I was in the car with my daughter when, in early 2010, I had a phone call from my doctor that turned my world upside-down. “I’m really sorry to tell you this,” he said, “but you’ve got an acute form of leukaemia and you need to come into hospital straight away.”
Whatever I was expecting, it wasn’t that. For months I’d had swollen knees and struggled to catch my breath when I went running, but as I’d always been fit and healthy I wasn’t unduly concerned. Yes, I was enormously tired – but I put that down to being a working single mum.
The doctors couldn’t work out what was wrong, but it was getting worse: my knees were becoming so swollen I couldn’t get my jeans on. Finally, after three months, another GP said I needed a blood test. The diagnosis was still the most enormous shock: I had been living a normal life – taking the kids to school and cooking their tea. It didn’t make sense.
Everything became blurry. Sick with fear, I packed a bag and my sister drove me to the Royal Berkshire Hospital, where the news got worse. I was told I had acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) and had a 40 to 50 per cent chance of survival.
Everything went still. All I could think about was my children, and when I did finally speak, it was to ask, “Is it treatable?’’ If it was, there was a chance I could beat it. Thankfully the answer was yes, although the consultant said, “We need to hit this hard.’’ I needed immediate chemotherapy and would be placed in an isolation ward to minimise the risk of infection.
I was allowed home after the first session of chemotherapy but still had to have countless blood and platelet infusions, as well as more chemo as an outpatient. At one of those sessions, my body started to shake: I had an infection. That was followed by a stroke. For several weeks, my life hung in the balance.
It was as I was recovering, in autumn 2010, that my consultant told me I was a good candidate for a bone-marrow transplant. It would take my survival rate from 40 per cent to 60 per cent – but also came with a higher mortality risk.
It was a no-brainer – I had to go with the statistics. I was told the match they had was as good as having an identical twin, but for the next month, as I built up my strength at home, I cried a lot from nerves and fear. One of the last things I did before I went back into hospital was wrap my kids’ Christmas presents and hide them under the bed in case I didn’t come back.
Then, on 3 November 2010, I was admitted to hospital for ten days of “conditioning”: more chemotherapy and five days of body irradiation, which left me so weak I needed a wheelchair.
By comparison, the transplant itself seemed amazingly simple: a nurse arrived with a tray of pink liquid – the vital bone marrow that would be pumped into my body. It took 40 minutes and, as I watched, I felt so grateful that someone had taken the time to help a complete stranger.
Afterwards I was in a lot of pain, but they could tell from my blood that it was looking good. A month later I was discharged in time for Christmas. It was an amazing feeling, even though I was confined to bed for three months and couldn’t cuddle my kids for risk of infection. That was tough, but four years on, while the doctors never tell you you’re cured, I’m in complete remission. To me that’s the same thing.
In the early days, my donor was never far from mymind.Formehewasahero.Iwrotea Christmas card, to be passed on, trying to pour into a few words the gratitude I felt. Even then, I knew I had to tell him in person. So when the call came offering me that chance, I grabbed it.
Neil and I hit it off from the start. I remember launching myself at him on his driveway, doing my best not to cry. Later, we shared our experi- ences and I was touched by how much he’d had to go through, even though he was anxious to play it down. That was the start of a relationship that I know will last: once strangers united by something unique, we are now friends.