When Chantel was diagnosed with cancer, she knew the odds were stacked against her because of the lack of African-Caribbean donors on the bone marrow register. She even wrote her will and planned her funeral.
But then two miracles happened…
Chantel Ratcliffe, a GP from West Yorkshire, thought she had lost her dream of having a baby with her husband Robin forever, after going through leukaemia twice and being told she could never conceive.
Her only hope of a cure was a bone marrow transplant, but because she is black, Chantel faced devastatingly low odds of finding a matching donor. However her life was changed forever when a ‘one in a million’ stranger was found who donated their bone marrow, to give her not just the gift of life, but the chance to fulfil her dream of having a family.
Chantel was recently overjoyed as she gave birth to her first child James Ellis Ratcliffe, born 15th March.
Chantel was given the devastating news that she had cancer when she diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukaemia in December 2007, aged 33.
“I had a small boil in my armpit but I just presumed it was just normal and that it would go away, but it didn’t. As I’m a doctor myself, I thought I might need some antibiotics but my GP also said we will give it a blood test, ‘just in case’.
“I did think, ‘Why bother? It’s just a boil’. I felt fine in myself, I was going to the gym everyday and was working full time. My GP called me in the middle of my Friday appointments and got me an appointment with a haematologist on Monday as my bloods came back abnormal. I had a bone marrow biopsy, the results came back and that’s when I got the news I had cancer.
Chantel on the day of her transplant
As a GP with knowledge of what the results might be, I thought I prepared myself for the news but I just didn’t believe that word ‘cancer’ would be said to me. Me and my husband just cried.
“Treatment started the next day – it was a total whirlwind. Telling my parents and work was really upsetting and I also had to leave all my patients.
“Even after that, I think it only properly hit me in the hospital bed when my family had gone home and the nurses had done all they could. I was alone in the room and the overwhelming enormity of what I was about to face hit me. That first night was so long – I felt lost and lonely.”
“I went through that grieving process – why me? I work out, I’m fit and healthy? Could I have gone earlier to the doctor?”
Chantel then went on to receive four courses of chemotherapy between December 2007 and May 2008. This was an initial success and Chantel was told she was in remission.
But in October 2010, after two years in remission, a routine check up blood test revealed that her cancer had returned. It was the day after Chantel’s birthday.
“That obviously wasn’t a pleasant birthday waiting for the results. It was even more devastating than the first time round because I’d had over two years of being well.
For so long I had been cautious, I knew in the first two years things can go wrong. I’d just started to let myself relax, get my life back on track, plan for future, plan for children and it was all taken away from me - again.”
This time Chantel was told her best chance of survival was a bone marrow transplant. Her brother was tested but sadly he wasn’t a match so Chantel then relied upon a selfless stranger to save her life.
Photo by Iain Watts
Chantel’s African-Caribbean background dramatically limited her likelihood of finding a perfect match. Currently, only 60% of transplant recipients receive the best possible match, and this drops dramatically to 20.5% if you’re from a black, Asian or ethnic minority background.
“I knew the odds were stacked against me because of the lack of African-Caribbean donors on the register - I thought that’s definitely it. I wrote my will and thought about funeral plans I needed to get my affairs in order.”
Despite the odds, blood cancer charity Anthony Nolan were able to find a match for Chantel in America.
“It knocked me off my seat when they told me there was a match - I was in complete shock. It was a dream come true, that person is one in a million, a true hero.”
In the build up to the transplant Chantel was also told she had the chance to have IVF and potentially fulfil her dream of having children that she thought she’d lost forever.
“It was like winning the lottery all at once. We had more hope than ever before. This was the double whammy of good news, after the double whammy of bad news with my diagnosis of cancer and infertility. We were up against the clock and we got the eggs collected a couple of days before the transplant. We were so high and elated.”
Chantel’s transplant took place on May 2011.
“The transplant day was very calm – I had chemo and radiotherapy the week before and when I went in I was with my husband and a friend. We were chatting away but then two small bags of stem cells came from the courier and we’re speechless – we just silently watched it go in me.
“It’s just amazing to think a donor volunteered to sit there in America and donated their stem cells and an Anthony Nolan courier has gone over there in a plane and brought them back - just for me.”
“Within 10 minutes, it was all done. It was so humbling, these two small bags meant I could have a life.”
Chantel had some complications after the transplant but got on the road to recovery and is now close to living a normal life. As well as having a second chance at life, Chantel is now enjoying something she never thought possible – motherhood - after being told she was pregnant in July and giving birth a few weeks ago.
“I’ve learnt to cherish the small things now, I really appreciate the time I have with my loved ones and time by yourself to relax. I even love the silly things like the changing seasons and going out for a walk. I’ve learn to not to sweat the small stuff. I just worry about my baby now. Not matter how long this journey has been its all worth it in the end.”
Chantel is now keen to give something back by supporting Anthony Nolan’s ‘Being African-Caribbean’ campaign, encouraging potential lifesavers from African-Caribbean backgrounds to sign up the Anthony Nolan register.
“I know I am one of the lucky ones, there are so many other people who can’t find that perfect match because of the lack of donors on the register, and it’s so much harder for black patients to find their donor. It’s a complete no-brainer to join the register; you have a chance to save a life by simply filling out a form and spitting in a tube. You can change someone’s life – what’s better than that?”
“I owe my donor everything, I could never say thank you enough to them. If it wasn’t for them I just simply wouldn’t be here. But now I have a future with my husband Robin and James and it’s all thanks to them.”
You can join the register and sign up to potentially save the life of someone like Chantel by clicking the button below: