half of all cases of sight loss in the UK could have been prevented, 14 million people in Britain are not having an eye test, as recommended, which is at least every two years.
Specsavers founder Doug Perkins, an optometrist for more than 50 years, says: "It's astonishing that so many people are needlessly living with or at risk of sight loss in the UK today. Nearly half of all sight loss cases are preventable - and a simple eye test can be the first step in prevention.
"Our mission with RNIB is to transform the nation's eye health through education, awareness and action; we want to reverse these worrying eye health trends that are putting unnecessary pressure on the health service.
"That's why we have invested £3m to educate people about the importance of looking after their eye health.
"Prevention is critical. We don't care where people have an eye test, we just care that they do."
James is grateful that he acted so quickly and for the care that he received.
He says: "My treatment and operation in the Royal Liverpool hospital were carried out by a remarkable consultant, Mr Demato. The whole team over there was brilliant.
"The aftercare here at home from Mrs Brennan at Altnagelvin Hospital, both before and after my surgery, has also been second to none.
"I have nothing but praise for our health service and how they treated me and my family over a particularly difficult and uncertain time.
"And - excuse the pun - but they have really kept an eye on me ever since."
James adds: "It has changed my life. It didn't change my way of life but my attitude to life.
"I just enjoy every day now as you never know when it could be taken away.
"You don't realise how important your eyesight is until you are in the position I was in. I'm not fully back to normal, as the peripheral vision in my left eye is still affected, but I can still work as a firefighter and I feel in great health. I am so thankful to everyone who was involved in my care and enjoy every minute I have."
Why regular testing is so important ... tell-tale signs to look out for
- Some eye problems can be age related so it is important that you have regular eye tests throughout your life, starting at the age of three.
- Often it can be difficult for parents to tell if their young children have sight issues, which is why regular testing is so important.
- Tell-tale signs to look for include a child losing their place while reading, frequent eye rubbing, constantly sitting too close to the TV or complaining of headaches or tired eyes. Young children may also try to avoid activities which need near vision such as homework or reading or don’t want to participate in sports or recreational activities which require distance vision.
- The sooner vision problems can be detected, the better the outcome. Conditions such as squint and amblyopia (lazy eye) can be treated more effectively if picked up early and this can make a huge difference to children socially and to their school progress.
- By mid-40s most people notice their eyes beginning to struggle to adjust between distance and close-up vision. This is known as presbyopia and affects everyone at some point.
- Certain other eye conditions such as glaucoma and cataracts are also more common with age, so regular eye tests become increasingly important.
- Important signs to look out for are: when colours look a bit washed out; it’s difficult to judge the depth of steps, straight lines look wobbly; it’s hard to read; you’re struggling to see road signs when driving or when walking see destinations/numbers on a bus; blurred vision or floaters. These signs are not just a part of getting older — they are telling you something is wrong.
- Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of vision loss in people over 65. Steps to reduce the risk of developing AMD include stopping smoking and protecting your eyes from the sun, but to prevent more rapid deterioration early diagnosis and treatment of AMD is vital.
- Minor eye problems such as dry eye, watering eye, red eye and blepharitis are easily detected and can be treated by an optician.
- If you experience redness, pain and discomfort, blurred vision or flashes of light — also an increase in the number of ‘floaters’ in your eyes or a sudden loss of vision, visit an optician as soon as possible.