On April Fool’s Day 1996, at the age of 11, I was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia. As you can imagine, at the time I didn’t see the funny side, even though I wanted it to be a practical joke being played on me.
My symptoms of leukaemia
I had just started secondary school so was in the process of making new friends and finding my feet. I was enjoying playing different sports, like rugby and I seemed to be fitting in fine. Not too long into the New Year, I noticed that I was getting bruises in various places on my body. To begin with, it didn’t seem to be anything to worry about. I was doing a lot more sport at school and my parents and I put it down to that.
As time went on however, the bruises appeared on more parts of my body and were taking much longer to go away, if at all. Perhaps stupidly at the time I ignored it, as I felt fine within myself. However in late March, I remember becoming more and more tired which ended up with me taking a day off school. It was on my day off that I came out with red blood blisters all over my body.
When the doctor came and told my mother I had to go to hospital, something was clearly not right. A day later we were taken to The Royal Marsden and told that I had leukaemia. I broke down at this. At that young age the connection between cancer and death is easily made.
What follows is a breakdown of the six months that followed, including various milestones and procedures.
My treatment for leukaemia
The first procedure was the insertion of a Hickman line. Unfortunately the operation did not go to plan and my lung was punctured. I was unconscious as we sped along under blue lights to another hospital and I ended up waking up in a makeshift ward surrounded by young babies in cubicles. A chest drain had been inserted and taken out in what seemed a matter of hours and the whole experience was a bit of a blur. I do remember a pressing need to go to the toilet and taking ages to drum up enough courage to call to the nurse across the room.
After I returned to the Marsden, things weren’t hitch-free in the months ahead. I had trouble taking tablets and I was forced to either crunch them or take liquid medicine. One in particular, for replacing potassium, still haunts me to this day and I dare anyone not to gag after taking some. I had to take six mouthfuls a day. I tried to drag it out as long as possible, ending up taking three or four in one go most evenings and stuffing my face with fruit salads in a desperate attempt to take the taste away.
During the course of those six months, there were highs and lows. I made friends and I unfortunately, lost friends. I celebrated my birthday with a visit from Cobra from The Gladiators (remember them?!) and spent my hospital days trying to avoid going to the school room. I was ill so technically I shouldn’t be at any school, right? There were new medications and trips carting them around on a stand, making sure wherever I was, I was plugged into a mains somewhere. There were also further operations for checking bone marrow and going under anaesthetic wondering if I was going to wake up in the same room I fell asleep in.
I noticed that my hearing had decreased
Near the end of my time in the Marsden, I noticed that my hearing had decreased. I had recently been placed on new drugs for a bout of septicaemia (caused by a chicken nugget scratching my throat no less) and this just seemed like my body shutting down a bit. Long story short is that I survived leukaemia but with the legacy of losing my hearing. I am now a wearer of two hearing aids. Some might say that it was a bitter pill to take… beating cancer but then having something that would affect me for the rest of my life. Coming out of hospital and having to return to normal didn’t go exactly as planned. The boys back at my school turned out to not be a very sympathetic bunch and I made it through there due to sheer will and determination.
I got married in August 2017
I got married in August 2017 and I will say now what I said in my speech. Of course it was tough growing up, and even in my 30s it is still tough with the hearing loss. But I made it through school, went to university, got good jobs and had relationships and am now very happily married. Having cancer didn’t dictate my life, it merely took me down a route I wasn’t expecting to go down. Do I wish that I had never had it? Of course I do. But as I am told often, what makes me ‘me’ could have had the seeds planted during that experience. Leukaemia might have dealt me a rubbish parting present but who knows what kind of person I would have become without that experience. Especially when I understand how close I was to not having any life at all.
Darren (February 2018)
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