The summer of 2005 was meant to have been one of the best in my life. I had survived breast cancer in 1998 and my husband, Dick, had survived three mouth cancers, and was in remission. After several years of harrowing operations, we were looking forward to a much-needed holiday in France with good friends, and best of all, our daughter, Rachael, was getting married with a big family wedding planned at our home.
The holiday was just what we needed. The warm Mediterranean Sea, lazy lunches, meeting friends. The villa we stayed in was yards from the sea so every morning I would go to the empty beach and have a morning swim in the luxuriously cool and still Mediterranean. Heaven. It was there that I noticed small bruises on my arms and legs as I dried in the sun after my swim – very odd. I was feeling very tired but put that down to the stress of preparing for the wedding only one month away.
On the first morning back at work after holiday I had an enormous bruise on my thigh, the size of a tea plate. My GP took a blood sample that day and in the evening I had a call from a locum doctor. He told me an appointment had been made at Bristol Royal Infirmary the following morning and if I felt ill during the night, to call an ambulance and go straight to hospital. The next morning at the hospital I was told I had acute myeloid leukaemia (AML). It was terrifying. My mind just could not take it in. Words were being spoken but I couldn’t hear them. I felt anxious.
My life changed from that moment on, July 14th 2005. I was 61 and, up to that point, I was happily semiretired. I enjoyed gardening and worked an allotment as well as our garden. I was really starting to enjoy life again in spite of the cancers. Our son, Tim, was living in London and had three small, adorable daughters who all came to visit regularly. Our daughter, Rachael, had been a career girl and was planning to get married. We were all so thrilled when a grandson was born! We had the four best grandchildren in the world – and they still are!
July 14th was the last day I went to work; the last day for months and months before I did any gardening and the children were kept at bay for long periods during chemotherapy. The wedding was postponed – marquee, caterers, flowers, church service, band. Invitations had gone out, someone phoned everybody. Wedding clothes were hung up in polythene. Such a huge disappointment, there were tears.
It seemed that the AML was going to be really difficult. After two series of chemotherapy, the condition was not improving so consultants had to try another tactic – a bone marrow transplant (BMT). My sister, Cherry, was a good match but she had a heart condition from birth and there was a question of if she would be able to donate her bone marrow. She was so lucky to have survived her childhood let alone have her own children and grandchildren, could she now save my life? Her heart consultant and my BMT consultant decided she could so she came to Bristol for a few days to donate her bone marrow for me.
Six months after I was diagnosed, I went into isolation for five weeks to prepare for my BMT.
My husband was my only visitor; dressed in a hospital gown and hat which always brought a smile to my face. There were lots of ups and downs, good days and bad days, despairing days and hopeful days. On one particularly cold winter day I watched my grandson from my window taking his first steps down the pavement opposite the hospital, holding his mummy’s hand and carefully putting one foot in front of the other. I cried. Although I was not able to see my son and daughter at that time they were so tremendously supportive they even sent in a laptop so that I could email everybody and stay in touch.
The transplant was followed by many infections and setbacks over the following weeks and months, in and out of hospital, but gradually I was stronger and set backs were few and far between. By the end of the summer I was much stronger.
In September 2006 we had the wedding! The marquee was put up, the caterers were back, flowers in the church and bouquets, clothes dug out again (a friend kindly altered my mother–of-the-bride dress because I had lost so much weight and not much hair!). It was the most wonderful wedding. My daughter was radiant and our son filmed the event with his video camera which, when I look at it, reminds me of all the emotions I had that day. I was alive! Our lovely granddaughters were pretty bridesmaids and my grandson walked sturdily by then, and danced to the live band. My life-saving sister was there with her family and was given a standing ovation during the speeches! After my transplant I found belonging to the Bristol Adult Transplanters Support Group really helpful, especially hearing about other patient’s experiences and meeting people who had come through their illness. It was here that I met Leukaemia Care and I became involved with their work. After some assessment it was agreed that the role best suited to me was working on the help line and so after training in Worcester and London, I started as a help line volunteer.
Being able to talk and listen to people affected by a blood cancer is very rewarding. I have made a number of friends who I have never met but who keep in touch, it’s wonderful to hear of a patient who has come through the ordeal, and still likes to phone me and tell me how things are.