If you were following our coverage of the Virgin Money London Marathon last year, you might have seen a striking photo. An Anthony Nolan runner, more than halfway through his 26.2 miles, practically bouncing up and down with energy, biceps clenched to the sky.
But you might not have realised the incredible story behind that photo – Eugene’s story. And Lisa’s story.
Lisa’s leukaemia diagnosis
In April 2004, my daughter Lisa was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia – and we went through a lot of trauma as a family.
Me, Lisa, her sister Hayley, her brother Callum, her best friend Laura, her boyfriend: it affected all of us.
We live on the Isle of Man, so we had to fly over to Liverpool in the middle of the night for Lisa to have a bone marrow biopsy (to see how bad things were) and begin some heavy chemo treatment.
It was a rollercoaster. We went so low – and then the first round of chemo was very successful, so things were looking up. Lisa had a choice presented to her afterwards; the doctors said it wasn’t necessary for her to have a stem cell transplant, but it would eradicate the cancer once and for all.
Well, Lisa being Lisa, a very intelligent girl, did the research. She knew the risks of a stem cell transplant, so she said, ‘Let’s carry on as we are and take it from there.’
Her sister Hayley was a perfect match for her, so we were lucky – we knew how rare it was to find a 10/10 donor in your own family!
Around that time, I took annual leave to look after Lisa. That was tough; I went on half-pay for a while, and I had some help my from friends. A lot of people don’t realise the true cost of care, but it has a huge impact on everything.
Christmas came and went at the Royal Hospital in Liverpool. And then on Valentine’s Day 2005, she felt unwell. We went back to the doctors and they told us she’d relapsed.
It wasn’t good, they said. Now she needed a stem cell transplant. And now it needed to be an imperfect match, to provoke a reaction from her immune system and help her fight off the antibodies.
I was that match, so I was going to be my daughter’s donor.
It was a very strange one. The consultant said they’d only done a transplant like that once before. It had about a 25-30% chance of success, so this really was one last roll of the dice.
I work as a paediatric nurse, so I knew the medical detail. I’ve broken really bad news, and I’ve lost patients. But now I was emotionally involved as well.
I told her,
‘I’m on this train with you, and I’m not getting off. I’m here until the end.’
Lisa’s boyfriend told me he wanted to propose to her. I think I replied with something daft like, ‘Well, you need to make sure she’s going to say yes.’
They were only kids. I wasn’t going to stand in their way.
The consultants told them to go ahead and get married, and they’d start the process afterwards. So in two weeks, Lisa, Laura and I arranged a wedding.
They got married, and we flew over to Liverpool. Lisa went into isolation, in preparation for radiotherapy.
That was when Lisa contracted a bug called VRE. Her condition worsened rapidly. She was no longer well enough for a transplant, so it was cancelled. There wasn’t any cure, so the doctors moved on to palliative care.
All of this took maybe two weeks. On 1 August, Lisa passed away.
My moment of madness
In October of that year, I was still off work. And I had a moment of madness; I decided, ‘I’d like to give something back.’
Everyone knows about testicular or breast cancer, but there’s not enough understanding about blood cancer like leukaemia. It affects every part of you. I wanted to help with that.
So I looked at Anthony Nolan’s website, and I saw I could run the marathon for them. There was an application form, with a question, ‘Why do you want to run?’. I explained my story, and Lisa’s story, and submitted it.
Within two minutes of pressing ‘send’, my phone rang. It was the Events team, from Anthony Nolan.
‘Eugene, we’ve read your story, and we’d really like you to run for us.’
‘Oh, shit! I’ve got some work to do now.’
My first marathon
At around Mile 16 or 17 on the big race day, I was struggling. I kept thinking, ‘What are you doing here?’
Then I heard Lisa’s voice, saying,
‘Come on, Dad.’
And I remembered Lisa’s pain; all of her pain. I remembered that they hadn’t been able to give her an anaesthetic for the bone marrow biopsy. And she’d just sobbed, all of the way through it.
‘That pain in your feet,’ I thought, ‘that’s nothing compared to what Lisa had to go through.’
So I kept running, and I finished it.
Afterwards I told myself, ‘That’s not happening again.’
My tenth marathon
As of this year, I’ve run nine marathons for Anthony Nolan. This is my tenth coming up.
I’ve taken on the New York Marathon (which was pretty disorganised, I found, to my surprise – London is better, no contest), and the Great Wall of China trek. That was really tough, really emotional; nine or ten hours of walking every day.
These days I just think of Anthony Nolan as an extended family. I’ve known the people there for a long time. They’re friends. That’s never clearer than when I’m on the finish line, chatting with everyone.
I’ve never run with any other charity. They’re just fantastic at what they do. Really well-organised, and the support they give you as a runner is great – phoning me up twice a week to check that I’m doing OK.
I try and recruit people, too; my girlfriend’s run two marathons now, and a couple of friends have joined in as well. I always recommend Anthony Nolan – they’re a great charity to run for, but it also creates more awareness about their cause, which is vital.
I also write songs. I was writing words about Lisa, just lyrics, really – so my kids bought me a guitar, and I started playing it and singing. First a song about Lisa, then more tracks.
Now I’ve recorded four of my tracks for an album, including Lisa’s song. It’s a bit surreal!
But honestly, there’s just one song I want to be singing.
Recently, my brother was diagnosed with follicular cancer. It isn’t aggressive, but he might need a stem cell transplant in the future – and as it turns out, I’m a match for him.
I joke around with him, saying he owes me now.
But I might be able to donate to him, if he needs it. That’s incredible. And more people need to know about it.
Want to vote for Anthony Nolan at this year’s Running Awards? Find out more here.