My feet pounded the pavement on one of many six mile runs that I completed when training for the Great North Run. Motivated by upbeat dance music, I ran every other day to fundraise for a cancer charity. I had lost my Nana in March 2004 to Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Before that, she had also battled for ten years with bladder cancer.
At the age of 31, I was feeling better than I had in a long time. I had moved in with Kevin, my new boyfriend, in October 2004 and felt optimistic about our future. I had completed my runs in under an hour with plenty of energy left over.
One day, my stride started to slow down. I struggled to maintain my breathing. Reducing my speed, I ended up walking. It was unlike me to have to slow down like that. I started getting breathless walking up the steps and could feel my body struggling to lift my legs sometimes.
Perhaps I had just been overdoing things.
I was being monitored by the medical team at the GPs, and they requested to have my blood taken. They regularly checked my liver for damage because I was on antidepressants to treat my ongoing depression. The nurse wasn't sure what boxes to tick on the form that was attached to the blood vial bag, so she ticked them all. I ended up having a full blood count as well.
A couple of days later, my blood results came in. My white blood cell count was high. They arranged a PCR at Wansbeck Haematology Department to double check. The appointment was made within days.
What if there was something wrong with me?
The results from Wansbeck indicated an abnormally high level of white cells. I was told by the consultant to go back to the GP in a month's time, as I might just have an infection. I kept doubting my body.
Autumn was well on its way. I could feel myself getting slightly depressed. Afternoon naps became a new thing. Staying awake during a film became impossible. Conversations became vague as I forgot what I was saying. I continued to lose weight when I wasn’t trying.
I remember looking in the mirror after getting out of the bath and just saying to myself, “I have cancer”.
I returned to the GP surgery as instructed and had some more blood tests done. The next day I received a phone call from the senior GP.
“I have made arrangements for you to go to the haematology ward at the RVI in Newcastle tomorrow. Your white cell count is still rather high. I highly recommend that you attend this appointment.”
I was shaken up and tearful but agreed to go. Kevin and I went to the RVI on the 26th November 2004, a year to the day since Kevin had lost his dad to lung cancer.
I felt scared as I made my way down the long corridor of the old part of the hospital. I felt like my body was in a dream. We arrived at the reception area of the department. I was asked to wait in the patient's seating area and was then called into Professor Proctor's consultation room.
When we sat down, he explained that my white cell count was too high. A white cell count should be no higher than 11.
Mine was 157...
Professor Proctor asked me to prop myself up onto the examination bed and he pressed on the spleen area on my tummy. After he examined me, more blood was taken. We were asked to return within an hour for the results, so Kevin and I made our way into the city centre and had a quick lunch.
When we returned, fear creeped in.
Again, I was invited into Professor Proctor's consultation room. He explained that he thought that I had chronic myeloid leukaemia.
My heart dropped and I began to cry in fear. I had only just lost my Nana and didn’t want to die.
It felt unbelievable that we were sitting down hearing that I have cancer.
“We need to do a bone biopsy today to confirm this.”
They needed to collect a sample of bone marrow and send it for analysis to confirm the diagnosis. They would look for the Philadelphia chromosome. Changes in the number 22 chromosome and number 9.
As Kevin arranged for my daughter to be looked after, I was gently led down to a ward and given a local anaesthetic on the right side of my hip. Once the area was numb, a nurse held my hand as another doctor stuck a long needle into the bone.
I screamed in pain and went into shock.
As the needle was pulled out, Kevin ran back in. He had heard my screams and crying from the corridor and had rushed back to be by my side.
I was given a week's course of hydroxyurea to help prevent gout and kill off any rogue cells before my planned lifetime treatment of Glivec. It was the new revolutionary treatment for CML. The first of its kind in target therapy treatments that prevent the chromosomes from translocating, which then in turn causes immature white blood cells.
Without this treatment, I would probably have had to have a bone marrow transplant, which is a very risky procedure that isn’t always successful. Glivec was hard to have as it caused extreme nausea, sickness, joint pain, and fatigue. I bloated from a size 10 to 16 within months.
In 2008, I was given the option to try a new drug called Tasigna. As the next generation of TKIs (Tyrosine Kinase Inhibitors), it promised fewer side effects. I jumped at the chance because I wanted to feel better.
A diagnosis of cancer at any age can cause such strong feelings of isolation, frustration, anxiety, financial worries, guilt, and fear, but it also brings strong connections with people who care and are going through the same thing. It is my arts and crafts that have also helped me through difficult stages of my life and my feelings around cancer.
I am grateful for the local charities that have supported me and my family, giving me opportunities that I know I would have missed out on. I have used my art and crafting skills as a mindfulness tool to help ground me when life has worn me down. I have helped fundraise by taking part in Total Warrior, zip wiring off the Tyne Bridge for the Anthony Nolan Trust, running fundraising nights with friends for cancer groups, and creating various pieces of art and paintings to help raise funds so these lifesaving charities can keep connecting others who are facing cancer in the community.
I can’t run like I used to, but I have a voice, new friends, and a cancer journey of eighteen years to share with the world. If I can inspire just one person to keep going after their diagnosis, then I feel I have achieved something great in life.