Gavin was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin Lymphoma when he was 15. Today he is studying for his PhD at Cambridge, researching the genetics of lymphoma in a laboratory funded by Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research.
Well, I became ill when I was 15, in year 10 at school, with difficulties breathing through my nose, and later with lethargy, rapid weight loss and loss of appetite, intensely painful headaches and toothaches and a burning sensation on my cheeks which eventually led to loss of nervous sensation over most of my face. The surgical team at Univeristy Hospital Coventry originally misdiagnosed me with a benign tumour called an angiofibroma which they thought was obstructing my nasal passage, but as my illness progressed, secondary tumours developed over my neck and the tumour grew to obstruct my airway, causing me stop breathing.
I was eventually diagnosed with B-cell non-Hodgkin Lymphoma nearly 6 months later and began chemotherapy treatment with the excellent oncology team at Birmingham Children’s Hospital. However, my disease was refractory to the first and second lines of treatment, so my treatment protocol was changed to a more aggressive therapy. When I was 16 years old I received an autogeneic stem cell transplantation following high dose chemotherapy, which is where blood stem cells are harvested from the patient before they are treated with very intense chemotherapy and then rescued by reintroducing the harvested blood stem cells back into the patient.
After this, I began making plans to return to school, completing GCSE coursework over the Summer so that I could rejoin my friends in year 12 to study for my A-levels while finishing off my Maths and English GCSEs in my spare time. Unfortunately, my scans still showed evidence of residual disease, so after returning to school for 2 weeks I had to begin an intense 6-week course of radiotherapy making me too ill to be at school.
Following this treatment and my recovery, though, I did return to school and studied hard to catch up on the work that I had missed, completing my GCSEs and A-levels to gain a place at Durham University to study Cell Biology. During this time, I guess I got bitten by the research bug, and I was awarded a grant by the Nuffield Foundation to work at Birmingham University conducting research into the Mixed Lineage Leukaemia gene which when mutated is a driving oncogene in various leukaemias including infant acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL). This project interested me so much that I chose it as the subject for my final year dissertation.
After studying at Durham University, I was granted a place at Cambridge University to study for a PhD, conducting research with Dr. Suzanne Turner into a gene that is mutated in childhood T-cell lymphoma. The laboratory is funded by Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research, and the project is really interesting. Life as a PhD student can be a little stressful and very frustrating at times when things don’t quite work out the way you had hoped, but in a weird way I kind of love to worry about these little things again. If we can help improve our understanding of cancer just a little bit so that patients don’t have to suffer as much with their cancer and its treatment then it makes it all worth it. I’m also very thankful for all the support I’ve received because not everybody gets an opportunity like this to fight back at their illness.
Of course, none of this would have been at all possible without the love and support of my family who, at times, almost literally dragged me through the treatment to get me better and are just always there for me – they really are unbelievable! And also my friends who have always been around to pick me up when I’m down.
As for the marathon… well, this all sort of came about because, when I was recovering from my high dose chemotherapy, I told my physio (Richard) that one day I would run the London Marathon. Richard was great and helped to get me walking again after I had been too ill and weak to get out of the hospital bed, and there were many days when just going for a walk around the ward with him (doing the laps he called it) helped to keep me sane. So, I’m a man of my word, and it will be great to give something back to Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research for all that they have done for me. So over the past three and a bit years I’ve been working to get marathon fit between the other sports I play. I’ve never ran a marathon before but I have run four half-marathons over the past year or so, and although I’m feeling pretty confident that I can run the distance, I just hope I can run it faster than that bloke in the diving suit!