The last thing I expected to discover after I’d injured my ankle while snowboarding was that I had leukaemia,” says Christa Ronan, 37, a London-based physiotherapist. “I was told I needed surgery to fix my ankle but my operation was cancelled because blood-test results showed I had pancytopenia (a reduction in all types of blood cells).
“I went back to work in floods of tears. But I was only concerned for a short time as the first haematologist I saw a few days later assured me it wasn’t anything serious. The pancytopenia explained the bruising, illnesses, nose bleeds and extreme tiredness I’d been experiencing for the six months prior to that: I’ve always exercised, so when I had to stop due to my ankle injury I attributed the fatigue to being unfit and inactive. At one point I burnt my hand really badly on a hot-water bottle, even though it had a fleece cover! I’d obviously been so tired that the pain of my hand burning hadn’t woken me.
“What followed was six months of tests, with my bloods steadily deteriorating until I went for a bone marrow biopsy, which was utterly hideous. I had to lie on my side while a doctor put local anaesthetic into my hip (which doesn’t really work as it only numbs the skin not the bone). Then they did two procedures: during the first they drove a huge needle into my bone and used a syringe to remove some fluid. That hurt but wasn’t awful. During the second they removed a core of bone from my hip using a huge screw, which was agony. I cried and cried with the pain.
“I think I knew I had leukaemia when I received a telephone call soon after the biopsy asking me to go to the cancer centre to discuss my results and treatment. I took a friend and my sister along and, when I arrived, my name was on a list at reception with the comment ‘Patient unaware of diagnosis’ highlighted next to it. If I didn’t know before, I knew then!
“The funny thing in hindsight was that all three of us read the comment but didn’t mention it to each other for well over two hours while we were waiting to be seen. I think I aged decades during that wait. Once they said it was hairy cell leukaemia, I had no idea how to react. I’d never heard of it before. But gradually I realised it was one of the best leukaemia diagnoses they could have given me as it’s slow growing and treatable.
“I think I was really lucky that I got off pretty lightly when having chemo: on the first day I was sure they’d given me a placebo as I felt totally fine! After that, I did get pretty tired, my hair thinned out a bit and I also had some numbness from chemo nerve damage on the outside of my feet. I got used to ‘chemo tiredness’, but one day I woke up feeling as if my whole body had been depleted of energy. I was really feverish, so I was admitted to hospital where I was told I had neutropenic sepsis, a life-threatening condition, and that I’d have to have intravenous antibiotics. I was there for 10 days, which was a difficult time: I had middle-of-the-night medical reviews when my temperature and heart rate were both sky high, and also had loads of intravenous fluids.
“In March 2017, three months after having had five doses of chemo, I was told I was in remission. Obviously I was pleased, but part of me didn’t really believe it as I was still exhausted. My family were over the moon and we all went on holiday to the Maldives to celebrate. That felt so extravagant compared with anything else I’d normally do that it made it more real. Unfortunately the leukaemia may come back at some point and the aim of treatment is long-term remission, not a cure. But it’s not healthy to dwell on that, so I’ve decided to just forget about it until it happens.
“After my illness, I was really focused on getting fit and active again, even when I was still exhausted from the chemo and sepsis. Initially I went for walks, but then I needed to do more exercise. So within a month of being discharged, I made myself go to the gym and did five to 10 minutes on a stationary bike, then eventually very slow walk-runs on the treadmill. My feet had peeled from the chemo, so even these short efforts in comfy old trainers left them sore and bleeding.
“Six months on I felt able to start exercising properly again and soon decided I wanted to prove to myself I was back to full health. I still couldn’t fully believe I was better. I needed a goal, a big fitness goal, so I chose running the London Marathon, a feat I’d never have believed possible in the past.
“I started training in September 2017 for a half marathon in early December and was overjoyed when I did it in 1hr 55mins 15secs. That left me on a huge high even though I felt as if my legs had fallen off by the end.
“When I run London I’ll be fundraising for blood cancer charity Bloodwise (voted WR’s Charity of the Year in 2017) because research into leukaemia and lymphoma is so important. A few decades ago I’d have been looking at steadily declining health towards an inevitable endpoint. Instead, I had treatment that was effective and relatively quick, and I feel so lucky and grateful. By raising money for Bloodwise I’m supporting its aim that everyone will one day be treated successfully with minimal impact on their lives, as I was.
“I think crossing the marathon finishing line is going to be really emotional. Being told I was in remission was sadly an anticlimax as I didn’t fully believe it. But I just know this will be my big ‘now I’m better’ moment!”