Since growing up on a Suffolk farm, I have always loved adventure and the great outdoors. At the age of 16, my plans to become an aircraft engineer in the British Army were thwarted by illness.
Shortly after this, I started to rebuild my first car – a Citroen 2CV and realised I had found my calling.
The following year I returned to school to complete my A Levels and a complete a Foundation Modern Apprenticeship. This was as close as I could get to what I would have achieved within the Army – I planned to apply to Sandhurst and become a pilot. I was subsequently offered an Advanced Modern Apprenticeship with the Port of Felixstowe.
Everything was going well for me until the second year of my apprenticeship when I realised that maybe my dreams of flying were over.
It could happen to anyone..
Back in 2005 I was having a great summer – a fit and sporty 20 year-old, I sailed, water-skied and in early July, ran up Mt. Snowdon with my friends – just for fun!
On 9th of September, 2005 I visited my GP for a routine blood test to investigate the tiredness and lethargy I had been experiencing.
Within hours of having the blood test I was in hospital having been told I had Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL).
I started treatment for ALL at Ipswich Hospital in September 2005, having chemotherapy once a week. This was the beginning of endless hours having blood transfusions, injections and drugs.
During this time the doctors told me that there were two types of leukaemia; ALL and Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML). Doctors told me that my diagnosis had changed to AML, a condition with lower survival rates.
I was subsequently treated for both types of leukaemia – this involved a four day cycle of aggressive and intense chemotherapy and steroids designed to kill off all the cancerous blood cells as well as the healthy ones, this went on every month for four months.
My health deteriorated during November, I was struck down with pneumonia, a severe lung infection. This was serious, as the chemotherapy had virtually destroyed my immune system – my body lacked the ability to fight the infection like a healthy person. Once again I was admitted to hospital. The pain was excruciating, I was very very ill, it was a close call.. it was the first night I had ever stared at the clock, too scared to go to sleep in case I didn’t wake up.
My chemotherapy was administered via a combination of tablets and intravenously (straight into the vein). To make it easier to give me the chemotherapy drugs, doctors inserted a Hickman Line. This was a tube of about 4mm in diameter which went through my chest into a large vein just above my heart. I had it for about 18 months.
During the course of my treatment, a research centre in Germany developed a new cell test which brought even more devastating news, my illness wasn’t ALL or AML but was, in fact, a third (and so rare that it remains unnamed) variant of leukaemia. I was only the third person ever to be diagnosed with this subtype of Leukaemia and sadly the other two patients were no longer alive.
My best hope of survival and cure would be through a bone marrow transplant from a donor that shared the same tissue type. My brother Reece was tested but unfortunately was not a match. There is only a one in four chance of a sibling being a bone marrow match and just a 30% chance that a match will be found within a patient’s family at all. I became one of the 70% of people in need of a bone marrow transplant who rely on the generosity of strangers who have joined The Anthony Nolan register.
I spent Christmas that year worrying – will there be a donor? Will the transplant work? Could this be my last Christmas?
Early in February 2006, The Anthony Nolan Trust found two possible matches – one in the UK and the other in the USA. The UK donor was a perfect match.
In order to prepare my body for the bone marrow transplant I was going to receive some very aggressive chemo and radiotherapy that physically would push me to the very limit of life. Once on this path, there would be no going back.. to me though it was still full steam ahead. I had to stay focused but, most importantly, stay positive about the hard times that were to come.
There are 16,000 people worldwide currently in this situation, in need of a bone marrow transplant, just like I did, they are trying to focus on the positives and hope that their match will have joined The Anthony Nolan Trust register.
When I was informed that the diagnosis had gone from bad to worse, it was clear that a bone marrow transplant was my only hope of survival, I needed something to focus on to help me get through the tough times ahead. I realised this whilst spending months as an inpatient on an oncology ward watching the other patients. Those that had a focus or reason to fight seemed to tackle the challenges of their treatment and illness better than those that simply gave up.
I’m not a person that gives up.
To provide me with an incentive to get through the transplant, I bought an old sailing boat that needed renovating. This was my challenge.
When I felt really down, I would imagine the sheer delight of my boat on the river at Aldeburgh with my mates, a pint of Adnams and some fish and chips. With my new boat safely at home, I was prepared for what was to come.
This is it…
On the afternoon of March 19th, 2006, I was admitted into Addenbrooke’s Ward C10, Room 2, where my treatment began the following day. I remember walking through those doors, looking up at the clock, then looking around the room thinking to myself that I might not be walking out of here. It was the single most terrifying moment of my life.
Twice a day, for 4 days, I underwent Total Body Irradiation (TBI). On the first day I walked to the treatment room, on the second day I went in a wheelchair, on the third day I went down on a bed, – let’s just say that the fourth day was a real struggle! Then, over the next 2 days, I received intensive chemotherapy. This was to destroy my immune system and bone marrow to later be replaced by the bone marrow from my donor.
Just three days after my 21st birthday, two big bags of bone marrow arrived in my room and connected to my drip. This was it!
It was certainly the best present I have ever had.
I spent 8 long weeks in isolation in Addenbrooke’s Hospital where I experienced the horrendous side-effects of intense radio- and chemotherapy. It was immensely painful.
It was a long time to be in isolation. Most of the time I was extremely unwell and just made the most of the wonderful attention I had from the nurses. My days were made brighter and more personal by decorating my room with cards and letters, bursting with ‘get well’ wishes from fellow patients, family, friends and even messages of support from people whom I have never met.
The treatment was very aggressive and so much tougher than I thought it was going to be. Having lost my appetite and a lot of weight, I knew I had a lot of hard work ahead of me to build up my strength for the summer ahead. The drugs made me continually sick, walking 10 metres seemed like a mile. When my blood count was safe and I could walk down the corridor I was finally allowed to go home, (although this was shortlived due to an infection), eventually I did make it out!
I have so many friends, colleagues and of course my family to thank for their help, kindness and support during those long months of illness.
Firstly, of course, to my donor, Matt Hall, without him I would not be writing this today.
A huge thank you goes also to my father Lee (aka the old boy) and good friend Ben Walker who spent 8 long weeks whilst I was having my transplant renovating the hull on the boat. As a note I must also say that during my entire treatment I have only ever had one hospital meal, there is a reason for this…. hospital food is downright disgusting! I must thank my mother Toni (aka the old dear) for providing me with top quality home cooked food!
I also have to thank the wonderful team of doctors, nurses and consultants both at Ipswich Hospital and Addenbrooke’s Hospital, for their endless hours of dedication and encouragement.
I must also remember the wonderful and courageous friends I made through CLIC Sargent and the Teenage Cancer Trust during this time, some of whom I have sadly lost through illness over the past few years.
I should also thank all the anonymous blood donors and the National Blood Service – during my treatment I received over 500 units of blood products.
Over the past few years and months my health has improved leaps and bounds. I have gained weight and stamina. I now attend for regular check-ups every six months.
I consider myself to be truly lucky to have survived such a dreadful disease.
I had an extremely rare and still poorly understood Leukaemia and as such, I was invited to take part in a research study. The study was organised by the Department of Hematology at the University of Cambridge and was funded by Blood Wise (Formerly Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research). Cancer research such as this is vital in helping people like myself to survive Leukaemia through better understanding of the illness and the design of more effective treatments with fewer side-effects.
I wouldn’t be here without my donor and there are so many other people who might not be here if their ‘match’ is not on the Anthony Nolan register.
I BEAT LEUKAEMIA !!!
Now I want to give something back, through my experience and what I have learned. I feel that my second chance at life can really help others to gain the strength to stand up and fight cancer head on!