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April 1996 was a year that changed my life. I had left my job in preparation of joining the RAF as a trainee fast jet pilot. I was just 23 and extremely fit playing semiprofessional football. I had been suffering from a heavy cold and remember telling my mum that I was getting tired doing basic fitness. She insisted I went to the doctor thinking I may have glandular fever.
I went dutifully to my GP, who did some blood tests and sent me home. Later that afternoon, I received a phone call asking me to go straight to the hospital. The nurse took more bloods and I was asking what the issue was. She said she couldn’t go into detail but, there was an irregularity with my white blood count. I pushed and pushed and refused to leave until she told me what was going on. She then broke the news that I had acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL). I fainted when I heard the news, I have never done that before or since and when I woke up, I went home feeling empty.
Two weeks later I was admitted onto a ward at Telford Hospital to start treatment. I remember meeting my consultant who explained a little about my treatment, none of which seemed to register at the time. He told me that he was confident all would go well but, statistically I had 30% chance of five-year survival and less than 1% chance of having children. This didn’t faze me as I remember just saying let’s get on with it.
My treatment at the time was three doses of intense chemotherapy for which they would keep me in clinical isolation for ten weeks at a time, with three to four weeks between treatments. This would be followed by thirty doses of cranial radiotherapy. I was to have a Hickman line fitted for blood transfusions and IV chemotherapy.
My best friend from university commented that it was lucky that it was me who was ill, as I would show it who was boss. It’s strange what you discover about yourself at your lowest ebb. I always thought I was the shy meek one of the group, apparently, I was the determined one who could beat anything.
What is chemotherapy like? It’s not that bad. Sure, you feel really sick, have terrible headaches and sore throats. Yes, you just want to sleep but, you just have to let it take its course because you know that tomorrow or the next day you will feel a little brighter
and in a couple of weeks, you will be better still. The only drawback is it strips away your dignity, but this makes you understand yourself better and appreciate what you have got. There is always somebody worse off than yourself.
There were two things that kept me going and made me determined to get well. One was Euro 96 where I managed to go to two of the matches which was a real boost at the time, particularly Gazza’s goal against Scotland.
More importantly, my mum. I feel a cheat writing this as she is the true story of courage and the most inspirational person anybody will ever meet. Just after I was born she got breast cancer. We used to discuss her treatment over a game of scrabble and with me being ill, she could now relate to what her Mum went through 20 years earlier. I remember lots of stories from my treatment, some funny, some painful and some sad. I met some fellow sufferers, not all of whom made it through their treatment and I still feel I owe it to them to make the most of my life.
So why talk about this now after such a long time? Do you know, I am not sure. Maybe I feel that 20 years is enough time to have digested what a seismic change my illness has had on my life. I also wanted to share with others who have leukaemia, to tell them it isn’t all doom and gloom, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Enjoy everything, have fun and make time to reflect on what you are going through or have gone through. For me, years three to six after treatment were the hardest. In everybody’s eyes, I was cured, I had finished my treatment, but inside I felt completely vulnerable and alone. I was lucky, my true friends stuck by me and kept my spirits high (with the help of a good landlord).
I am now 43 years old. I am happily married to Caroline with two beautiful kids, Olivia nine, and Daniel eleven. I have a great circle of friends and am looking forward to the next 20 years.
So if you get given statistics, remember, they’re just numbers! All my hopes to all of you, you are amazing!