A dad-of-two has paid tribute to his brave sister this Siblings Day (10 April) for bringing him back from the brink of death, following discovery of cancer.
Gareth Smith, from Sheffield, took a blood test last February, as part of his ongoing ulcerative colitis condition. This test highlighted a slight elevation in his white blood cell count, and a follow-up test was quickly arranged for the following month, March.
Due to the global Coronavirus pandemic, followed by national lockdown restrictions, Gareth's appointment was delayed. Undeterred, the self-employed electrical engineer and fitness enthusiast continued trail-running three times a week and cycling to work every day.
“Everything felt fine until July when I started noticing I was becoming more tired than expected after my usual exercise. This didn't set off any alarm bells, so I brushed it off as fatigue. I’m not one to complain and decided that my best form of defence was to work harder, so I carried on with my fitness routine
“Everything felt fine other than a bit of fatigue, but I wasn't worried as my rescheduled blood test was due on an early morning in late July and I never suspected anything to be wrong. However, after that test I received a phone call at 2pm instructing me to go to the Sheffield Hallamshire hospital urgently. They told me to ensure I brought an overnight bag with me.
“I was admitted to the haematology ward at 4pm on the same day I had my test (22 July). The prognosis from my consultant and a specialist nurse was that they suspected leukaemia. I was lost for words.”
Leukaemia is one of the most common forms of blood cancer and is caused by a rise in the number of white blood cells in the body. Those white blood cells crowd out the red blood cells and platelets the body needs to stay healthy.
“The news was devastating. The first person I thought to call was my wife Lindsay, and then I told my family the news over our WhatsApp group as I didn't want to worry them unnecessarily.
“The very next day my consultant diagnosed me with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) and it was very advanced: ‘You have 90 percent leukaemia cells in your body and if we didn't catch it, well the next two weeks would have given us a different outlook,’ said my consultant. I now know that cells have a natural life cycle. Sadly for me, mine forgot to die.”
Gareth's sister Kerry Hill, said: “We have a family WhatsApp group, and I remember a message coming through on my phone. It was weird because Gareth is always very positive and doesn't want to worry anyone. Yet, the news said that he had a routine blood test and something didn't look quite right and that he'd been asked to go back to the hospital for a few more check-ups.
“I remember I was putting on my makeup to go for a few drinks outside with a close friend. By the time I walked to the pub, which was just 10 minutes from my house, I received a phone call from my dad confirming Gareth had blood cancer, acute lymphoblastic leukemia. It was so sudden and very shocking. He's my big brother. He's always been there. I didn’t want cancer to rob me of my brother.”
Gareth was told about several curative treatments. And if all else failed, then a blood stem cell transplant would be his most likely chance of survival.
Approximately only one in four patients find a matching donor within their family. Immediately, Gareth’s siblings were put on standby, to check whether they would be a suitable donor.
Initially, Gareth's sisters Kerry and her twin Gemma were both identified as potential matches. However, because Gemma suffers from Crohn’s disease, she was ruled out. Gemma said: “Sadly, I couldn’t help Gareth. We’re a loving family and we all wanted to be involved. As his loving little sister I decided that I could still play an important role by shining a light on blood cancer. I decided to run 100 miles for DKMS. I smashed my initial £250 target by raising over £1,250 on JustGiving for DKMS, to help them meet the registration costs of signing up new donors.”
Having first registered with DKMS in 2014, Kerry was familiar with the blood stem cell process. Kerry said: “In 2014, I saw a young child on ITV's This Morning in need of a donor. Being a mum myself, with a new-born child, I thought this could quite easily have been me asking the British public for their help.
“I ordered a home swab kit right away, hoping I might have a chance to help save the life of a stranger. Never in a thousand years would I have imagined that my blood stem cells would be used to help to save my brother's life.”
Prior to Kerry's lifesaving blood stem cell donation, Gareth's body was treated with chemotherapy and radiotherapy to kill the leukaemia cells and prevent the cancer from returning.
“The chemotherapy and radiotherapy were successful but a blood stem cell transplant was still essential due to my condition; luckily, Kerry was on standby. The purpose of the chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment was to kill the cancers and re-boot my immune system by replacing my blood stem cells with Kerry's.”
“I received Kerry's blood stem cells on 27 November 2020. I was expected to stay in the recovery stage for at least six weeks, until 2 January 2021. However, the desire to spend Christmas with my family propelled me to a swift recovery, and I was well-enough to be discharged from Sheffield Hallamshire on 15 December.”
Gareth said: “Thanks to Kerry's gift, I've been given a second chance of life. I recently passed my 100-day milestone, and life feels great. I celebrate my 40th birthday next week, and I'm looking forward to that great milestone too.
“I'm the happiest man in the world. I didn't know it at the time, but I'm only here because my sister brought me back from the brink of death. I’ve now been told I’m cancer-free. Fortunately, I can get back to spending quality time with my daughters Isabel (5) and Sienna (2), and my wife. And it's all thanks to my little sister Kerry. I love her with all my heart.”
We need blood stem cell donors from all backgrounds. If you are aged between 17-55 and in good general health, you can support the other 2,000 people in the UK in need of a lifesaving blood stem cell transplant by registering online at www.dkms.org.uk/register-now for your home swab kit.
By registering, you'll join a group of over 840,000 other DKMS lifesavers-in-waiting, ready to make a difference by giving someone a much-needed second chance of life.