Belfast man Alan Whitten was a young rugby player when a cancer diagnosis turned his world upside down. He tells Karen Ireland how his sibling Robert made a life-saving decision and the invaluable support provided by one woman.
Alan Whitten, (27), is a software tester living in Belfast. He says:
When I was 22 everything in life was going well for me. I was enjoying my final year at the Ulster University studying building surveying and, perhaps more importantly, I was playing lots of rugby which has been my passion since school.
That particular season I had played a lot of rugby but had a niggling cough. At one match I had to come off the pitch after just five minutes as I couldn't stop coughing.
I went to the GP thinking it was a bad chest infection but he sent me to the hospital for blood tests and an X-ray.
While the X-ray came back clear I was told my bloods were erratic. The doctor came in to talk to me and said he was 90% sure I had leukaemia.
My mum, Irene, was with me at the time and we just looked at each other in complete shock.
I was scared and didn't really know what this meant. One minute I was on the rugby pitch and the next I was being told I had cancer. It was all a bit of a whirlwind.
They admitted me to hospital straight away where I had a bone marrow biopsy to determine what type of cancer I had.
The diagnosis was Acute Myeloid Leukaemia and I was told I would need four courses of chemo.
The treatment was unpleasant and I was extremely sick. I lost all my hair, but I knew I needed the chemo to get better.
After the treatment I went home to recuperate - but even though I felt I was doing okay, at my six month check-up I was told it had come back. I had relapsed. I was devastated.
I needed more chemo and radiotherapy. Again I was sick and lost what hair had grown back but what I really needed was a bone marrow transplant.
Finding a match can be a very long drawn-out process but when my family were tested my brother Robert, who was 20 at the time, was a match.
He was only too happy to have the surgery if it meant me getting better, although, I'm sure he was scared at the time, too. I'll always be so thankful to him for what he did.
After the operation I wasn't allowed out of my room in the hospital for a couple of months as I was prone to infection.
I was allowed visitors in which kept me going and kept my spirits up - but I was frustrated being cooped up in hospital.
From the first day in my journey with cancer I met the Macmillan specialist nurse, Caroline Kerr and she was wonderful at answering any questions and explaining things to me.
I remember her even telling me off one day for taking the stairs instead of the lift. I told her all I wanted was to get back on the rugby pitch.
She told me to stay positive and have goals.
She was a great support to my parents, Irene and John, too. She was always there as a friendly face and caring for the whole family.
My goal didn't look very likely when I was discharged as I had lost about six stones in weight and had absolutely no energy. I couldn't even walk up the stairs - playing rugby seemed like a pipe dream.
It was a long, slow recovery to get my strength back and to get my life back which had been out on hold during the illness.
Every day I got a little stronger and after about a year and a half I returned to university. I decided to do a conversion course and do a Masters degree in software development.
I finally got back on the pitch and it was the best feeling in the world. I felt like I was back and I had really something positive in my life.
Life is good now. I am happy and healthy. I have a good job as a software tester and a girlfriend, Lisa Turk who works in recruitment. What has happened to me has changed my outlook on life and I very much live in the moment and I appreciate every day. In the early days I used to worry about it coming back for a third time.
Now, though, I have moved on and don't dwell on that - I just concentrate on getting the most out of life."
For more details on the work of Macmillan visit macmillan.org.uk.
Visit http://www.leukaemiaandlymphomani.org/ for more information and support.
Caroline Kerr (46), Macmillan Haematology clinical nurse specialist, lives in Dromore with her husband, Jonathan Kerr (48), also a nurse. They have two children, Shannon (19) and Callum (16). She says:
I have been in this post working with leukaemia patients for a year and a half now and met Alan and his family just after he was diagnosed.
My role is to be there as added support for the patient and their family. I was with Alan at every stage of his illness and we are still in contact today, which is wonderful, as I get to hear how he is getting on. It was difficult for everyone when Alan responded so well to treatment and then suffer a relapse. However, he was extremely fortunate that his brother Robert was a match when he needed a bone marrow transplant.
My lasting memory of Alan will be of how much he talked about rugby and his main goal to get back on that pitch — which he did. He was so focused and determined to do that and I think this helped him recover.
There were several horrendous moments which were so tough on him — but he was a real fighter and has a strong spirit.
When patients are discharged, I try to see them in outpatients too, so they have a friendly face and someone who they can talk things through with.
After his transplant, we monitored Alan very carefully, as he was prone to picking up infections — even other cancers.
During this period, I tried to encourage him to keep going and stay strong and positive.
A lot of my job is about education and support. It can be challenging at times, as not everyone has the outcome which Alan had.
When this is the case, I feel privileged to be able to do what I can to help and support the family when things don’t work out.
I sometimes have to carry out last wishes or requests of the patient if they want me to.
My family know that this is a job of highs and lows.
Thankfully, I have them as support when my job is difficult.
I do stay in contact with many of my patients, such as Alan, and they know they can always get me on the end of the phone — my door is always open for them.
Some don’t want to stay in touch, as it’s too hard and reminds them of a time they just want to move on from and forget about.
I can also keep people updated about support groups and different events which are happening.
To me, this is the most rewarding job in the world and I am very lucky.”
Macmillan believes that no one should face cancer alone.