When Stephen, an Events Promoter from South London, was diagnosed with testicular cancer four years ago, he never expected to need a stem cell transplant. But after his immune system was wiped out by chemotherapy, so began his desperate search for a donor.
Friday 16th May 2014 will be a date forever etched into my brain, for it was the day that I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. While this doesn’t seem like the beginning of a journey that ended with me becoming a stem cell recipient thanks to Anthony Nolan, my story takes some twists and turns, and a few ups and downs – but eventually leads me to where I am right now, sharing my story with you and letting you know how you can help people like me.
After having the offending testicle removed and various tests afterward, my full diagnosis was Stage 2 Seminoma. With a 96% survival rate and nine weeks of chemotherapy planned at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital in London, it seemed that the road travelled to being clear of this disease would be short and swift.
That’s not to say that it was easy in the slightest, with all the side effects that come along with chemo my body took a beating (although being bald and having a summer breeze pass by was pretty awesome!) – but by September I was back at work with friends and family celebrating my ‘remission’.
Not what I was expecting
I was excited to go to my first check up in November to hear the good news officially, but if there’s one thing I’ve learnt about our amazing doctors and nurses, is that their poker faces aren’t so good. I immediately knew this wasn’t good news – my tumour markers had gone back up and I now knew what the aches and pains were in my chest and abdomen.
I was now being transferred to St Bartholomew’s Hospital. Another regime of chemotherapy was needed, and hopefully this would do the job. We were heading towards Christmas now, with new symptoms as welcome as unwanted Christmas presents (we all get those, right?) and thoughts to New Year’s Resolutions being the biggest ever if I were to get through this.
A new plan
It was decided by my oncologist in January 2015 that I would have my stem cells harvested, and reinserted alongside a higher dose of chemo. The plan being that my immune system would be wiped out and the cells would be re-inserted – a reboot so to speak, but not the kind where your favourite movie gets ruined by a large budget and special effects. This was my second chance at life, and I was going to take it. This was to be done in two parts as my body was so weak from all the previous treatment. The first session went well, and after 27 days in hospital I was sent home to recover for the next session a few months later.
Searching for a stem cell donor
Fast forward to April, and my wife and I arrive the same as before, even going so far as to place bets with the nurses as to how long this stay would be. I was feeling chipper, and this felt like the final hurdle to jump over – the light at the end of a very long tunnel.
Unfortunately, this was not to be as after being administered the high dose chemo, my stem cells didn’t work. My white blood cell count was zero, and I was left with no immune system – a donor had to be found immediately, otherwise I wouldn’t make it this time. My mother and brother were tested straight away, but weren’t a match despite being direct relatives – though no one is to blame if cells aren’t viable, it must be devastating not being able to help loved ones who need it.
Without an immune system, infections were able to take full advantage of my weakening state. During this time, Anthony Nolan had been contacted and the search for a donor began. Because of the severity of the situation, it was vital that someone was found as soon as possible – and luckily for me, someone was…
My road to recovery
Eventually my white blood cell count had started to grow again, and I left hospital at the beginning of August 2015, tired and longing for my own bed to sleep in. My wife had been by my side throughout the whole ordeal, and was an absolute hero – to wake up next to her for the first time in months was a blessing.
I still had mountains to climb, but now I was doing it on my own turf – I was prescribed cyclosporin, a drug that helps against graft versus host disease (GVHD) – when your new stem cells recognise the recipient as foreign and attack. With weight to put back on, and a daily physio regimen, I was slowly making my way back to a ‘normal’ life. I don’t think you are quite the same after something like this, but it was a second chance at life, and I was definitely going to take it.
How I’m doing now
Fast forward a few years – I’m sitting here with my morning coffee, telling you my story whilst simultaneously checking the train times and weather before leaving for work. And I wouldn’t be doing it without our amazing NHS, friends and family, and of course Anthony Nolan – and my stem cell donor – who gave up their own time in their life to save mine.
We’re now in touch, and I’m excited to see where this new friendship may go. I’m also excited about the future, a future I have thanks to this amazing charity. If anything, I hope this story has given you a small insight about how important it is to sign up so that you could possibly be called up and save people, like my donor saved me.
If you’re aged 16 to 30 and in good health, you can join join the stem cell register today.