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Battles with lymphoma

From Russell Currins

Four battles - a lymphoma story

Statistically, about one in three people in the population can expect to be affected by cancer in their lifetime and this often occurs in the later years of life. However, I am perhaps unique in developing the illness four times but each time I have beaten it and picked up my life again.

I was a schoolteacher for over 20 years, teaching Economics and Business Studies. I spent the first three years of my teaching career at Chesterfield School followed by 13 years as Head of Economics and Business Studies at Mill Hill School, Ripley. My final years were spent as Head of Economics and Business Studies at Birkdale School, Sheffield.

I was first diagnosed in 1995 with Hodgkin’s lymphoma (Lymphocyte Predominant type) after the discovery of lumps in my neck. I was 35 years old. It was to change my life forever and also the lives of those around me. Thankfully, I was told that it was low-grade and easily curable. After some radiotherapy treatment in January 1996 it was not expected to relapse again and that should have been the end of the story. Radiotherapy left me with a wedge of hair missing at the back of my head and red skin patches. However, otherwise it was painless and did cure me. It also more importantly did not affect my fertility and in 1997 our son was born.

However, after five years in remission, in 2001 the disease unexpectedly returned and this time it was more extensive in the bone marrow and the stomach lymph nodes. This was a huge shock because there were no external lumps to be seen. I received chemotherapy treatment called AVBD during the autumn of 2001. This was not too bad but I only completed two thirds of the treatment when my blood counts collapsed and then a new lump appeared in the groin.

After an operation to remove this it was diagnosed as the same type of lymphoma. In the spring of 2002 I was given a relatively new drug called Mabthera to deal with it. This was not like conventional chemotherapy in that my hair did not fall out and blood counts were not affected. It stimulated the body's immune system to attack the cancer cells.

This did seem to work. I was then fine for 18 months until a further relapse in October 2003. New lumps appeared in the groin and the disease returned to the bone marrow. This time the it had transformed itself into Non Hodgkin’s lymphoma and was more high grade (aggressive). I had three courses of intensive chemotherapy including a stem cell transplant from my own stem cells. This was tough going and made me more ill than any other treatment before.

Eventually, after the third occurrence, I decided to seek retirement as a teacher on medical grounds. The reason for this was that one of the causes of Non Hodgkin's Lymphoma is 'Immunosuppression'. This is where the immune system is reduced for some reason and this allows cancer cells to develop. My consultant agreed that the stress of being a teacher may have been lowering my immune system and causing the cancer to relapse.

I had therefore beaten lymphoma three times. All of these experiences inspired me to write a book which I intended to raise funds for Cancer Research UK, Nottingham City Hospital Lymphoma Trust Fund, and the Lymphoma Association. I did seek not a penny for myself. It was also intended to give hope to those who may be diagnosed with such illness in the future that cancer can be beaten. The book was entitled, 'Three battles' because of my three victories over cancer.

In August 2005 I was contacted by a researcher from ITV working on Emmerdale. They were planning to write a Non Hodgkin's lymphoma story into the script for Alice, Sam Dingle's partner. Obviously Alice's story was not my story but they asked me if I would be prepared to advise them on what it was like to be in hospital, have a central line fitted, the effects of chemotherapy and the emotional side of going through treatment. I sent them some extracts from the manuscript and advised them on the accuracy of scripts. This was very exciting after all that had happened to me. I also chatted to Ursula Holden-Gill who played the part of Alice on BBC Radio Nottingham and she kindly offered to write the Foreword for my book, 'Three Battles'. ITV allowed me to include a picture of Ursula Holden-Gill and James Hooton (who plays Sam Dingle) in the book. I also appeared on central TV news in 2006 and in various newspaper articles.

The book raised over £2,300 between the different cancer charities and Cancer Research UK received £500 of this. Life became very exciting because in September 2006 I met Ursula Holden-Gill at a Lymphoma Association Beacon of Hope Awards ceremony on HMS Belfast, in London. I had been nominated for an award for 'Raising Awareness of Lymphoma' through the book and the publicity it generated. This was followed by me and my family being asked by the Lymphoma Association to appear on the BBC programme 'Lifeline' in February 2007.

After the excitement of all this, life settled down and I had six years in remission after my stem cell transplant. During this time I became a 'buddy' for the Lymphoma Association to help others going through treatment. I also volunteered at Nottingham City Hospital talking to patients in clinics to provide support. I also became secretary for a support group at the hospital for haematology patients called the HOPE group.

However, in May 2010 I unexpectedly relapsed with my lymphoma after lumps appeared around the collarbone. After various tests and biopsies it was diagnosed once again as aggressive Non Hodgkin’s lymphoma. This was a huge blow and because it was a third relapse my consultant was not too optimistic and offered me either another attempt at curing it or palliative care which would give me three to twelve months to live. With a 13 year old son the latter was never an option so I picked myself up and went for the curative route. However, this would also mean having a donor stem cell/bone marrow transplant which I was not keen on.

I responded well to the chemotherapy called Gem-P which is made up of two drugs Gemicitabine and Cisplatin. I also did not feel too ill and apart from one blood transfusion it was mainly my platelets which were hit by this chemotherapy. Another bonus was that I kept my hair as well! After one cycle my consultant wanted me to go to the bone marrow register to find a donor which I agreed to. I had two brothers but they were not matches. After the second cycle the lumps had almost disappeared completely and my consultant wanted a decision about the transplant. I had a gut feeling that it was not the right thing. I was told that without the transplant the odds were the lymphoma would return again with only a 25% chance of staying well. With the transplant there was a 50-60% chance of staying well. I was disappointed with these odds because I believed a donor transplant guaranteed no return of the cancer. There was also a 20% chance of death from the process and then the risk of rejection, ie graft versus host disease. After weighing everything up as a family we all agreed that I would turn down the transplant. It was the most difficult decision I had ever had to make in my life.

I then had to look for an alternative plan to stay well. The first part of the plan was to try to avoid stress. When I relapsed I was shocked but not surprised because for the two years leading up to the relapse there had been a great deal of stress for one reason or another. I also did a lot of research about Non Hodgkin's Lymphoma to see if diet changes might help and decided to try drinking broccoli and carrot juice every day. I read about a man with bladder cancer whose wife made this for him each day and five years later there was no sign of his cancer. I also eat blueberries each day because they are believed to be high in antioxidants. The other part of the 'jigsaw' which I hoped would keep me well was to go for regular healing at the 'Shrine of Our Lady' at Walsingham, Norfolk. When you go there you feel a special atmosphere and my wife who also suffers with health problems feels better for going there.

So, I am now getting on with life again and my philosophy is now to enjoy life and what will be will be. However, if it did return I would try anything and fight to get rid of it again. My message is that cancer is a nuisance but once you are in remission again you can embrace life.

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Updated: 28 September 2009