A leukaemia diagnosis, a relapse, and two unforgettable Christmases
I’ve experienced two Christmases with blood cancer. I thought the first, following my diagnosis with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia shortly after I left university, would be a one-off. But then I relapsed, eight years later. They were unlike any other Christmas I’ve spent before or since – but they were also everything Christmas is supposed to be: filled with love.
Stuck in my isolation room for the month and a half following my diagnosis with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL), I never thought I'd be allowed out for Christmas. But the doctors and nurses know what a boost it can bring, and jiggled treatment arrangements to give me – and others – a full Christmas Day out of hospital.
I wasn't very well at all, although by then that was the result more of the chemotherapy than of the leukaemia itself. My father, two brothers and sister broke me out on Christmas Eve and took me back to the house nearby that friends had so kindly let us use. When we got there, I just had enough energy to share our tradition of saying prayers in front of a makeshift crib before going to bed.
Saying prayers by candlelight on Christmas Eve had always been moving and emotional, particularly since my mum had died of cancer a few years before – but this time the seriousness of my situation and the uncertainty of my recovery reduced us all to sobbing wrecks. Drained but comforted by the love of my family, I stumbled up to my comfy bed – Hallelujah – and fell into a deep sleep.
We always woke up earlier than usual on Christmas Day – originally in the hope of catching Father Christmas filling our stockings, and always to bundle into the biggest bed together to open his gifts – but this time I slept in late. It was the first night since my diagnosis that I wasn't woken up at 2am and 6am for temperature and blood pressure checks, and my body was grateful.
It may have been someone else's house, but with my family there, my stocking full of presents and a non-hospital breakfast, it felt like home. We adapted our traditions (smoked salmon was off the menu, in case of bugs), opened our presents, smiled and laughed during my brief periods of being awake. Being out of hospital and sharing Christmas with my family left me even more tired than usual, but it was worth it for those special family moments of joy and togetherness – not least the roast potatoes, parsnips and Brussels sprouts – even if I was asleep or resting for most of the day.
I never thought I'd have such a strange, special Christmas again. My treatment still had a long way to go, and it seemed useless to even think about any potential future Christmas celebrations. But I could revel in the escape from hospital routine and the stress of treatment for the day (before going back on Boxing Day morning), and that was more than enough.
Christmas for two
For the next few years, Christmas became more 'normal' again, until eight years later, when the leukaemia relapsed and, once again, I was feeling battered by the illness and treatment. By now, my siblings had scattered across the world, and Christmas was spent alternately with Nortons and in-laws. We'd booked our flights to go to my wife's family in Italy this time around, but had to cancel as soon as we learnt the leukaemia was back.
First-line treatment hadn't worked, and I was relying on a clinical trial to keep me alive and, hopefully, get me into remission prior to a stem cell transplant. We'd agreed to do the trial as an outpatient, despite the weakness of my immune system, so at least I could spend Christmas at home. My elder brother was going to my father's for the celebrations, but he had his two-year-old son and newborn with him and I was under strict instruction to avoid contact with small, potentially bug-carrying children.
It was going to be just me and my wife of two years, Mariacristina, in the home we had moved into just the year before. We bought a little Christmas tree and decorated the house, knowing that this first Christmas on our own could well be our last. On the day, my father and brother visited for a couple of hours to share canapés and cheers before heading south for lunch. It was just me and Mariacristina.
It wasn't the first Christmas in our home that we had expected. Mariacristina cooked roast potatoes the way my family had always cooked them, knowing how happy they would make me. We looked at the Christmas tree and wondered whether it would survive beyond the season – and shared our fears of what might happen to me. But we soon realised that worrying wouldn't change anything. We were alive, together and in love – and we had this special moment all to ourselves.
Later, we teased each other over the last mini-quiche – a Mariacristina speciality – as one of our favourite Christmas songs started playing. Holding hands, we leaped off the sofa, stared into each other's eyes, and danced. It was a Christmas we'll never forget.
Enjoy Mariacristina’s Christmas recipes supporting Bloodwise and others at coochinando.com
The Bloodwise Support Line is open Monday to Friday 10-4 over the festive period (except bank holidays) on 0808 2080 888, or you can message us .The Samaritans are open throughout the Christmas period, you can call them on 116 123.