Today is World Marrow Donor Day, held by blood cancer charities across the world to celebrate the incredible people across the face of the planet who’ve donated their stem cells to give a complete stranger a second chance.
If you’ve been a donor, it may now seem like a distant memory, or a small moment in your life – which is why we’ve asked Ashling to share her story today.
I’m Ashling – and someone like you saved my life.
My leukaemia diagnosis
I was 25, and just starting a new job in HR, when I started feeling very unwell. I could hear my heartbeat in my ears. I wasn’t breathing well, either.
Eventually, after being sent home from A & E more than once, I was diagnosed with late-stage acute myeloid leukaemia. Since more than 95% of my cells were cancerous, chemotherapy began just four days later.
My doctor told me that I shouldn’t have any difficulty finding a donor for a stem cell transplant. This didn’t turn out to be a very accurate prediction, as an initial search found that there were no 10/10 matches for me…in the entire world.
That was a bit of a blow.
After several months of horrendous treatment, I got out of hospital for a day, and I headed to a nice canal for some lunch with my mother, That was when the doctor rang to tell me that two potential donors had been found by Anthony Nolan, thousands of miles apart – one in Italy, and one in the USA.
And then a third, in Germany, who the doctors thought might just be my best hope.
My stem cell transplant
My doctor told me to put on weight in preparation for the transplant – well, if you say so. I promptly went out to Ireland, where my family comes from, and gorged on Guinness, roast dinners, and cake for breakfast. (I’m counting that as a highlight.)
Then began seven days of long, arduous pre-conditioning treatment, followed by Day Zero and the transplant procedure itself. Which was over in about 15 minutes. Fairly anti-climactic.
By Day 12, my results were showing some healthy cell activity, which meant that the transplant was taking hold.
My troubles didn’t end there. Recovery was hard. I had to return to hospital repeatedly. And then I was diagnosed with a new cancer – a virus-driven lymphoma, this time – which meant more chemotherapy, more treatment, more long months of pain, before I could finally be given the all-clear.
Looking back, I missed out on a significant chunk of my twenties. And there are friends who just left me behind, because they didn’t know how to cope, or didn’t know if I’d make it.
My old family, my new family
But I also remember the people who were there for me. Like my mum, who was pure titanium, and visited me every day, without exception, for an entire year (and six days every week for months afterwards). She never cried in front of me once.
During the Christmas period of 2014, Anthony Nolan gave me Jan’s email address, and told me that he was interested in getting in touch.
Straight away, I sent him a photo of myself, and a festive pic of my three-legged cat, Tripod.
My name is Ashling, and I am the 28 year old woman whose life you saved two years ago, on October 10th, 2012…’
He was a young man, living in Germany with his girlfriend. He emailed me back in halting but cheerful English, and we never looked back from there.
This is my new family – my stem cell donor, and his loved ones, who’ve taken me into their hearts.
Earlier this year, Jan and his girlfriend had their first child together. His family sent me a text on the day; it simply read,
‘You’re an auntie!’
This November, I’m hoping to go to Germany and meet them all.
If you’re a donor, you may never have heard from the person you donated your stem cells to. They may even no longer be around.
But wherever you are, whatever you’re doing now, all I can say to you is the same thing I told Jan:
‘I am eternally grateful to you, for the beautiful gift of life you gave me. Thank you.’
I’d say it applies to you as well (and by the way, if we ever happen to meet, I will definitely be giving you a hug).
To find out how you can support Anthony Nolan, visit our website at www.anthonynolan.org/8-ways