Ricky Duggal: my story

32-year-old Ricky put his symptoms down to the after-effects of celebrating a large family wedding. But within a few days, he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL). Currently halfway through his treatment, he shares his story here…

“I was diagnosed with ALL on 11th August 2023…

The previous week, I had been celebrating at a big family Indian wedding. It was a week-long festivity with 400 guests. I had felt fine in the run-up to it all, but I recall my feet hurting a lot during the wedding and I had to sit down and take my shoes off. I just assumed it was down to ill-fitting shoes…

Then a few days later, I started experiencing back pain. I was used to occasional backache due to working as a dentist, however a visit to my usual physio to loosen everything up did not bring me any respite. My joints were also aching and I was feeling fatigued. I usually went to the gym at 6am three or four times a week, but since the wedding, I just couldn’t get into going. On the one occasion that I did get myself to the gym, I couldn’t even manage to do a pull-up. This was not like me at all, but I just put it down to the after-effects of the wedding. I also noticed a random purple bruise that appeared on my calf, but I just disregarded it. Then the night sweats started – I woke up in the morning with my back feeling soaked.

I only really became concerned when the headaches started. I was waking up in the early hours of the morning to take ibuprofen. These headaches were different to anything I had experienced before: they were at the top and back of my head, and my scalp felt tender. Unlike all the other symptoms which I had been able to brush off, the headaches worried me. So on 10th August, on my day off, I went to see the GP. He felt there was a risk that I was having a bleed on my brain and suggested I go immediately to A&E. He did not have any concerns that my symptoms could be cancer. 

When I arrived at the hospital, I underwent a head CT, lumbar puncture and blood tests. I was told the doctors were working on a provisional diagnosis of viral meningitis. The CT scan came back clear, but as I lay on the bed after my lumbar puncture, a haematologist came to see me and explained that they wanted to keep me in for further blood tests. My white blood cell count was raised and they wanted to rule out any malignancy. He told me that some of my cells looked different and it was at this point that something started ticking in the back of my head and I became aware that there could be something seriously wrong.

I stayed in hospital overnight. My wife stayed with me and she spent her time on Google, coming up with various theories as to what could be wrong with me. In the morning, the consultant came to see me and I was told I would need to have a bone marrow biopsy. I could sense bad news coming, but at this point nobody had mentioned the possibility that this could be leukaemia. In fact, it was only when the doctor appeared to perform the bone marrow biopsy and said to me ‘I’m sorry to hear the bad news’, that I asked what diagnosis they were working on and was told I probably had acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL). He was not able to get a sample from my bone marrow, but the consultant confirmed later that day that it was likely I had ALL.

Back then, I really didn’t know much about leukaemia, but I was aware it was a blood cancer. My wife, parents and mother-in-law were with me to hear the news and my mum was immediately very upset. My wife was incredibly strong and asked lots of questions, but all I remember is that I felt totally numb. The good news was that we were told it was curable and that the doctors would do all they could to get me into remission.

Within an hour I had started chemo. It was a traumatising few days and was hard to take in all that was happening. I was in hospital for four weeks. Luckily my wife could stay with me and my family were amazing in their support, bringing me meals every day. Their lives stopped and they all pulled together for me. I coped reasonably well with the chemo – I felt fatigued and lost my appetite, but I was lucky not to suffer with sickness. I have also been lucky not to have lost my hair either. I responded well to the treatment and only became neutropenic after being discharged.

I was delighted to come home on 4th September. But it was a shock to my system. I had imagined that everything would be pretty much back to normal once I was out of hospital. But I was totally shattered. My calves were painful just from walking up the stairs. I needed a lie-down after taking a shower. Everything was exhausting – it was hard to adjust and accept that life was not like it had been before. It was debilitating and I struggled with having to rely on my wife and my family.

After a few weeks, I started to feel normal again. But then it was time for my next round of chemo. This time, I was treated as an outpatient, but had to travel to and from hospital five days a week for four weeks. During that time, I also had several blood and platelet transfusions. In November, I was allowed a break from chemo and a bone marrow biopsy confirmed that I was in remission. I had previously been warned that a bone marrow transplant might be necessary, but this is now looking less likely, providing I don’t relapse. I have two or three more rounds of consolidation chemo ahead of me and hope to be finished in the spring of this year.

I have tried to keep positive from the beginning of my diagnosis and have done my best to stay strong. It is nerve-wracking waiting for biopsy results, but things seem to be moving in the right direction so I have much to be grateful for.

Since my job as a dentist involves seeing patients face-to-face, I have not been able to go back to work and this has been really tough. I am usually a get up and go person, so not being able to do the job that I love has been hard. I keep myself busy by getting involved in the management side of the practice, reading books, going on walks, exercising. I am also sharing my story on my Instagram page @rickydentist.  All these things help to make the time pass.

Things are starting to get to me now because my treatment just seems to be taking so long. It’s difficult to see everyone around you making new year resolutions, when all I want is to get to the end of my treatment. Despite that, I continue to be optimistic. It’s the least I can do when things are moving in the right direction and everyone around me is being so supportive…”

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