Last June, I was out in the Philippines having the time of my life. I was out there through work, as I had been sent to train a team of people who were going to be taking over some of our processing. I was working in the office during the week, and exploring the islands, scuba diving, swimming with sharks, quad biking and just generally having a great time at the weekends!
On one particular weekend, we had gone over to another island to celebrate a girl’s birthday, so we had a jam-packed weekend with a lot of drinking and not much sleeping! So, when I woke up on the Tuesday, still feeling exhausted, with a temperature and lack of appetite, I didn’t think too much of it. I assumed I was just run down and needed a few early nights. It was only when the pain in my leg started, unlike any pain I had felt before, that I got a bit worried.
By the Thursday night, the pain was absolutely unbearable, I was hysterically crying because of it and almost fainted when I tried walking. I knew I had to take myself to the hospital, but had no idea what it would end up being.
I took myself to the nearest hospital where I had an x-ray, which came back clear, so the doctor said it was most likely a trapped nerve and prescribed pain killers. However, I was then told to have a blood test because of my other symptoms, and that I could have an infection. I went back to my hotel room to get some sleep, then called my boss and told him I would be in work but would just be a little late. Little did I know I would never return to that office!
A few hours later I returned to the hospital to get my results. The nurse looked very serious, but the first sign I knew something was wrong was when he said, “Did the doctor not say anything about admitting you earlier?”
“Admitting me?!” I said. “No?”
“Your white blood cell count is very high,” he said, “we need to keep you in.”
And before I knew it I was in a hospital bed, hooked up to a drip, alone in a foreign country, with no idea what was happening to me. The doctor came round and asked me lots of questions about my medical history and my family medical history – as far as I was concerned, I was fit and healthy with no significant medical history! They then told me they want to keep me in overnight to run some tests.
The next day, I got up to go toilet and my leg had swollen to around three times it should be. It was from this that I was diagnosed with blood clots, or deep vein thrombosis, and that they suspected I had leukaemia. Receiving this news completely alone and in a foreign country was absolutely devastating, and probably the only thing harder than that was having to call my parents and tell them the news.
The next few weeks are a bit of a blur, but luckily I had medical and travel insurance through work. The insurance company wanted me to be treated in a better hospital in the capital Manila, so I was flown by air ambulance there. I actually ended up spending time in two different hospitals in Manila. It was there that I had a bone marrow biopsy and my diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) was confirmed. I was told it was an aggressive type of leukaemia that needed treatment straightaway, and also that I was Philadelphia positive, which meant it would be harder to treat and that I would need a stem cell transplant.
We decided I needed to get home to start treatment, as the Philippines follow the American way of treatment rather than what we do in the UK, and also, if I started treatment there, I might not have been well enough to fly home. However, we needed to get me in a position fit enough to fly. The flight was a total of eighteen hours, and with blood clots this was going to be risky. I genuinely didn’t know if I would even make it home to see my family again.
As I said, the next few weeks were a bit of a blur. Both my legs were bandaged from foot to hip, I couldn’t get out of bed for about two weeks, I couldn’t shower for all that time, I was in intensive care and they made me wear a nappy to go toilet in, I had two minor operations, one to put a filter in the big vein in my stomach to stop the blood clots travelling up to my heart and lungs, and a catheter put in to target and break down the blood clots in my legs.
Eventually, they gave me the go ahead to fly home and I flew with a medical team back to England where I went straight into St Barts and was met by my family. I also met all the doctors and was told what my treatment would be, the side effects etc. I found this all completely overwhelming, not least because I had been travelling for about 24 hours at this point!
Two days after my 26th birthday I began chemo. I ended up being in Barts for seven weeks before I was allowed home, and I developed a nasty infection, plus sepsis, and found this time in hospital very difficult mentally as I just wanted to get home to my own bed and to see my dog!
My second round of chemo also meant another seven-week stay in hospital due to infection, but luckily the third round was only two one-week stays.
It was then time for my stem cell transplant, which I had in December 2017. Neither of my sisters had been matches for me, so I had an unrelated donor. Unfortunately, in April 2018, I got the devastating news that the transplant had failed, I had lost the graft. My only option was to have another stem cell transplant, and urgently, otherwise the leukaemia would come back. I was so lucky that I had another unrelated donor on the register! In May 2018, I had my second stem cell transplant. The chemo gave me some particularly bad side effects and I also suffered from some acute graft versus host disease (GVHD), so it was a very difficult time, but I am now recovering and feeling pretty well!
I am almost three months post my transplant now and am recovering. For the first time I am feeling positive about the future and looking forward to getting back to work. I am in remission, but due to the nature of my transplant, as a preventive measure I have chemo injected in my spine once every three months for two years.
Spot Leukaemia is so important because not enough people know about leukaemia and its symptoms. Some people don’t even realise leukaemia is a cancer. Before I was diagnosed, I had heard about leukaemia but was definitely not aware of the symptoms, and as it can became fatal so quickly, more people need to know what to look out for. It really can help save lives.