When I was seven I was diagnosed with childhood acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) – 20 years ago now.
I’d been ill for weeks and was slowly getting worse. Within a few days of going back to the doctor I was in hospital in London, fifty miles from home, starting a two-and-a-half year treatment programme. A change in my DNA meant that defective white blood cells had started filling my blood, stopping my body from getting enough oxygen to work properly. I would have died within weeks without treatment.
Thankfully, I made a full recovery, and twenty years later, I’m well into my PhD looking at the biology of blood cancer. During my treatment, I made friends on the ward – I think I lost as many friends as survived. I’ve always liked science, and I wanted to help people like me get better.
The research we can do now is mind blowing and we’re making progress really quickly – even compared to five or ten years ago. Developments like the human genome project mean that we can get lots of information about how blood cancers work. We have almost too much information – researchers have all these ideas but organisations like Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research don’t always have enough money to pursue them.
When I was diagnosed children with ALL had a 6 in 10 chance of survival – now it’s 9 in 10. But we can’t say this yet for every type of blood cancer. And our focus on survival has meant that treatments often have horrendous side effects. In the future, I want to see more research which concentrates on improving patients’ lives, reducing these side effects and creating treatments which are personalised to suit each individual.
This is a big focus of work funded by Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research. They have so many world-leading scientists looking at how we can reduce the long- and short-term side effects of childhood leukaemia treatment – side effects like infertility and the development of new, second cancers.
What I find hardest is knowing that parents are still having to go through what my mum and dad did when I was diagnosed. I think if my mum could give any advice to parents today it’d be that you’ll have ups and downs, but keep going. It doesn’t feel
like it right now, but it will become part of the past and life will go back to normal.
Just know that we’re working on beating blood cancer and we won’t stop until we do.
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