I often find myself gazing into the distance and wondering “how on earth did he find the strength to go through all of that?” By ‘he’ I am talking about Luke, of course. Unfortunately, my hardwiring avoids prolific and spiritual pontifications but chooses to deliberate on the basic science of the situation which, in its own right, is truly remarkable. Therefore, I felt compelled to write a little something about the leukaemia Luke battled.
Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia is a disorder of how lymphocytes (white blood cells that govern our adaptive immune system) replicate. Genetic and environmental factors cause arrested maturation and uncontrolled proliferation of these lymphocytes. Essentially, these blood cells are like unsupervised replicating mutant-children running around a sweet shop, pillaging shelves, engorging their fat little faces, refusing to grow up and offering no protection to the human body whatsoever. As a consequence, everything swells as these brats pile into body systems uninvited! From the face, neck, lymph nodes, chest, spleen and liver; no organ is safe from these grubby little children with their sticky chocolate covered fingers. Before I continue I’d just like to clarify that this is in no way an attempt to slander children, I adore children and eventually would like to become a paediatric surgeon but, the analogy simply fits.
So, here we have Luke prior to diagnosis. Constantly exhausted (due to his profound anaemia), swollen like the love child of the Michelin man and susceptible to every infection listed in any medical text book worth its salt. One would think that, compared to the leukaemia, the treatment should make Luke feel better and on the mend once more, correct? Categorically not. Chemotherapy is poison to the body. Envisage that dirty pint your so called ‘friend’ handed you on your birthday and then add industrial bleach. Chemotherapy agents simply have no consideration for what is a healthy blood cell and what is an abnormal blood cell. Without differentiation or remorse, chemotherapy kills all cells. Patient’s can look forward to an array of side effects, including; nausea, vomiting, prolific diarrhoea, constant flu-like symptoms, fevers and shivers. Relatable to the worst possible hangover an individual can imagine but deeply intensified and prolonged for days on end.
But, at least after countless cycles of stomach wrenching chemotherapy treatment things do get better. Wrong again, I’m afraid. Then comes the bone quivering doses of full body radiotherapy, with none of the benefits of super powers like that of the Simpsons ‘Radioactive Man’. This was followed by a stem cell transplant; where the marrow was literally cored out of Cecca’s bones (Luke’s twin sister), spoon by spoon, after the drill found its target. Similar to the experience of dragging fingernails across a chalkboard but on a more internal level. Needless to say, having your bones cored out like an apple whilst you are fully conscious is a somewhat agonising tactile experience. Kudos of the highest degree must go to Cecca, your bravery literally saved your brother’s life. Finally, after all this, why not throw in a little ‘maintenance’ chemotherapy for good will. Not as intense but a concoction of colourful pills, all with a different weird and wonderful side effect to keeps things interesting.
Considering all the uplifting and inspiring blogs the HBR team has put together, why this morbidly glum addition, I hear you ask? I guess I just wanted to add some perspective for what Luke’s real journey against leukaemia was like. But, mainly, I wanted our readers to connect and relate to Luke’s story on a more personal level. Charity is indeed a wonderful gesture, but this story is as much about friendship as it is about wanting to help those in need. Every time the team feels exhausted from a long day at work, suffering the most horrendous man-flu/fevers/hangover, aching from top to toe and can sense the bone rattling weather conditions outdoors we mount our two wheels and ride in recognition of what Luke went through. It’s this intellectual experience of human empathy that connects us all, beyond the reasoning of science. We graft in sweat and physical endurance to show our solidarity for someone we care about deeply. To show him that we are all in this together and he won’t have to face such trials and tribulations without us, ever again. By ‘him’ I am talking about Luke, of course. Our friend that beat cancer.