Elizabeth Gibson-Bell

With a new-born baby, it was hardly surprising that Elizabeth felt exhausted. But what she initially assumed to be a normal postpartum experience turned out to be something far more serious. When her daughter was just eight weeks old, Elizabeth was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL). She shares her story here…

My story starts on the 1st of January 2023, the day I gave birth to my daughter. The birth ran smoothly. I had a natural water birth and she was perfect when she arrived. For a week after giving birth, I felt quite good, I bounced back and was going for walks.

But when my daughter was two weeks old, I started noticing some pain down my legs and I was feeling really tired. It was very easy to associate these symptoms with regular postnatal ones. I mentioned them to my midwife and she told me that the body takes at least nine months to heal after giving birth. So I carried on.

By the time my daughter was five weeks old, I was taking regular paracetamol and ibuprofen to try to tackle the bone pain I was feeling. I was breastfeeding and felt like I was developing mastitis in both my breasts. I phoned the GP but wasn’t given an appointment, so I spoke to the doctor over the phone who said it sounded like I was experiencing normal postpartum difficulties and she suggested the shooting pains I was having in my legs were likely to be sciatica. She booked me in for physiotherapy.

At this point I was struggling and was feeling awful about myself, thinking that I was failing at being a mum and that I shouldn’t be finding life this difficult after giving birth.

By the time my daughter was eight weeks old things were much worse. My mum and sister noticed that I was very pale and suggested I see the doctor. By this time, I was also experiencing hot and cold night sweats, regular chest pains and breathlessness. 

At one point, I was carrying my daughter upstairs to change her nappy and had to call my husband as I couldn’t make it to the top of the stairs. My skin had gone ghostly white. At that point, I knew I needed to see a doctor. Luckily, my daughter had her eight-week check-up, so I bounced onto the back of her appointment and asked the doctor to check me over.

It didn’t take long for her to tell me that I was poorly. My temperature was 39.5 and my heart rate was racing at 140bpm. She called the hospital and they said they would take me to the emergency ward. We were under the assumption that I might have some cardiovascular issues. I was completely unaware that it could be leukaemia.

Once I was in the hospital, they did a blood test and within a couple of days I had the full diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic Leukaemia. I needed immediate medical treatment. This diagnosis came as a massive shock to me and my family. I was a healthy 26-year-old. I exercised pretty regularly and didn’t drink or smoke, so being given a diagnosis involving the ‘big C’ felt awful and really unfair. 

I was kept in hospital for the next six weeks, having to overcome the infection I had (neutropenic sepsis) and undergo my first round of chemotherapy. I was lucky that my ward allowed my daughter to visit. Being kept away from your eight-week-old baby was absolutely heart-wrenching, but she was also where I found most of my strength to try and get through the treatment. I was completely naive about how long the treatment would take. We are now in September and I am hopefully in my last phase of treatment before going on to maintenance for two years.

The treatment is going pretty smoothly, with the odd reaction to chemo here and there, and I am trying to stay positive about my situation for myself, my family and my daughter. Having a young baby at home with numerous long stints at hospital can make the hospital time feel longer and more painful. I must say that my hospital has been amazingly supportive and can’t do anything more to support me with my treatment. It’s just one of the challenges of being diagnosed like this.

I was fortunate enough to go into remission after the first round of treatment. Fingers crossed I stay that way over the next five to seven years!

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