My name is Vicky Forster and I am a childhood leukaemia survivor and a leukaemia research scientist at Newcastle University. I was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL) on New Year’s day in 1995 aged seven. I had been ill for approximately six weeks beforehand and was progressively getting worse. I had a bout of pneumonia that just wouldn’t shift and was finally sent for blood tests. From that point on,
The next morning, I got to go in an ambulance (although sadly without the blue lights on!) to St. Bartholomew’s hospital in London, where I spent most of the next 3 months on induction chemotherapy, which is where patients have a lot of different chemotherapy agents, with the view to getting their leukaemia into remission.
I remember a few distinct things about that first period in hospital; one was that similar to most seven year olds I presume, I was not very good at taking tablets. I was used to things like Calpol and Tixylix when I had a cough or cold – I had never encountered tablets before. Suddenly, I was expected to take a handful of them three times a day and I refused. So much so that the nurse - a lovely, but firm lady called Clara - lost her temper with me and told me in no uncertain terms that if I didn’t take the tablets I would die. She wasn’t lying, and although I was horrified at the time, I have the greatest of respect for her deciding I was intelligent enough to understand such things, but too stubborn and headstrong for my own good. That, along with the bribe of a Gameboy from my parents sorted out the problem, and from then on, I became a pro at taking tablets even when I was nil-by-mouth and wasn’t allowed lots of water to take them with!
I also quite clearly remember having my hickman line (wiggly – are they still called that by the kids?!) put in, and thinking it really was rather cool. When I had the bags of chemo and saline attached to my drip – I used to go ‘skateboarding’ through the corridor on my drip (with someone to make sure I didn’t fall of course). It might seem a bit strange, I think most people would expect me to have bad memories of the whole experience and although I do have a few – most of what I recall are pleasant memories – a testament to the wonderful nurses, doctors and support staff like play therapists, teachers and porters who kept my spirits high and made the ward a nice place to be. It’s so important when children and families are sometimes there for months at a time. I even had a favourite porter – his name was Steve, and he used to pretend that he was a gladiator whilst he was taking me for all of my scans and operations. He said I could give him a name and I decided that he should be called ‘Lampshade’ – I'm not really sure why, but I don’t think he was that impressed.
I remember all of their names, too. Annalise and Nina were my favourite nurses because they let me stay up at night playing games in the nurses’ station after the other kids had gone to sleep, Chris and Mandy were fantastic teachers, Joan was the ward secretary who used to bring me lots of presents and Bonamy was the main play therapist. They were all fantastic and if anyone who remembers me from the ward, please do get in touch, I would love to hear from you!
One of my best memories is that of meeting my hero – first British astronaut, Helen Sharman. She even let me wear the flight-suit that she wore on the mir space station (see picture below). Something I will never forget.
I had just over two years of treatment and then gradually, life began to return to normal. I went back to school full-time – still going to regular checkups, but the more time that passed, the less time myself and my family spent thinking about leukaemia and worrying that it would return. If I think back to my time in primary school now (despite the fact that I missed a couple of years on and off (I don’t really think about that part)) I think about school trips, making friends - some of which I am still friends with today - and doing cool (mostly science) projects. So to any families who have a child currently on treatment for leukaemia I would say this: there will be times where it seems as if life will never return to normal, where you might worry about the future and whether it will hold your child back but things will return to normal with time.
I’m going to be writing about a variety of topics, from my own experiences with childhood leukaemia, running and fundraising, the work I do now and research which I'm not directly involved in but think is important in the fight against blood cancer. If you have any suggestions for topics I could write about, or questions that you would like me to answer, please do leave a comment, or tweet me @vickyyyf