Sports-loving student's cancer blog inspires hundreds to join stem cell donor register

May 25, 2016
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A light-hearted blog from a sports-mad student about his experiences with leukaemia is capturing the attention of thousands of people and has inspired hundreds to join the stem cell register in just four days.

Neil McClean, 20, from Esher in Surrey was first diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia in 2014. Neil, who loves football, squash and golf, was forced to delay his degree in physiology while he received chemotherapy. 

Despite going into remission, in April this year he discovered that the cancer has returned, and his doctors say a stem cell transplant from an anonymous donor is his best hope of a long-term recovery.

Neil, now in his second year at the University of Glasgow, has started a blog called Needles, Drugs and Rock and Roll to share his experiences and encourage people to register as stem cell donors with blood cancer charity Anthony Nolan.


Neil with university friends, at an Everton match


‘When I was first told I had leukaemia it was a massive shock, as I thought I just had a chest infection,’ said Neil. ‘But to hear it had come back for a second time left me numb and very scared.’

Neil considered not telling his girlfriend he had relapsed until she had finished her final exams. ‘I wanted her to be able to focus on her finals but they were three weeks away and I would have found it hard to carry on with normal life without telling her.’


Neil and his girlfriend Emily


With support from his family, friends and girlfriend Neil is remaining positive about his treatment and the future, and is devoting his energy to spreading the word about the donor register.

‘Keeping a positive mental attitude is important, and my blog is part of that. Sometimes people don’t know how to react when they find out I have cancer so I’m trying to be as open as possible about my experiences and just get back to normal.’

With posts describing his experiences on laughing gas and sneaking out of hospital to sit in a pub garden, Neil’s blog has already been read by more than 10,000 people, and almost 250 people have already joined the stem cell donor register as a result.

The blog has been retweeted by celebrities including Jack Whitehall, who met Neil on a hospital visit in 2014 and has sent him tickets to his show A League of Their Own, Olympic rower Matthew Pinsent, and Neil’s beloved Everton football team. 


Neil and his dad meeting Everton player Ross Barkley


‘I want to raise as much awareness about the donor register as possible,’ said Neil ‘We need to dispel the myths behind stem cell donation being painful, because it isn’t. You can save a life by spitting in a tube and having a painless procedure – it’s something so insignificant compared to what the result will be. It’s an amazing thing to do.’

Neil will be reliant on a stranger donating their stem cells as his brother Paul, 23, is not a match for him.

People who join the Anthony Nolan donor register online receive a ‘spit kit’ in the post to collect a saliva sample. If they are found to be a match for someone like Neil who needs a transplant, 90% of people donate in a simple process similar to giving blood. 

More donors are needed to join the register, particularly young men and people from ethnic minority backgrounds, who are currently underrepresented on the register. 60% of people who need a stem cell transplant will receive the best possible match; for people from black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds this figure falls to just 20%.

‘It’s not just about finding a donor for me,’ said Neil. ‘I know I have a better chance than others of finding a donor, and I want to raise awareness for people in other situations who find it harder to get a match.’

Read Neil’s blog at