Yesterday, we celebrated my husband’s 18th birthday. He (like most of his physical body) is actually 56, but his bone marrow is only 18 years old. It was a gift from somebody we have never met and probably never will meet. In September 2001, while the world reeled from the shock of the attack on the World Trade Centre, my husband felt more and more ill. Some time towards the end of the month, he went for a blood test and was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia. The months that followed quickly filled with stories, some shocking and terrifying, others unexpectedly quiet, loving and joyful. But this week, our memories are focused on the point early in 2002, when it became obvious that the leukaemia was stronger than the chemotherapy and the best chance of surviving it was a bone marrow transplant.
My husband is from a small family and only his sister was young enough to be a potential donor. When she turned out not to be a match, things looked bleak. The only hope was that the charity Anthony Nolan could find bone marrow that matched my husband’s, from someone who had volunteered as a potential donor. To our amazement and delight, they found someone.
In a room in University College Hospital, the consultant said “There’s a one in three chance that you’ll die as a result of the transplant”. My husband decided to go ahead. What else could he do?
The preparation was grim. More chemotherapy, then four daily hits of total body irradiation. Trussed up like a chicken and covered in wax, my husband chose Eric Satie and Aphex Twin as the soundtrack to these sessions. The aim was to kill off his own bone marrow (now host to an unwelcome army of leukaemia cells). If the donated healthy bone marrow didn’t “take”, he couldn’t survive, so it was a high stakes gamble. It felt as if the medics had pushed him off a cliff, hoping to catch him in a slightly dodgy safety net that they weren’t completely sure would actually hold him.
But it did. On 14th March 2002, a small bag of stem cells, transfused in under an hour, gave my husband a second chance of life. And every year, we celebrate his bone marrow birthday and raise a glass to his anonymous donor. In the world of cancer, you quickly learn not to think too far ahead. In 2002, we wouldn’t have dared to imagine ourselves where we are, 18 years on. But here we stand, thanks to our National Health Service, the kindness of a stranger and the charity that made it possible.
Good health and long life to us all.