Beth Easterbrook-Smith: my story

Beth was 18-years-old and had just started her first job, training to be a nurse. She thought her symptoms, especially her tiredness, were down to her busy schedule. But within a few months, she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia (AML). Eight years on and in remission, Beth shares her story…

I had never experienced any health problems before, so when I started feeling tired all the time, I assumed it was due to my new job – I had just started my nursing cadetship. It got to the point where I would come home from work at 5pm and then fall asleep in the bath. Then get out of the bath and need to go straight to bed.  Because I’d never worked before, I just thought that this was normal.

A couple of weeks previously, I’d been to the doctor with what I now know were swollen lymph nodes. But at the time, I was told I had an abscess in my armpit and was put on antibiotics.  I’d also woken up one morning to find blood on my pillow that had come from my ear. This was put down to an ear infection, and again, I was put on antibiotics.

All these incidents happened a few weeks apart, so they never seemed connected to each other.  Of course, in hindsight, they were early signs of my leukaemia.

Then one day, I was driving home from work and I must have dozed off at the wheel.  I suddenly came around as I was skidding at a roundabout.  At that point, I realised the exhaustion I was feeling was not normal at all and I made an appointment to see the GP.

I explained that I really didn’t feel well at all, different to how I had ever felt. He took my blood pressure and examined me.  And I remember there being a poster on his wall, something about the signs of cancer… Everyone at work had told me I should get a blood test done, so I insisted on having one.  That was early afternoon.

As I was driving home – and planning to go out that evening – I got a call from the GP’s surgery telling me that I needed to get to the oncology department at the hospital urgently. I didn’t really know what that meant, but when I called to tell my mum, she burst into tears. It was then that I realised this was something serious.

When I arrived at the hospital, I was told that I had AML and that I would need to start treatment immediately.  I spent the next three weeks in hospital having chemo and was then allowed home for Christmas, before going back in for more.  

The chemo didn’t work. And I was told that the only other option for me was to have a bone marrow transplant. I really had no choice in the matter – this was my only hope.

Fortunately, my sister was a match for me and I had the transplant in March 2015. It had to be postponed several times due to me having various infections. The process was horrendous. It was like being locked down – except worse because you were restricted to only one room and it lasted for seven long weeks. I was in hospital for all this time as my whole immune system was totally wiped. 

A few weeks after the transplant, my leukaemia cells were at 0.01% – it had worked!  But it was not smooth sailing from there. I got GvHD twice – in my stomach and in my skin. This required treatment with steroids to get it under control.  These played havoc with my joints and I ended up needing a total right hip replacement. I’ve suffered with mobility issues ever since and have ongoing heart problems too.

Despite this, I am in remission. I still have check-ups annually, but relative to others, I know that I am very lucky and can lead an almost normal life. The battle for me has certainly been mental as well as physical. But I don’t struggle too much on a daily basis. 

Despite being told that my hair would grow back, it never has. I now wear wigs to avoid questions about my hair loss. As a result, I now help other women suffering hair loss by doing semi-permanent make-up and tattoos.

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