Hannah Durber

Hannah was just 24 when she was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukaemia (APL). She had put her initial symptoms down to stress, but when the bruising appeared, her mum urged her to get a blood test. In remission, Hannah is sharing her Spot Leukaemia story.

During the summer of 2014, I started to experience some fatigue, and then around late August I caught the flu. I still went to work, but on the day I just felt so poorly I had to go home – it was very unlike me as I don’t really get bad colds or the flu, or go home from work. Looking back, I never really managed to get over that flu.

People then commented on the fact that I had lost weight. I thought my appetite was the same but now realise I was eating a little less. I had very bad fatigue – I can’t explain it, but I felt like I was ‘going crazy’ mentally and emotionally. I just put all of these symptoms down to stress as my job was very stressful and my partner and I had just bought our first home.

I then got bruising just on my legs. When I showed my mum, she urged me to get a blood test (she worked at the local hospital, so I think she knew what was going on but didn’t want to scare me). The next morning, I thankfully got an appointment with my GP, and they said it may be immune thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP). I needed an urgent blood test and, worst case scenario, a blood transfusion.

That afternoon the GP called me back asking me to go to the hospital. Whilst there, I gave even more blood and then waited with my mum for what seemed like years, but in reality was around half an hour. The consultant examined my bruises, asked so many questions and then sat us down to tell us what he thought I had: acute promyelocytic leukaemia (APL). I had never heard of it but still broke down in tears as I just knew this was going to be bad. I was then taken in a wheelchair to the Cancer Ward – and this was where the realisation kicked in.

In the space of a few hours, my life was turned upside down. Before going to the GP, I was a normal 24-year-old who was progressing within her career and had just bought my first home with my partner, ready to start our lives together. We were planning work on the house to make it our home and also getting married; however, all of that changed within literally a few hours.

The next day I had had my first bone marrow aspirate to determine the cancer I had. I was then passed a form to sign to start treatment. Along with this form I was told I had a very good cancer – after all, I could be cured! It had been caught at the right time and I was so much luckier than other people. I certainly didn’t feel very lucky but this still made me feel guilty for being so upset and that I should be grateful I had a cancer they could potentially cure. I went through four rounds of chemo and spent a total of 10 weeks in hospital over three admissions. I’ve had 13 bone marrow aspirations in total, around eight blood transfusions and 10 platelet transfusions, developed sepsis and a variety of other infections, experienced excruciating pain, weight loss, migraines, severe depression and anxiety to name but a few things.

I was a young person on an adult ward and not being able to relate to anyone else or speak to any other patients was very difficult, as we all had our own rooms. A few doctors were understanding, but others had a poor bedside manner. After treatment it was organised for me to see a therapist (specifically a specialist relating to cancer patients) for some form of counselling. I was saddened by his reaction. I explained how much support I had and that I had a job and home, to which he said he didn’t understand what the problem was, or why I could possibly have an issue when it sounded like I had everything I needed. I didn’t go back again.

I experienced nightmares, had flashbacks throughout the day and night, had panic attacks, became severely depressed and didn’t know how to cope mentally.

However, even though I went through a difficult time with treatment, I feel it was nothing compared to my recovery after treatment. During treatment I had to move back with my parents as it was closer to the hospital and my partner had to work full time, meaning I would have been on my own too much. After treatment I moved back in with my partner but spent a lot of time alone as he had to work full time including weekends. My employer had very little sympathy too – I had literally just finished my last chemo and they contacted me saying I was at my six months of sickness absence and a conversation was needed, as if they chose to, they could get rid of me. I needed my job, so decided to return to work – looking back now far too early! But we had a home to pay for and couldn’t afford it on one wage any longer. My employer didn’t understand (or attempt to understand) my situation before or after treatment.

When I returned to work, I had responsibilities taken from me and was made to feel incompetent. I felt I had no choice but to look and apply for other jobs, which was really difficult. When I attended interviews, my hair was only just starting to grow back, and my confidence was at an all-time low. But I eventually left my job in December 2015 to start a job at the hospital, as I wanted to help others where possible. I also volunteered to visit patients who were struggling in hospital and visited them to just talk and listen to them.

Throughout my journey my partner and family have been incredibly supportive and continue to help me today. If I can help raise awareness for blood cancer, I will do so and will continue to, as it’s so important! There are people who end up in hospital fighting for their lives, never knowing they have or had a form of blood cancer, and sadly I know those who have lost their life too.

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