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What did leukaemia mean to me in, say, 1980? Well, I thought it was just a kind of illness that children suffered. I never gave it a thought, since my medical knowledge was just basic stuff, some from school, some picked up on life’s travels.
By the age of 52 in 1992, I was to find out quite fast just what leukaemia was, and just how very life-changing it can be.
As my day job was paying reasonably well, but not over the top, I had a part time weekend job as a club organist. On the 14th June 1992, I came off stage after playing for a few hours. I walked to the bar for my staff drink and felt very tired and drained, which was unusual for me.
On getting home, I went to bed, slept normally, and woke up feeling fine, but still tired. This was as if I should be just going to bed, not getting up. Having started a new business, I did more hours than usual since I was determined to make it work. So, this tired and lethargic feeling I put down to long working hours and overwork.
Later in the week, my wife’s friend’s mother, who was a registered nurse, called round on a flying visit and asked me, “Where did you get those bruises on your arm?” My right forearm was bruised and I hadn’t noticed.
She examined several marks on my arm and casually said to me, “Tony, I think you should see a doctor about these bruises, today if you can. Just tell the reception that nurse Helen Wilson said it is important.”
Later that evening, I turned up at the surgery and saw Dr Ross, who looked at the bruises and asked me what I thought were rather odd questions: “Have you been exposed to any radiation from a nuclear power plant? Have you been near a sewage treatment plant? Have you been near any aircraft fuel?”
All this stuff got a no from me, so he decided to take a sample of blood and asked me to come back to the surgery the day after.
The next day was Thursday 18th June, and I was going about my business as normal. I had asked my wife to get our two children ready for about 5pm so we could go to the pub with a play area, and I would finish work early to take them out for tea. That was Plan A, and I did not expect Plan B.
About mid-afternoon, my wife answered the phone to a call from Dr Ross asking if I was in. She told him I was working until about 4pm. He asked her if I was in the car, and she said I was.
15 minutes later, Dr Ross came to the house. He seemed very concerned that I was driving, and also that I may be using tools that could cause injury. This worried my wife, and he asked her how long I would be before I returned home. She said I would not be too long, and this was at the time of no mobile phones. Sure enough, I arrived not long after, and the doctor had another look at my arm to find the bruising was a lot worse and quite bigger.
He asked me to have a wash, change my shirt, not to shave, and an ambulance would arrive in 20 minutes. I was shocked, but I got sorted for a trip to the Royal Preston Hospital for a quick there and back, I thought.
When the ambulance arrived, I was greeted by two paramedics who very nicely asked me to sit in a wheelchair, so I could be pushed all of 40ft down my drive. “Sorry lads,” I said, “this has got to be a joke. If I am not allowed to walk to your vehicle, then I am not going.” Then off we went, blue lights and all. What could be wrong with me? I wondered on the way.
On arrival, I was taken to a single private room, where I stayed overnight. The following morning, two or three doctors came in and looked at me. They seemed to be interested in my eyes, looking at them with magnifying devices, and then going.
Later, a Dr Rugman arrived, and said he wanted me to have a bone marrow biopsy. The biopsy proved that I indeed had acute myeloid leukaemia (AML). I was given platelets to keep me alive, but all changed the following day. It started with hospital staff coming and going from my room, some of them just looking at my file, others with medication. Mid-morning, a nurse walked in and asked if I would like a cup of tea. I said yes, and she then said, “I hope you like it, and I am sure you will get good cups of tea at the Christie.”
This was a shock to me, since the Christie Hospital was the cancer centre of the country, and I was promptly whisked away to Manchester. I passed my home in Chorley, looking out from the window of the ambulance at the hills of Rivington, wondering if I would ever see them again.
I was told when I eventually got to the Christie that my platelet count was down to four, and I asked the haematologist at the time what the results would be had I not been told about these bruises. He said, “Sometime by Sunday afternoon, you would have just dropped dead.” That was quite frightening.
The treatment started straightaway. I had three lots of chemotherapy, but the first one of which was the time I nearly died; that was quite traumatic. I wasn’t expected to live overnight, but one of the nurses, who was quite young and very dedicated, she was hell-bent on getting me through this leukaemia. I also had a stomach complaint that was dragging me down, and she helped me to go on a trial for Granulocyte colony stimulating factor (G-CSF), drugs which are given to patients when there’s an immediate danger of them dying because of an infection. I was given G-CSF to bring my blood count up fast. I volunteered for this - I’d not really had any option - but this Nurse Gledhill was there by my bedside during the day and even at night. She was marvellous and she deserves some kind of recognition.
I had an 8-month stay at the Christie. My treatment was first class, and I experienced highs and lows. My approach to serious illness was to try and make light of the situation, and to try and make others laugh at silly jokes so as to take the heat out of what could be your last day or two on the planet.
Three sessions of chemotherapy later, I was allowed home. I was told about Leukaemia CARE by one of the nurses and I contacted them when I came out of hospital. I’m now a member of Leukaemia CARE’s Christie Haematology support group.
I also returned to the Christie to have pre-arranged talks with newly diagnosed patients, trying to help them get through a very hard time. Fundraising was also an important feature of my recovery period.
On the 19th June this year, I will be 25 years out from diagnosis, which I think is a great achievement. Overall, I look back on the experience and think about all the people I encountered during my recovery period, and see things in a different light.
These days, all cancers seem to be on the increase, and we all wish the experts and researchers to have the funding they need. As I sit here typing this, the news on the TV is reporting a fire at the research section of the Christie. Setbacks like this we can all do without, but we have to overcome them, move forward, and head towards a cure.