For most of us, Christmas is a particularly emotional time. An opportunity to spend time with friends and family and away from work and the things that keep us busy during the year. Personally, I have always used this time for reflection, but since 2007 it has a very special significance. It was then that I received a gift like no other, the gift of life! My stem cell transplant took place on the 19th December and is a time I will never forget. This treatment was my only chance of surviving my cancer, and the cells had been donated by a young man aged 22 from London. No one could say if I would even survive the process let alone continue to live, but I did, and I am! Thanks to all the incredibly selfless people involved in that, all making sacrifices to ensure I had the best chance I could. My Consultant was always around over the holidays and I received 24/7 care from nurses willingly giving up time with their families to look after me. Unbelievably I am still here writing about the experience.
So Christmas has a very different meaning to me now. I don’t get carried away with all the adverts trying to sell consumer goods, food and drink. Just grateful to be here and be able to spend time with my family and friends. Smiling when I see the chase for the latest toys and gadgets to fulfill our never ending search for happiness. This time of the year is certainly a cause for celebration, and I do my best to do that, but my experience has changed me forever. Although my body is 63, my immune system is only 12, and is managing to keep the cancer in remission so I am incredibly lucky on all counts. There have been many of my friends that have not made it through and many that are very sick currently. I have stopped asking myself why, and accepted that I must make the most of what I have been given, which I am attempting to do.
Spending six weeks in an isolation unit is quite a sobering experience, particularly at Christmas, but I was warned about that and I had pictures of family and things that meant a lot to me, on a memories board. There was no Wi-Fi so no emails or social media to cheer me up and keep me in contact with the outside world. ( Can you imagine that now?) I had my Crystal Palace football shirt above my bed, which everyone seemed to find amusing! The staff were unsure about starting before Christmas, but I was in such poor condition that in the end there was no choice. My immune system was slowly poisoned over 10 days until it was like that of a new born child, then I was given my life saving transplant. A little bag of stem- cells from my anonymous donor was sent across London on a motorbike. All organised by the Anthony Nolan Charity.
I would like to share some of the more surreal moments of my festive season in 2007. Firstly, even though I was under heavy sedation, the Sister, (who was a very attractive young lady,) asked me what I wanted for Christmas. My quick reply, was her, in a tiny Santa outfit! ( Sorry ladies!) She played along and came in on Christmas day dressed as Santa! Secondly, at just past midnight on Christmas Eve, all the patients got a little present from the hospital, a lovely thought! Finally, on Christmas day, my family and friends all came in to visit me, it certainly was a unique way of celebrating. So now, I am like the Queen and have two birthdays, my official one and my new life one.
Since my illness I have had 3 grandchildren, and my boys are progressing in their lives. My spare time is taken up by doing lots of exciting things I never imagined I would be doing. It has taken me a long time to realise, but we are not really in charge of our lives at all! Things happen frequently to change our lives but are totally out of our control. I could never have imagined seeing 12 Christmas’s after being diagnosed with a stage 4 incurable Lymphoma. For me Christmas is a really positive event on my personal timeline. So, the festive time is upon us, and as I watch people celebrating, who knows what is really going on in their lives so let them enjoy themselves!
Having been given this extra time it is important to me that I can help as many people affected by cancer as I can. My ambitions have always been high, but even I could never imagine the things I could achieve. Work is truly international now, with invitations coming frequently to share my expertise in other countries. Our charity SimPal is the only one in the world doing this work, and we are constantly full with applications for support. I am more empowered at this stage in my life than I have ever been. Cancer has taken so much from me but somehow I have created a new life which is much more fulfilling than the old one!
I couldn’t end this piece without a massive thank you to the NHS for their continuing care, and my medical team at St Georges in London, who have become friends as well as clinicians. Without their incredible dedication, I would not be here today. My wife and family who get the ‘bad bits’ and not always the smiley face. Also my incredible friends, who have been with me every step of the way. Can I take this opportunity of wishing you all a happy and healthy Christmas and New Year and thank you for the incredible support you continue to give my work.
How do you celebrate Christmas and is it a meaningful land mark for you? Has your illness changed the way you approach Christmas? As always please feel free to share your thoughts below.