A grandmother of seven from Birmingham is appealing for young people across the UK to consider joining the Anthony Nolan stem cell donor register to give patients in need of lifesaving transplants a second chance of life.
Sheila has received treatment for Hodgins’s Lymphoma four times. Earlier this year she was active, free and enjoying doting on her grandchildren. But in July, after experiencing pain and fatigue Sheila was given the news that she had MDS, a type of rare blood cancer which means she doesn’t have enough healthy blood cells.
Sheila was told she would need to receive a stem cell transplant, but like 75% of patients, there was no matching donor in her family. Sheila’s children, including her daughter, Cheryl, are supporting their mum as much as they can, and are working with blood cancer charity Anthony Nolan to raise awareness of the need for more people to join the stem cell register.
Sheila says: ‘Finding out I had MDS was devastating. This time the realisation sunk in that I alone couldn’t beat an illness and that my fate relied on the compassion of someone who didn’t know me.
‘The more my family researched, I was saddened by how many people, like me are in need of a donor- a donor who doesn’t owe me anything – but could gift me more time with my family.
‘I am currently having chemotherapy as well as regular blood and platelet transfusions, in the hope that a match can be found and I can begin the transplant process.’
Sheila’s daughter Cheryl, a Dental Receptionist who also lives in Birmingham, says: ‘During the first week of September it was confirmed that mum did have MDS, and to treat it she was going to need a bone marrow transplant. At that time, we didn’t know how hard it is to find a match.
‘We thought: “We’re her children, we’ll be tested and one of us is likely to be a match” but didn’t know then that there isn’t always a match in the family. Now Anthony Nolan is trying to find a match on the register.
‘It’s really difficult staying away but we want to protect mum from the risk of Covid. Restrictions mean that she is not able to live her life at the moment and see her family, especially her grandchildren.
‘I hope to raise more awareness of the need for people to join the stem cell donor register, not just for my mom but for the thousands of people living in hope that they too will get there second chance of life. Stem cell donation has the power to save the life of someone else and it’s a gift we all possess.’
To further complicate things Sheila has mixed heritage, British and Pakistani, making the search for a match that more difficult. Currently patients from minority ethnic backgrounds have a 20% chance of finding the best possible match from an unrelated donor, compared to 69% for patients who are white, from north European backgrounds. Sheila’s match is most likely to have the same background as her.
Sheila’s son Stephen, a teacher who lives in Manchester, says: ‘Finding out mom was ill during lockdown was hard, especially being miles away and unable to visit. Over the summer I was fortunate to come back home and had never seen her look and feel so unwell.
‘A condition like MDS really makes you feel powerless and helpless as a son because there's little you can do other than raise awareness.
‘The current circumstances mean I can’t see my mom at all, and I feel helpless for her and the thousands of other people in her situation. I am only 80 miles away, but I can’t do the simple things like make her a cup of tea or leave some mess behind for her to tidy up.
Henny Braund, Chief Executive of Anthony Nolan, said: ‘Sheila’s already experienced so much in treatment for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. That she now needs a stranger to give her a second chance of life is a cold indication of how much more work needs to be done to reduce inequality on the stem cell register.
‘We have seen an increase in the number of people with mixed ethnicities signing up as potential stem cell donors in recent years, there is more that we need to do to make sure we can find everybody their best possible match, regardless of background.
‘We’re incredibly grateful for everything Sheila and her family are doing to spread the word, during what will be a very difficult time. If you’re aged 16–30 and are in good general health please consider joining the Anthony Nolan register, especially if you have a mixed ethnicity.’
Cheryl adds: ‘My mum has mixed heritage, British Pakistani and White British. I know that this makes it harder to find a match. So, if there are people out there that also have that mix of ethnicities reading this, please consider joining the register.’
Stephen agrees: ‘We can all be so busy with our lives, caught up with our work or own problems that we often forget how powerful helping others can be.’
People aged 16–30 and in good health can join the Anthony Nolan stem cell register. Find out more and join at www.anthonynolan.org/searchforsheila.
It costs £40 to add each new donor to the register. People aged 31 and over can give patients the best possible chance of life by donating money to help Anthony Nolan add the best possible donors to our stem cell register.