HAVING endured more than 20 operations for breast cancer and gynaecological issues, Tisha Bratt was ready to put her health problems behind her.

But she didn't know she was about to be struck down by little-understood health problem that would see the high-flying financial director unable to do basic sums or even write her own name, leave her bed bound for months at a time and still be affecting her 22 years later.

“One doctor said I just needed to get off my backside and do some voluntary work.

Despite her health problems, Tisha was as active and fit as she could be.

She first noticed her strange new symptoms following an activity holiday, when she suddenly developed a ‘horrendous’ pain in her finger.

“It was like someone was pushing a hot metal spike into my finger – it was really odd,” says the 60-year-old who lives in Chandler's Ford with her husband, Simon.

“The next day it was gone but then a week later I felt the same pain in my toe. Then, when I was driving, I went to change gear and it felt like my left arm was going to break. I thought it was because I’d hurt it playing squash, but then it occurred to me that I’m right handed, so it didn’t make sense.

“Then I developed flu-like symptoms. I’d be off work for a few days, feel better and go back and then be ill again.

“I was so exhausted, I kept having to have time off. I would be in bed and be so exhausted that I couldn’t even turn over.”

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Eventually Tisha’s GP sent her to a specialist who diagnosed ME.

ME, or myalgic encephalomyelitis, is also known as chronic fatigue syndrome.

ME symptoms include persistent fatigue, which does not improve with rest.

Its cause is unknown, although links have been made to viral or bacterial infections, hormone imbalances, immune system problems and emotional trauma.

There is no known cure, although treatment can help some people and many recover partially or fully over time.

Tisha believes her illness could be linked to the gruelling surgery and cancer treatment she underwent, a severe bout of norovirus or glandular fever.

“I wonder if one of those things triggered it,” she says.

“The specialist said that I’d had all these operations and my body just couldn’t cope.”

She adds that she was delighted to receive a diagnosis, believing a cure would be available and was shocked to find that that wasn’t the case.

“I thought ‘great, now I’ll get some medicine and get better,’ but that’s not how it is,” says Tisha.

“I was so ill, I was largely bed-bound for between 18 months and two years.

“I tried to go back to work but I couldn’t sustain it and had to give up when I was 42.

“I never thought I’d still be ill at 60!

“With most things, if you start to feel a bit better then you carry on improving, but with this, I can have a couple of OK days then wake up feeling like I’ve been run over by a steam roller and be so exhausted I can’t even brush my hair.”

As well as suffering debilitating exhaustion and pain, Tisha says that suffering ME isn’t helped by a general lack of understanding, even sometimes among the medical profession.

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“I’ve had some doctors who have been really understanding and some who have been downright rude,” says Tisha, who adds that she has been left in tears by encounters with medical professionals.

“One doctor said I just needed to get off my backside and do some voluntary work.

“Other doctors have said things like ‘oh, are they calling it ME? I call it tiredness’.

“Nobody chooses to be chronically ill and spend their life stuck indoors in a dressing gown with the whole world out there.

“Before I developed ME I’d had something like 24 lots of surgery and developed breast cancer at 35. You don’t go through all that and then decide to just go to bed for years.

“You want to live every day to the full and enjoy the best in life after something like that.”

Tisha adds that although her husband, Simon, is hugely supportive, people around her don’t always understand her condition.

“It can be hard for friends and family to understand, because people have the expectation that you’ll be ill for a while and then pick up and I don’t look unwell.

“If you try to explain that you’re exhausted, people say ‘I get tired too’.

“It’s been one of the loneliest experiences of my life.

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“I spend my days with my Tibetan terrier, Maddie, and my husband comes home every day for lunch, which breaks up the day a bit.

“For the rest of the week, I only see one or two people for an hour or two at most – I can’t cope with any more than that.

“It’s very isolating.

“My husband is wonderful. We met after I became ill, and married nine years ago. He really understands and he tells me off if I do things like the washing up, but it’s a lot of pressure on him.”

Tisha says that she has tried everything she has read about to help her, from pills to diets, but nothing has really helped, so far.

“By sheer fluke I now have an absolutely fantastic GP and she has referred me to a course with South Coast Fatigue, who offer specialist occupational therapy. The idea is to discipline my body into pacing itself. I’ve been ill for 22 years and this is the first time I’ve received this kind of specialist help.

“There is no known cure for ME, but I’m hopeful that this will help me cope with being ill,” she says.

“There is growing evidence of biological markers in people’s bodies who have ME and the acceptance that it’s a real condition is gathering momentum.

“If I were a pessimist, it would be hell, but I am always optimistic. Lots of conversations start with me saying ‘when I’m well...’.”

UK charity Action for ME is taking action to end the ignorance, injustice and neglect experienced by people with ME.

For more information, visit actionforme.org.uk or call 0117 927 9551.