WHEN 29st Natalie Stokes stood on her bathroom scales, she was confronted with the word “error” and broke down in tears.
The mum-of-one, just 5ft 2in, had been urged by a doctor to lose weight, but even a strict 1,000-calorie-a-day diet, which is around half a woman is recommended to eat, could not stop her piling on the pounds.
Natalie was then referred to a specialist who discovered her huge weight gain had been caused by a tiny tumour in her brain.
Following pioneering surgery to remove the growth, the 36-year-old has shed 20st — down to a THIRD of the woman she used to be.
Natalie told The Sun on Sunday: “I had tried everything to lose weight . . . I couldn’t understand it.
“I became so big I was like Violet Beauregarde in Charlie And The Chocolate Factory when she eats a stick of chewing gum and blows up like a giant blueberry.
“I had skinny arms and legs and a huge round trunk and tummy, caused by the fat being stored in my middle, a classic symptom of my illness.
“I couldn’t believe how fast it went on, even though I was only eating 1,000 calories a day.
“People used to guess I was sleepwalking to the fridge and I would think, ‘Hold on, if everybody is telling me I must be doing this, maybe I have got eating amnesia.’ ”
But Natalie had Cushing’s disease, a rare condition that affects just one in a million.
The growth in the pituitary gland in Natalie’s brain produced a surge in the hormone cortisol, which causes the body to store fat.
Natalie, from Warwickshire, explained: “Before I was diagnosed I felt my life was falling apart.
“I’m so grateful for all the doctors have done to help me. But people need to know this condition exists.”
‘I WAS TOO FAT TO DO THINGS OTHER MUMS DID’
Natalie’s weight had fluctuated throughout her teens and early twenties, just like other women.
She said: “I put on a few pounds if I over-indulged, but then if I cut back a bit it would all come off.
“I worked as an accounts administrator for 12 years but in my spare time I was always horse riding, which kept me fit.”
Yet in Natalie’s late twenties the pounds began to stick around her middle and she would feel exhausted.
She said: “Despite being so active, my tummy and middle just kept getting bigger and bigger. I struggled even getting on my horse and I got so heavy it was unfair to ride him any more. That was devastating.
“I kept going to the doctor, telling him I felt unwell, but he said it was down to my weight. I was referred to dieticians but nothing worked. Then I started piling on weight even faster. It was a nightmare.
“Each time I went to the doctor I’d have put on half a stone or more. Finally he said, ‘If you really want to stop eating it’s up to you to do it’. But I wasn’t binge-eating and the pounds kept creeping on.”
When she fell pregnant with son Charlie, now seven, she lost 4st.
Natalie said: “I didn’t eat any more healthily than I had been, but the pregnancy helped my body’s hormones to regulate and the weight dropped off.
“But after Charlie’s birth, I went up to 29st — the largest weight that registered on my bathroom scales. When I stepped on the scales it would just say ‘error’.
I was written off as being a fat, lazy blob, but I was unwell.
“I’d cry and tell my mum it was hopeless. I just felt ashamed.
“As a parent I felt a terrible guilt, as I was too fat to do the things other mums did.”
There were other distressing symptoms too. She explained: “My hair started falling out. I grew facial hair, suffered with vision problems, boils, exhaustion, splitting headaches and my body would ache. I also had memory problems. I’ve trained as a counsellor and I would read a chapter then find my notes in the margins. Clearly I’d studied it before but had no recollection of it.
“At one point I even forgot how to touch type and spell. I had to use predictive text on my phone. I feared I had dementia. It was terrifying.”
Natalie returned to her GP, who referred her to a consultant.
Op was success
CUSHING’S disease is caused by a tumour in the pituitary gland, which is normally pea-sized and sits in the base of the skull. We access these tumours using keyhole surgery via the nostrils, so we avoid damaging the rest of the brain.
Natalie’s tumour was only a few millimetres but was driving her cortisol level to more than three times the normal limit, which had caused her weight gain and was now threatening her life.
Along with Dr Niki Karavitaki and the pituitary team, we first treated Natalie with drugs to lower her cortisol levels and make surgery safer. The op was challenging – peeling the tumour off the main artery that sup-plies blood to the right half of the brain. Natalie’s symptoms improved immediately and her weight started to fall off. We are so proud that Natalie has done so well.
- By Mr Shazh Ahmed, Pituary Surgeon
She said: “The breakthrough came when he asked me if I’d ever heard of Cushing’s disease.
“I thought it only affected dogs and horses but around one in a million humans get it too.
“He also described some other symptoms, including a round face, what I call ‘Honey Monster shoulders’, a red complexion and fat around the stomach. One of the worst symptoms was that I had triple the normal levels of testosterone, as the pituitary gland, where my tumour was, regulates the whole body. It also explained the facial hair.”
After tests confirmed Natalie had Cushing’s disease, she was referred to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham.
She said: “By then my life was falling apart. I was exhausted. If I was in the supermarket I would have happily climbed on top of the toilet rolls to sleep. After I was diagnosed I felt overwhelming relief.”
In 2016, Natalie was admitted for a pioneering operation. Surgeon Mr Shazh Ahmed removed the growth using a Surgical Navigation System, funded by the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Charity.
Natalie explained: “They go up the back of your nose and cut a hole in your skull to reach the tumour, which meant I didn’t have to have very invasive surgery.”
WEIGHT FELL OFF
In the months that followed, Natalie’s debilitating symptoms improved and the weight fell off.
Today she is 9st 4lb, and even members of her family don’t recognise her.
Natalie, who appears on a poster for The Pituitary Foundation charity, said: “I’ve kept some of my tops from when I was at my biggest and you can fit at least one other ‘me’ in them.
“I’ve gone to family functions and relatives introduce themselves to me. I say to them, ‘It’s me, Natalie!’ and they can’t believe it.
“I’m in remission but continue to struggle with my health.
“I still get nausea and brain fog, which means I’ve been unable to return to my old job.
“I also have a lot of loose skin and, while I’ve been approved for surgery on the NHS, I don’t have a date yet due to funding issues.
“It is a distressing legacy of what happened to me.”
Natalie now enjoys regular trips to the park with her son. She said: “My greatest wish was to go to the park with Charlie, like other mums, and the first time I did it, I had to hold back tears. It was amazing.”
She has also found love with chef Paul Bethel, 34.
Natalie said: “At my largest I didn’t stand a chance of meeting someone but after I lost my first 10st, I met Paul. I was desperate to be thin but he loves me as I am.
“He is the only man who has been able to pick me up since my dad when I was a baby.”
Natalie hopes her story can give hope to others.
She says: “If you are doing everything right with your diet and still put on weight, see your doctor.
“I was written off as being a fat, lazy blob, but I was unwell. I hope that by speaking out, others don’t suffer like I did.”