United fan with 16 months to live appeals for a stem cell donor lifesaver in 'Fergie Time'

August 14, 2020
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‘They give me 16 months to live. I’m not interested in 16 months, I’m not even interested in five years. I’m interested in the five years after that.’

Manchester United fanatic Andy Latham, 59, from Worksop ‘hadn’t called in sick in twenty five years’. At the beginning of last summer he was feeling particularly good. A successful health kick, meant he’d managed to ‘kick some extra pounds’. Andy was enjoying work as an engineer on the Railway for DB Cargo, ‘travelling all over the country and seeing the changing seasons’. He didn’t expect that less than a year later he’d be told he had 16 months left to live - unless a matching stem cell donor can be found for him on the register to give him extra time.

Now Andy – supported by wife Lorraine and grown up children Hannah, Stephen and Daniel, and Bassetlaw MP, Brendan Clarke Smith - is working with blood cancer charity Anthony Nolan to raise awareness of the stem cell register. They’re encouraging football fans of all stripes, to join, potentially saving a life like his. 

Andy’s journey started in August 2019, with being unable to finish a bowl of pasta. A range of gastrointestinal symptoms persisted as Andy ‘fell out with other foods’ and experienced severe diarrhoea. Eventually, finding himself sitting in his GP’s surgery a few days before Christmas, Andy was told: ‘You’ve been ill for some time, but your body’s gotten used to it.’

Andy’s symptoms were thought to resemble a stomach issue; as such, he was extensively tested by the gastrointestinal specialists at both Bassetlaw and Doncaster Hospitals. After three months of testing and few answers, one of Andy’s blood tests indicated a low platelet count. It was only then that focus shifted from gastroenterology to haematology. Following a bone marrow biopsy, Andy was diagnosed with myelofibrosis, a rare bone marrow cancer that disrupts the body's normal production of blood cells.

Myelofibrosis causes extensive scarring in the bone marrow, leading to severe anaemia. Treatment includes regular blood transfusions. 

On 9 June Andy attended an appointment with his consultant, where he was given the ‘horrific news’ that his life expectancy was 16 months - unless a suitable stem cell donor could be found for him. It was a shock for Andy, who attended alone, in-line with COVID-19 regulations. ‘It did hit me hard’ admits ordinarily optimistic Andy. ‘I didn’t have my family around me and I had to tell my own wife on speakerphone.

‘I’ve come around to it now. Saying 16 months has become easier. We know what we’ve got and we’re going to make the most out of it. Don’t take a defeatist attitude. My life at the minute is carrying on, 16 months is seen as a challenge. I am going to beat that, and I am going to go past that. I’m not interested in 16 months, I’m not even interested in five years. I’m interested in the five years after that.’

Manchester United mad Andy now considers himself playing for ‘Fergie Time’, hoping he’ll score, even after injury time.

‘I have one grandchild, courtesy of my daughter but I fully expect more grandchildren to come and I want to be around to see all of it. I have so much to live for.

‘You can’t be tired of living if you still enjoy a good sunrise and sunset.’

Lockdown has presented more challenges for adventure loving Andy: ‘In what might be my last 16 months, I feel like I’m tied down. I’m keeping busy but there’s no spontaneity. There’re no beach trips, music gigs or matches. 2021 is going to be rather busy.’

Andy had an awareness of the stem cell register from following the story of Anthony Nolan and his mother Shirley in the 1970s and 80s news cycle. He is now amazed to have become part of the story himself, after encouraging friends and family – as far away as Australia, to sign up as potential donors.  

‘We have our own link [URL] now, for people to join the register. What we’re doing with the R rate is growing and growing exponentially’ says Andy, referring to enthusiastic new donors recruiting other potential donors onto the register.

Research shows that young male donors are most likely to be matched with patients in need, and while he waits to find out if there is a solid match for him on the register, Andy is determined to spend both injury and Fergie Time spreading a vital message.

‘If we can just get it over to these young lads, it’s a pretty pain-free thing to do, and essentially you’re saving someone’s life.

‘There’s no guarantee a donor will be found for me but if we can find more donors and save someone else’s life then it will all be worthwhile. 

‘Take a couple of minutes to put yourself on the register. It’s a truly wonderful thing to do. You have the chance to give life to someone, who is at risk of losing theirs.’

Rebecca Sedgewick, National Recruitment Manager at Anthony Nolan, says: ‘By all accounts Andy is an amazing man with an inspirational attitude.

‘Through no choice of his own, he’s joined the five people a day, who start their search for an unrelated stem cell donor. Every single person who signs up to the register has the potential to give hope to someone like Andy in need of a lifesaving stem cell transplant. We’re especially keen for young men to consider signing up; they account for over 50% of those chosen to donate but make up just 18% of the Anthony Nolan register. We really need young men to visit our website, find out more and help us address this imbalance.

‘Together, we can work towards a future where nobody is waiting for their match.’

Anthony Nolan recruits people aged 16–30 to the stem cell register as research has shown younger people are more likely to be chosen to donate.

They also carry out ground-breaking research to save more lives and provide information and support to patients after a stem cell transplant, through its clinical nurse specialists and psychologists, who help guide patients through their recovery.

It costs £40 to recruit each potential donor to the register, so Anthony Nolan relies on financial support.

Find out more at www.anthonynolan.org/ExtraTime4Andy

Andy and family are fundraising for Anthony Nolan. To donate to their campaign please visit www.justgiving.com/extratime4andy