James and his family smiling into the camera.

How I learnt to treasure every moment

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James' story

I think the last month has been the hardest our little family has ever had to go through. Those who know me know I am a very positive person, but this has really tested my positive attitude.

My wife is called Emma. We’ve been together for 22 years, married for 15. We have two children, Daisy 13 and Joseph 10. We also have two dogs, two cats and about five budgies or finches. We have what most would class as the perfect family life.

Emma is an English teacher at Kettlethorpe High School in Wakefield. She actually teaches at the school she used to attend, so everyone knows her. She is an outstanding teacher and always puts so much into the job.

Emma and James with their children on holiday

Emma turned 40 this January, had Covid on her birthday, and was dreading her 40th year. We thought that would be the end of the bad news. Sadly this was not the case. She had been having unusual bleeding between periods since February. Lots of tests and scans couldn’t find any cause, leading to clinicians saying it could be early menopause as this happened to her mum at around 40 too. Great, she thought, could this year get any worse!

One day in June, she texted me saying she felt faint, tired, had a blocked ear and needed to leave school. This was very unusual. She came home and just wanted to sleep on the sofa. I managed to persuade her to go to the doctor. She just thought she was overworked and tired and maybe a bit stressed out. The doctor agreed, gave her some pills for her ear and some anti-depressants to see if that helped as he thought it was anxiety.

Only four days later, she had what I can only describe as a mini heart attack – non-responsive, shallow breathing – so I called 999 and two paramedics came. They settled her and said her heart was fine. We told them about her bleeding and the paramedic warned us “the only way to find out what's going on with you, Emma, is to demand a blood test”.

On Monday morning, I called the GP and after much persuading, he agreed to do a blood test. This was 2pm. By 5pm we both had about six missed calls from the GP and Barnsley Hospital, all saying we had to go to the acute medical unit as her blood test was abnormal, and to bring an overnight bag.

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We knew no more than that. We assumed it might be sepsis, but were told her platelet counts were very low and her white blood cells were very high. I didn't even know what these were at the time. The next day, a haematologist told Emma she probably had leukaemia. She called me, obviously upset, and said that she had to be rushed to Sheffield Hallamshire Hospital as they are the region’s specialist haematology unit.

Her consultant told us that Emma has acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), a very aggressive blood cancer. It had started to infiltrate her liver, pancreas and uterus. Basically, he said if we hadn't asked for a blood test, she would have either died within a week at home or when admitted it would have been too late to start treatment. Terrifying news.

I have to say that the hospital staff and MacMillan were so brilliant in the first few days. I would never have expected that Emma, such a strong person, would get leukaemia. We assumed that children and older people got it, which is true, but there are also many similar stories like ours.

James, wife Emma and kids smiling into the camera

Only two days after finding out she had blood cancer, we were told Emma had to start aggressive chemotherapy immediately to give her the best shot. This was via a five-day continuous intravenous drip. Emma was more upset about how long she would be in hospital for: a minimum of six weeks for the first cycle. She missed the kids so much, but thankfully we had the technology to help us get by. Without this, her mental health would have suffered much more. She did amazingly well, wasn’t sick, battled the mental fight and found a way to cope.

Our children know that their mummy has cancer, they know daddy shaved her head (quite well actually), they know it's a long journey back to normality - but I am so proud of how they are handling it.

Emma will potentially need two rounds of chemotherapy and then a blood stem cell transplant to remove the AML for good. This is where the amazing work that charities like DKMS and Anthony Nolan do comes in. They find suitable matches between blood stem cell donors and patients like my Emma. Getting on the donor register is easy and may well save the life of someone you have a similar genetic background to. What a thing to do.

Our lives changed forever when we received Emma’s diagnosis, but hopefully when all of this is done, we can look forward to living life as it is meant to be. Life is short, fragile and every second together with the people you love needs to be treasured. I guess unexpected situations like this show us that this is the case.

If you are aged 17-55 and in general good health, please consider becoming a blood stem cell donor. You could be the perfect match for Emma or someone else in desperate need.

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