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Why I'm cycling 3207 miles for Anthony Nolan - Ellissa's transplant story

Ellissa on her bike

When Ellissa needed a lifesaving stem cell transplant, she was very fortunate that her sister was a matching donor. The only problem? Her sister lives in Israel and COVID had engulfed the world - the borders were closed.

That’s when Anthony Nolan stepped in and Ellissa received her sister’s stem cells in July. Since then, Elllissa has been working her way towards a very special goal - a goal that will not only help Anthony Nolan, but is helping Ellissa through her recovery. Here she shares her story.

It had not crossed my mind that my back pain could be the result of cancer. When I heard those words, my first thoughts were of my kids and my family. Telling my two children is one of the hardest things I have ever had to do and I clung on to the doctor’s words that there was excellent hope of a cure. The journey that lay ahead was uncertain but I always remained optimistic.

I settled into hospital life, receiving the most compassionate care. The very same hospital that I work at as a doctor. But this was a complete role reversal, and I was learning what it was like to be a patient.

My friend signed me up to the Peloton app so I could use the hospital spinning bike for the many weeks I spent isolated (pre-COVID... I was a definite trend setter!) and I had some good times with my hospital family. COVID was a foreign word then and my thoughts were focused on getting well and looking forward to holidays, returning to work and of course the annual family summer party.

Then, one lockdown Wednesday morning in March I got the call to say that the chemotherapy hadn’t worked. I needed a stem cell transplant to have a chance of surviving.

Anthony Nolan steps in

I was incredibly lucky that my sister was a match. The problem was, she lives in Israel and all borders were closed as COVID had by now engulfed the world.

That’s when the wonderful Anthony Nolan stepped in. My sister donated her stem cells in Israel and they arranged transportation of her cells across the continent. This was unprecedented work for Anthony Nolan as they usually only transfer stem cells from unrelated donors. I was beyond grateful.

So, as a way of supporting them and giving myself a focus, I challenged myself to cycle the distance that my sisters’ cells travelled, starting on the day of my transplant – 3207 miles. I have been peddling ever since with a goal to complete by my transplant birthday on July 23rd.

I've learned that, while there are aspects of cancer you have no control over, there are things you can do.

Ellissa on her bike with her dog next to her
Ellissa completing some miles, with a lovely supporter!

My cycling challenge has given me a focus during recovery

So far I’ve cycled just over 1988 miles and raised over £15,000 on my JustGiving page. I'm virtually crossing the border from Serbia into Bulgaria! Still a long way to go but I’m determined! I’ve had setbacks but I’ve learnt to just take a deep breath and carry on.

I have changed immeasurably - both physically and mentally. The hardest part has been the uncertainty. But I’ve learned that, while there are aspects of cancer you have no control over, there are things you can do - you can take care of yourself. This is where, for me, the cycling came in.

During those isolated days in hospital it was a focus. I didn’t feel alone - I was cycling with awesome instructors and friends by my side through the Peloton app. Some days even now out of hospital I can only manage 20 minutes. Other days I’m on fire! But I always see it through. I generally spend most of my rides singing along to the music.

Appreciating every moment

I also have a new motto: ‘Vivo propter diem’ - live for the day. I have learnt to appreciate every moment. COVID has left me and the family pretty much in hibernation but we are lucky in that we live in the countryside and can go on long solitary walks with our gorgeous pup. My friends, family and colleagues are beyond precious to me. They have carried me over this bumpy year and no doubt will continue to do so.

There will always be bad moments and negative thoughts, but however the next year unfolds, I can truly say I am stronger for the experiences I’ve had. I also hope that having been a patient will make me a more compassionate doctor to my own patients.

To anyone going through this: you are not alone

Over the past year I have known too many friends, family, colleagues and strangers sadly disclose a cancer diagnosis, people of all ages and backgrounds - cancer is not picky. It’s so unfair but it’s so common.

Hands on backs to all you cancer warriors out there. It’s a journey but you are not alone.

If you'd like to find out more about organising your own fundraising, you can find out more an order a fundraising pack here.

If you or someone you know is going through a stem cell transplant, you can get support any time through our wonderful Patient Services team.

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