A mum–of-three from Hackney is searching for a stem cell donor after being diagnosed with leukaemia in February.
Venessa Taylor, 48, an assistant head teacher at a primary school, was diagnosed after suffering extreme fatigue and back pain. ‘They initially thought it was glandular fever,’ said Venessa. ‘But after a couple of months it hadn’t gone away and a blood test revealed I had leukaemia. I was admitted to hospital the same day.’
Venessa, who has two grown-up daughters, Shenna and Mari, and a seven-year-old daughter, Raia, has had five cycles of chemotherapy to reduce the cancer cells. However, her best hope of a long-term recovery will be a stem cell transplant from a matching donor. As her brothers and sister are only half-matches, the best match will likely be from an anonymous donor on the Anthony Nolan stem cell register.
‘I feel like it hasn’t sunk in yet,’ said Venessa. ‘I just go through the motions and try not to worry about my family. The chemotherapy and the transplant are just things that have to be done. My main concern is my seven-year-old daughter, but thankfully my family are looking after her well and she doesn’t appear to be affected too much by it all. I’m spending as much time with her as I can, though I have to take one day at a time.’
Up until her diagnosis, Venessa led an active life, spending much of her spare time swimming and running to keep fit, yet due to her illness she now experiences chronic fatigue.
Venessa, a grandmother-of-two, has also lost her hair after having chemotherapy. ‘I used to have beautiful hair down to my waist and when it started to fall out I decided to let my daughter and grandsons cut it off,’ she said. ‘I think it helped them not to be too shocked or frightened.’
Venessa has worked as the assistant head teacher at her current school since September, and has been a teacher in Hackney and Haringey for over twenty years. ‘I love my job and it’s been hard not to be able to work,’ said Venessa. ‘At the beginning of my treatment, I tried to keep going and worked on a laptop from hospital. Unfortunately I can’t be around the school children because my immune system is so low. My colleagues have been really supportive and visit regularly as well as booking me a surprise spa weekend, which will be something to look forward to when I’m better.’
Venessa’s family and friends are encouraging people from Hackney and the surrounding boroughs to join the Anthony Nolan donor register. Joining the register simply requires giving a saliva sample, and 90% of people who go on to donate will do so in a straightforward process similar to an extended blood donation.
It is especially important that more people from black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds join up, as they are currently underrepresented on the donor register. On average, 60% of people find the best possible match, but for people from black, Asian or ethnic minority backgrounds this falls to just 20%.
Venessa is now trying to raise awareness among the black community about the importance of the stem cell donor register. ‘The world is so much bigger than me and there must be a reason why leukaemia found me,’ she said. ‘There is a huge lack of awareness about stem cell donation within our community and I want to help change that. If you have an opportunity to save someone’s life in such a simple way, why wouldn’t you do it? Please take the time to join the Anthony Nolan register as it could be one of the most important things you ever do. As Nelson Mandela once said, “We can change the world and make it a better place. It is in your hands to make a difference”.’
Sarah Rogers, Regional Register Development Manager at Anthony Nolan, said: ‘Despite going through a difficult time, Venessa is sharing her story to try and diversify the register and help more black and ethnic minority people find a match. Donating is a straightforward process – for nine out of ten people it is similar to giving blood and takes just 4-5 hours. Everyone who joins our register could be a potential lifesaver and has the chance to save the life of someone like Venessa.’
To join the Anthony Nolan register you must be aged 16-30, weigh at least 50kg and be in good health.