As London Marathon day unfolded, an incredible friendship blossomed between a cancer survivor and the stranger who saved his life.
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Just weeks after meeting for the first time, a bone marrow transplant recipient ran the Virgin Money London Marathon on Sunday with the stranger who saved his life. Both found the experience life changing and ran the marathon to give something back to Anthony Nolan.
This is the first time in our records that a transplant recipient and their unrelated donor have run a marathon together.
Dad of two Johnny Pearson, a wine trader from Thorpe Underwood in North Yorkshire, was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2010. On a Thursday in September, he had been to see the doctor after feeling slightly under the weather and the doctor had done a blood test “just to make sure”.
On the Friday, Johnny was driving home from work when he received a phone call from the doctor to say that something was seriously wrong and he needed to turn around and go to the hospital. He started chemotherapy on the following Tuesday.
After six months of gruelling chemotherapy, Johnny was finally in remission and returned home to his wife, Sarah, and young boys, Jack and Archie, now 11 and 10 years old.
Devasting news of a relapse
In July 2011, just one month after returning to work, Johnny received the devastating news that leukaemia had returned. This time, Johnny would need a bone marrow transplant to survive and the race was on to find a matching donor.
Johnny, 44, says, “It was the worst possible news and I thought that my life was over. The last hope was a bone marrow transplant and I remember waiting to hear if there was a matching donor. It was a very difficult time for me and my family as we knew that my life was in someone else’s hands.
After what seemed like the longest few months of my life, my doctor sat me down and told me that Anthony Nolan had found a donor. They had found someone who had never met me but who was willing to save my life.”
How Sean joined the register
That person was Sean Hagan who lives just three hours away from Johnny in Askam-in-Furness, Cumbria. Sean had joined the Anthony Nolan donor register just months before Johnny was diagnosed, in May 2010, after a national appeal from Cumbrian teenager Alice Pyne.
When Sean went home after joining the register he told his mum, “I know I’m going to donate to someone, I’ve just got this feeling.”
Sean, now 23, donated his stem cells to Johnny in February 2012, a procedure similar to giving blood.
"I remember being amazed at how simple it was"
He says, “It was painless and that’s coming from someone with a fear of needles! I remember being amazed at how simple it was.
I hope that Alice Pyne’s parents will see this and know what a special daughter they had – she was the reason that I joined the Anthony Nolan register in the first place. Saving Johnny’s life is the best thing that I’ve ever done and I think that it’s the best thing that I will ever do.”
After the transplant, Johnny wanted to thank Sean for saving his life. Johnny and Sean were allowed to write to each other anonymously, addressing their letters “To my friend”, and they soon developed a friendship.
A thank you from Johnny to Sean
Johnny’s first letter to Sean read, “To a friend, This is the hardest thing I have ever had to write in a card. Your family and friends will have told you it was a decent and selfless act becoming a stem cell donor. At some point, I’d like to shake your hand, thank you and show you what you have actually done, how you have given me a second chance and what that means to my wife, children and friends. You truly are a good person! Thank you so very much.”
In 2013, Johnny wrote to Sean about running the marathon for Anthony Nolan, “Anthony Nolan is now the official charity for the 2014 London Marathon… so, in a moment of sheer madness, I have signed up to run it. Maybe you could do it with me? No pressure!!” Sean soon replied, “I would be honoured to take part in the London Marathon with you! Suppose I best get training!”
The 2014 Virgin Money London Marathon
In February 2014, two years on from the transplant, Johnny and Sean were finally been able to meet for the first time and in April they ran the marathon together for Anthony Nolan.
Johnny says, “Meeting Sean was one of the best experiences of my life. Without him, I wouldn’t be here today, my wife wouldn’t have a husband, and my children wouldn’t have a father. How can you possible say thank you enough to someone who gave you your life back? What an incredible person.”
Sean, who has six brothers and sisters, says, “I’m very family orientated, so knowing that I had played a part in keeping Johnny’s family together was always important to me. Actually being able to meet his wife and children was overwhelming. The impact of my small act of donation really hit me – I can’t describe how emotional that was.”
Makes you realise how important @AnthonyNolan is. Proud to support them and if anything it's given me more motivation.
— Sean Hagan (@_seanhagan) April 16, 2014
Johnny says, “I ran the Great North Run before I became ill and at the finish line I vowed never to do a marathon. But getting a second chance changed my mind. Running the marathon was a way of me showing how far I’ve come and being able to give something back. Without Anthony Nolan and Sean, I wouldn’t be here today – it’s as simple as that.”
Sean says, “When Johnny asked me to run a marathon with him for Anthony Nolan, I couldn’t say no. I thought that if someone who has had a bone marrow transplant is taking on the marathon, then I definitely should be!
Running a marathon was much harder than donating my stem cells but it has been amazing and I’ll remember it for the rest of my life. What kept me going was that the £1million raised from this year’s marathon will allow Anthony Nolan to recruit 10,000 new potential bone marrow donors – any of those could be as lucky as me and have the chance to save someone’s life.”
Sean’s Twitter bio now simply says: ‘It's amazing what can happen when you say yes every now and again. https://www.anthonynolan.org #bethecure’
How you can help Anthony Nolan
Inspired by Sean and Johnny's story? Find us how you can help us save more lives.