'When Catherine died from a rare form of blood cancer at just 17, I could either have fallen into a dark hole or helped others'
As Leukaemia & Lymphoma NI starts an awareness month, its chairman Richard Buchanan, from Co Down, tells Una Brankin about the heartbreaking death of his daughter from leukaemia.
As a young girl, Catherine Buchanan always stood out from the crowd. By the time she reached 17, she had grown to six feet two inches, stature she carried well.
It was 2013, and a new generation of six-foot-plus supermodels and actresses, such as Karlie Kloss and Gwendolene Christie, were making waves. Catherine, encouraged by the confidence-building approach of her parents, had passed the awkward stage endured by taller than average teens, and had become comfortable with her height.
The schoolgirl from Crawfordsburn had put a purple tint in her long dark hair. She had learned to speak her mind and to ride horses. Popular at Strathearn grammar school, she was excelling at her A-levels and had set her mind on becoming a scientist. There was so much for her to live for.
“She was just coming out of herself; she was blooming, like a sunflower,” recalls Richard Buchanan, Catherine’s father. “She was utterly distinctive — you couldn’t miss her. She would have been gangly at one stage but we worked hard to make her feel at ease with her height and in the end, she quite liked it.
“My mother was six feet tall and she hated it; it would have been more unusual when she was young. But Catherine was the tallest at school and very happy with it.
“And she was very, very bright. She’d been very quiet at primary school but by her sixth form, she was well able to argue her case. Catherine was very like me; she looked like me and we’re very similar people.”
In late August 2013, Catherine had just received her application form to study natural sciences at Cambridge University, when she started to feel ill. Initially, her mother, Julie, a former teacher, and father, Richard, put her sickness down to a midweek meal she’d had with her friends.
“We thought it was some bug,” says Richard, a well-spoken senior civil servant. “She was vomiting; then it eased off, but when she was still unwell on the Saturday, we realised something wasn’t right.
“We took her to the out of hours GP, who immediately sent her to the Ulster Hospital in Belfast; then, she was transferred to the City Hospital, Belfast for further urgent tests. The next week was a roller coaster of hope and setbacks.”
The expedited tests confirmed that Catherine had a very rare and aggressive form of blood cancer, Acute Promyelocytic Leukaemia (APL). Only 200 cases, approximately, are diagnosed in the UK per year with APL, which is characterised by a fast and sudden onset.
“Acute says it all,” Richard remarks. “It comes on very quickly. There’s nothing we could have done. I suppose we could have noticed the blotches she had on her legs but there was no reason for us to be worried.
“The diagnosis is a bit of a blur. We were shocked but our reaction was, ‘no problem, we’ll work around the hospital treatments’. Catherine was worried about her university application. I told her I’d sort it out, and then she was admitted immediately for chemo — they had to chuck it at her hard and fast.”
With her condition declining rapidly, Catherine began a particularly intense regime of chemotherapy. Although the treatment was successful in targeting the cancer cells, there was a number of serious side-effects.
“Younger people can withstand it better than older, but then they have all the negative reactions,” Richard explains. “In Catherine’s case, she had a reasonable chance if she got through the chemo, and she did, for the first 48 hours.
“If we hadn’t got her to hospital that day, who knows?
“We knew from the start it could be fatal. I was more hopeful than Julie — her fear was greater, especially after Catherine’s first blood clot.”
By now only semi-conscious, Catherine was given 100 units of blood products, some from overseas, as she had a rare blood type. Only her parents and her younger sister, Emily, then 14, were allowed to see her.
“There was an awful moment when her friends had to be turned away, due to risk of infection,” Richard sighs.
“They were a really tight-knit group of about eight friends — they still call to see us. It was really tough for them; really traumatic for the whole school, in fact. It all happened so quickly.
“We slept in the hospital and tried to keep talking to her. Urging her to be strong. I’d say, ‘Come on Catherine, you can do it’. I don’t know if she heard me.”
After five days in the ICU at the City Hospital, Catherine developed a brain clot and was rushed to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast for surgery.
“Her head was split open to ease the pressure,” Richard adds. “We had a little bit of hope but on the Friday, she had another clot, which caused brain damage.
“We had another chat with the doctors, in the ‘sad room’, as we called it.
“They were very matter of fact. It was all over in 10 hours.”
During those last hours, Richard and Julie read to their daughter from The Saddle Club, a book she had outgrown but still loved, and “interesting bits” from New Scientist magazine. And, so the “kind and generous” nurses could see her at her best, they put a photo of her up on the screen.
As far as Richard knows, Catherine wasn’t aware she was dying.
“She was in and out of semi-consciousness. I had to hold her down when she woke up and tried to pull out the tubes and drains,” he remembers. “It’s a blessing she wasn’t aware; that she wasn’t frightened.
“For us, it was a horrible time. Every parent’s worst nightmare. We hadn’t a clue what to do. We had to sort out all the funeral stuff.
“We’re not religious; we both understood what had happened and we didn’t pretend she hadn’t gone.
“The neighbours were a great support for us. We were inundated by dishes of lasagne and all sorts.”
Catherine died on September 2, 2013, one week after her diagnosis, with her family by her side. Her death changed life irrevocably for the small family unit, with the focus, for Richard and Julie, falling on Emily, now 17 and five feet 10 inches tall.
Richard says: “Julie’s at home now, to keep Emily on track. She was only 14 then. It’s hard to tell with teenagers. But she’s a strong young woman.
“Strathearn has been very good with Emily, sheltering her, and she has a good cross-community group of friends. She has got through it.
“My reaction is to keep super-busy. Julie needs more space and time.”
During Catherine’s brief illness, the Buchanans were most grateful for the support of the Leukaemia & Lymphoma NI, the only local charity dedicated solely to fighting blood cancers.
After her death, Richard became more involved with fundraising for the organisation, whose patrons and ambassadors include Professor Jim Dornan, a leukaemia survivor; model agent Alison Clarke, MLA Claire Sugden and BBC broadcaster Jim Neilly.
Having scaled back his civil service work, Richard now acts as chairman for the charity.
“When Catherine died, I had a choice, either to fall into a dark hole or try to help others through the charity,” he concludes.
“I never expected to; you don’t plan these things but I’m really enjoying it, trying to keep the money flowing.
“There’s a poster, in the latest campaign, of three empty chairs and it’s in the bus stop, right outside the Coffee Yard cafe we all used to go to in Hollywood as a treat on a Friday evening.
“It’s a weird coincidence, as is the fact that, here I am, fundraising for all this cutting edge scientific research. Catherine would have liked that.”
- If you want to donate to Leukaemia and Lymphoma NI you can do so through Catherine’s JustGiving page at justgiving.com/nilrf
Charity backing blood cancer research
Leukaemia & Lymphoma NI has been supporting research for more than 50 years, with the aim of finding the cause and cure of blood cancers.
The charity helps fund the infrastructure, students and scientists in the blood cancer research laboratories in the Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology (CCRCB) and Belfast City Hospital, and supports research in the areas of Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML) and Myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS), Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia (CML).
To continue with this life-saving research, the charity needs to raise at least £500,000 every year.
For more information on their research groups and to donate, visit leukaemiaandlymphomani.org
What is leukaemia?
Leukaemia is a cancer which starts in blood-forming tissue, usually the bone marrow.
It leads to the over-production of abnormal white blood cells, the part of the immune system which defends the body against infection.
Blood cells are formed in the bone marrow. Blood-forming stem cells divide to produce either more stem cells or immature cells that become mature blood cells over time.
A blood stem cell may become a myeloid stem cell or a lymphoid stem cell.
A myeloid stem cell becomes one of three types of mature blood cells:
Red blood cells that carry oxygen to all tissues of the body.
Platelets that form blood clots to stop bleeding.
Granulocytes (white blood cells) that fight infection and disease.
A lymphoid stem cell becomes a lymphoblast cell and then one of three types of lymphocytes (white blood cells):
- B lymphocytes that make antibodies to help fight infection.
- T lymphocytes that help B lymphocytes make the antibodies that help fight infection.
- Natural killer cells that attack cancer cells and viruses.
Leukaemia affects white blood cells and can be classified by the type of white cell affected (myeloid or lymphatic) and by the way the disease progresses (acute or chronic).
Acute and chronic do not actually refer to how serious the disease is but to how rapidly it progresses.