It is September 2015 and my wife, Claire, and I are on holiday in Orlando, Florida. It’s one of our favourite places. We’d just moved back to the UK after four years of hard work in Australia. The move turned out to be fortunate timing, because of what we were about to go through.
When we landed in Orlando, Claire was complaining of stomach pains and was feeling very tired. We put it down to jet-lag, but as the days passed Claire got worse. We had plans to visit the famous Disney parks and go to some of our favourite restaurants, but Claire didn’t have enough energy and couldn’t eat. As we approached the end of our second week, we’d barely been able to leave the house and we decided to go to hospital.
We were met by an amazing doctor who sent Claire for an MRi and blood tests. We are so grateful that he did, because when the results came back, he calmly told us that Claire very likely had blood cancer.
The next few days were a blur
Claire was admitted to hospital straight away and, over the next few hours, further tests suggested that it was Acute Myeloid leukaemia. We were faced with a decision: stay in Orlando and start treatment or arrange to fly home to start treatment there. If we had to go through this, we wanted to be at home, so two days later we were on a flight back to London, accompanied by a medic.
On arrival in London we were driven straight to hospital in Coventry and more tests confirmed what we had been told in Orlando: Claire had leukaemia.
It was all such a blur. Being totally honest, we didn’t really have any idea what leukaemia was or what it meant. Everything happens so fast. We still had our holiday suitcases, as Claire was taken away to be prepared for treatment.
The consultants were brilliant though and it was unbelievable to learn that Claire’s lead consultant had treated my best friend’s mum for Leukaemia some 20 years earlier! We were told about the treatment that Claire would have and from the beginning they said they were going for a cure, by giving her a stem cell transplant.
Sorting out the practical things
My immediate thoughts were that Claire only needed to concentrate on getting better and not have to worry about anything else outside of that.
We were very lucky that Claire’s work was so understanding. She had only been working there for five months and was still on probation, but they made it clear that we had nothing to worry about and any support we needed, we just had to ask.
We had also taken out critical illness and life cover when we took out our mortgage in 2006 and despite many hoops to jump through, we made a successful claim. I cannot recommend enough to anyone who does not have critical illness cover to seriously look into it. Without it we would have been in serious financial trouble.
Even during tough moments, we’d do our best to laugh
The next six months were extremely tough on Claire – she had a few infections and a couple of operations to help with an abscess, but she faced it all with such positivity and bravery.
We’ve always shared a good sense of humour and we made it clear that we were going to do our best to laugh a lot through this. We met with so many nurses during this time that it was hard to keep track of names, so we gave them nicknames – Nurse Latex, Nurse Badger, Nurse Rebel to name a few.
Even during a very tough moment where I shaved Claire’s head, we joked that we would now be look-a-likes. Claire looked so beautiful with her shaved head and it made her look even younger – someone even thought I was her Dad at one point!
The consultants would see Claire every morning and I made sure I was there for every visit. Mainly because I wanted to know what was happening but also because of the amount of pain killers Claire was on it made it hard for her to concentrate and remember things. I wanted to ensure I knew everything that was happening and take that pressure off Claire.
I’ve never missed a visit with Claire because as far as I was concerned this was our battle and I never wanted to let her down.
A light at the end of the tunnel
While we waited to find a matching donor for the stem cell transplant, Claire went through three rounds of chemotherapy. We made sure that after each round, Claire had a treat to look forward to. Whether that be her favourite food, some shopping or a visit to the cinema to see the latest Bond, Marvel or Star Wars film. I wanted us to have things to look forward to, not just a schedule filled with the chemotherapy and hospital visits.
Then, we got the amazing news: Anthony Nolan had found Claire a donor. We were so thankful that there seemed to be a light at the end of the tunnel.
Fast-forward to today – Claire is over three years post-transplant and back at work four days a week. We have had such an emotional year spending time with her amazing life-saving donor, Imogen, after Anthony Nolan put us in touch. We often look back and think of all the things that we went through and all the emotions, but I am so happy to see Claire continue going from strength to strength.
To anyone going through this
I’m sometimes asked about advice I would give to family members going through something similar, watching a loved one battle against cancer. I always reiterate that it is very much a joint battle to face together but that the person having the treatment should only have to focus on getting better.
There were dark days when I wasn’t sure if Claire would make it, but I always stayed positive when I was with her. I sought counselling whether that was from a professional counsellor or having some time with friends to talk. We always tried to keep our humour and have things to look forward to both short term and long term. We aimed to go back to Orlando to complete the holiday and I am pleased to say that we did that in January 2017!
I cannot thank Anthony Nolan enough for all their support and we now always try and give something back to them. Whether that be taking part in Ride London (me), sharing our story in a film (Claire and Imogen) or writing this blog – we want to help. I owe them, and Imogen, so much. Without them, I wouldn’t have my wife.