These aren’t the words you expect to hear when you’ve come home for the August bank holiday weekend. Within the space of 24 hours, I’d gone from drinking beer with my mates in the pub to a hospital bed that I wouldn’t end up leaving for five weeks. During which time I would be pumped full of drugs and educated in the world of haematology.
After a painful bone marrow biopsy (basically a large needle drilled into your hip bone), it was confirmed that I had Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia. The doctors immediately started me on a mixture of steroids and said I'd need chemotherapy as soon as possible to get things under control.
After this initial induction period, it is expected that most patients go into remission. For me, the induction phase only cleared around 90% of my leukaemia and I was told I would need to have two more rounds of a much stronger (and harsher) chemotherapy, followed up by a stem cell transplant, providing they could find me a donor. I didn't take the news well. My heart sank.
Thankfully, I’m now in a much better place. I’ve come through the two rounds of strong chemo, overcome two infections (caused by the chemo essentially killing off my immune system) and I’m in remission. The best news is that I have a donor lined up for a stem cell transplant which will give me the best chance of a cure. As one fellow transplant recipient said "I’ve done the coursework and now it’s time for the exam!"
The learning curve of my blood cancer education was, without doubt, a steep one. Prior to my diagnosis, I had very little knowledge of leukaemia, haematology, different blood types and even what stem cells were. I had no idea how reliant blood cancer patients are on blood transfusions due to chemotherapy essentially being a crude treatment – not only does it kill off the leukaemia cells, it also kills off your body's healthy blood cells. I’ve lost count of the number of transfusions I’ve had over the last four months but I am now more aware than ever that without the selfless donations from people, the treatment I’ve had would be almost impossible.
"Within the space of 24 hours, I’d gone from drinking beer with my mates in the pub to a hospital bed that I wouldn’t end up leaving for five weeks"
I'd never given blood due to the thought of having a needle in my arm but, after having blood samples taken every day for five weeks and numerous cannulas put in and taken out (these are used to pump and extract the necessaries into and from your veins), if I could now, I would in a heartbeat. These donations are literally saving lives every day.
So what about the stem cells? In terms of your blood, stem cells are your different blood components in their infancy, They have the ability to form any type of blood cell: white cells which fight infection, platelets which clot your blood, and red cells which carry oxygen around your body.
In Leukaemia patients, it is the white cells that decide to act inappropriately, dividing and releasing into the blood stream in a dangerous and immature state. They aren’t good at fighting infection and the shear number of them prohibit the production of other cell types, meaning the sufferer can become anaemic or have a reduced ability to stop bleeding. In my case, I became severely anaemic as my red cell count went down to 50 when it should be nearer 140. As we go into the new year, I’ve already begun the pre-transplant tests needed to assess if I am healthy enough to undergo the procedure. The way the transplant is intended to work is that it kills off your own stem cells, along with any remaining leukaemia cells. They are then replaced with the donor stem cells which are given in the same way as a blood transfusion (for my mate who asked if I would inherit some of the donors good looks, the answer is no I won’t you cheeky *******!).
Matching a donor and recipient isn’t straight forward as they both need to have a matching tissue type, medically known as Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA). HLA is a protein found in most cells in your body. Your immune system uses it to identify which cells belong to you and which do not. Identical twins are the only people who have the exact same HLA type and there is a 1 in 4 chance that a sibling will have a matching HLA type. My brother was tested but unfortunately he wasn’t a match.
"I am now more aware than ever that without the selfless donations from people, the treatment I’ve had would be almost impossible."
There are registers around the world which keep track of these HLA types, usually maintained by charities, such as Anthony Nolan in the UK. These charities are constantly looking for new donors to add to the register to give people the best chance of finding a match. Again, this was something I was unaware of before my diagnosis. If I was in the position to join the register I would do so in an instant, as you have the chance to save someone’s life.
So, to everyone out there thinking of a new years resolution, I urge you to give blood. If you are aged between 16 and 30, please join the bone marrow register too via the Anthony Nolan website, all you have to do is spit in a test tube. If you are aged 50 and under, you can join the British Bone Marrow registry, details of which can be found on their website. You may never be asked to donate, but you’re helping to expand the possibilities for people like me who are suffering from blood cancer.
Finally I would like to say a big thank you to everyone who has supported me on my journey so far. When you’re going through these tough times you realise how important family and friends are and how much you love them. I would also like to say thank you to all of the doctors and nurses who have cared for me. The NHS should be considered a sacred resource and must be protected so that everyone can receive the world class care and treatment that I have had the privilege to receive.
Happy New Year! :)