Simply Woman & Home

My sister saved my life

Lisa Jackson needed a stem cell transplant

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Finding out that I had blood cancer in 2016 came as a total shock. I was spending the May bank holiday with my new partner Simon, when I woke up with a sore chest and nausea. By that night, even tiny breaths were painful.

Next day I vomited constantly, so when my doctor’s surgery reopened, I walked there, propped up by Simon. I’d left the house with only my phone and keys, not knowing that I wouldn’t return home for six weeks.

The doctor ordered me to go to hospital. Thankfully, my three daughters were at my ex-husband’s.

I had pneumonia and was put on a ventilator. Blood tests revealed something worrying with my white blood cells and the consultant told me I had acute myeloid leukaemia.

An ambulance transferre­d me to Hammersmit­h Hospital for specialist care, and I remember saying, ‘Let the battle commence.’ The speed of the cancer meant chemothera­py started the same day. Initially, I coped with chemo pretty well. Anti-sickness drugs worked and, although I lost my hair, my eyebrows and eyelashes remained. I had beautiful headscarve­s in every colour – wearing one with lipstick made me feel stronger.

My amazing friends did everything from sorting childcare to bringing me clean underwear. I managed to put on a brave face when my daughters visited.

But after a few weeks I discovered my only hope of beating the leukaemia would be to have a stem cell transplant. I was told if I had siblings, they’d be tested as a potential stem cell donor.

Claire, my only sister [on the right in the photo], pledged to do whatever was needed. There was only a one in three chance that she’d be a match. The next option would be searching the stem cell register. But after a two-week wait, Claire called me to say that she matched 100%. We had a teary phone call, then it was all systems go. I had a month off treatment. I went to Barcelona, where I ate in preparatio­n for all the weight I’d lose.

There was more chemo as well as total body irradiatio­n. This was every day, twice a day, with radiation equivalent to 400 X-rays each time. I’d touch my skin afterwards and it would glow. Because of this, I’m at risk of skin cancer, so I avoid the sun. One bonus of the treatment is that it put me through the menopause and I skipped all its symptoms.

The day my sister arrived at the hospital to harvest her stem cells, my treatment was postponed so I could be with her. My mum was there as well.

The consultant had hoped to retrieve one million stem cells, but Claire donated five million. It was an excellent start. On transplant day, it was just me and Simon. He’d been my rock, sleeping next to me in hospital on a plastic reclining chair.

Claire’s stem cells were transplant­ed into my body by a special machine and the procedure took several hours.

Recovery was six weeks of highs and lows, while I waited for the stem cells to start producing new blood cells. After a month, tests revealed that I was 100% Claire’s immune system – which I still am. The chance of my leukaemia returning is now the same as anyone else getting it.

I now volunteer to raise awareness and to get people signed up to the stem cell register by going into schools, unis and workplaces. I’ll be forever grateful that Claire could do this amazing thing.

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