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Janet Collins was diagnosed with leukaemia 30 years ago when she was just four years old. Her family were offered emotional and financial support by Leukaemia CARE, including sending her and her mother on a trip to Disneyland, USA. Three decades on, she recounts her experiences and how she counts her blessings every day.
Another day standing at the school gate with the other parents, waiting for the children to come out after a busy day at school. I stand and join in the general chitchat, listening to the others moan and groan about their day and how their children do ‘this and that’ to annoy them. This is what children do and mine are no different. I could join in but I don’t, as I am grateful for my three and the joy and pains they bring me and my husband.
Childhood means a lot to me after mine was interrupted at the end of 1985 when I was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) aged 4 and a half and treated in Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH). I was one of seven children on the cancer ward and the only one to survive and go into remission. I underwent years of regular check-ups and life went on as normal as it could. I am the eldest of three girls and our mum and dad made sure we were all treated equally.
It was during my time in hospital where I came into contact with one of the hospital volunteers from Leukaemia CARE. Money was raised for a lifetime trip to Disneyland, Orlando as the likelihood of me surviving were small. A few years later when I was in remission, I featured in Leukaemia CARE’s magazine with my family – back then the survival rate was poor for childhood leukaemia so mine was something of a success story.
When I finished school, I applied to be a nurse and started training in 1999. Not long after I’d started the course, my dad noticed a large bruise on my arm and became concerned. So, to keep him happy, I went for a routine blood test. The result was not what we expected. After 13 years of remission I was once again diagnosed with ALL - it had returned.
I was rushed up to the Royal Free Hospital, admitted, and given state of the art chemotherapy, which had improved through research since my first diagnosis. I was critically ill and nearly died. My parents were urgently called in to be with me and say goodbye. My faith in God was challenged by my illness but it grew stronger after I saw an angel. Although I didn’t feel blessed at times and was quite angry, I knew God had a plan.
I spent most of 1999 in and out of hospital; I even spent my 18th birthday on the cancer ward just days before I was due to receive a bone marrow transplant. I had been matched with a donor for a bone marrow transplant and this was the best out of about nine, I think!
The transplant was a success and I went on to meet my husband not long after I came out of hospital. When we met, I didn’t have any hair - I was thin and pale and probably looked quite scary.
After all the chemotherapy, radiotherapy and other medicine I had taken, we were told by doctors that it was unlikely we would be able to have children. We even went for an interview for artificial insemination and the consultant said I would never have children of my own and we should consider adoption. Well I beat the science and conceived not once, but three times,
naturally delivering our three little miracles. Well they’re not so little now, the eldest is nearly 11 the middle child is nine and a half and the youngest is nearly eight!
I have been in remission for 17 years now and have a normal life expectancy. I am not likely to be diagnosed with leukaemia again but I am, however, living with the long term side effects from the medication, from cataracts to hip and other bone issues.
But you know what? After all I’ve been through I would not change it as it’s made me who I am. Through my own story I hope to inspire others to get through their illness and join the bone marrow register to save others.
I did finally go back and qualify as a nurse. So standing at the school gate is just part of my life for me, it makes me feel normal and something I enjoy and cherish as often as I can.