Claire Stewart, who was diagnosed with blood cancer in 2012, used photography as a way of documenting her ‘milestone moments’ in treatment and recovery. would later gift the photographic collection to the selfless stranger whose stem cell donation would ultimately cure her of cancer. Claire’s sharing her story to mark World Cancer Day on Tuesday 4 February and hoping to raise awareness of the lifesaving work undertaken by Anthony Nolan.
Darlington woman Claire, 49, was diagnosed with Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS), a type of blood cancer, in 2012. She had been working as a nurse at the time and put symptoms such as breathlessness, chest pain and blurred vision down to ‘being unfit’.
Claire recalled: “I’d just done four night shifts and literally couldn’t put one foot in front of the other so I rang my GP and they took some bloods. It was bonfire night, 5 November 2012, and he rang me and said I needed to go in to hospital as soon as possible because my bloods weren’t right. After lots of tests, I was told I had Myelodysplastic Syndrome and would need an urgent stem cell transplant.
“At my appointment, the week before Christmas, I was told I’d have one year to live if I didn’t have the transplant.”
She continued: “It was shocking news but I felt numb. When I told my husband, he nearly collapsed but I think I just bottled it up. It was only when I walked on to the ward and saw all the people with bald heads, it hit me that I did actually have cancer; there is actually something wrong with me and I’m going to have to go through all that treatment.”
Claire in hospital
The search for Claire’s donor began immediately. Her brother was tested and found not to be a match, so Anthony Nolan searched the stem cell register for a matching unrelated donor. “While I was waiting for the transplant, my bloods kept dropping and dropping and they found out that the MDS had transformed into leukaemia, which can happen” explained Claire.
“It was hard waiting for a match, really hard, because I knew that I didn’t have long. With my blood results dropping every week, I was thinking, ‘am I going to get a donor in time or will I die before I can have a transplant?’ Six months seems like nothing now but then, it felt like a hell of a long time.”
“I remember the doctor telling me that they’d found a donor. It was amazing, absolutely amazing… It gave us so much hope. I knew it would still be a long journey to recover but, with the transplant, hopefully there would be a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Claire found the initial recovery after her transplant fraught with difficulty and complications. She fell into a coma and was treated in the Intensive Care Unit for two weeks. In total she spent five months in hospital and had to learn to walk again.
Claire eventually returned to work in 2015 after finding a job as a discharge coordinator in a hospital.
“I was determined that I was going to recover and get back to work” said Claire.
Two and a half years after her transplant, Claire decided she wanted to try to contact her donor.
“I asked the team at Anthony Nolan about it and she agreed to be in touch. We exchanged details and I thought ‘Oh my god, I finally know her name!’”
“All I knew before that point was that she was from England and she was 29 when she donated. I’d sent her a couple of cards, including a Christmas card, anonymously.
In 2016, Claire and her donor Keely spent the weekend together in Harrogate.
Claire and Keely
Coincidently, Keely was also a trained nurse. They had both qualified at the same time.
“There were so many similarities” recalled Claire. “Even her name - her last name is Jackson and my consultant was called Dr Jackson. She loved salt and vinegar crisps and that’s all I had after my transplant - before that I’d been all about chocolate.
“When we met up I made her a box with things that I liked in hospital - so I had bags of salt and vinegar crisps, things like that - and I made her an album of photos to show her what I was like before the transplant and all the things I’d done after it. I told her, ‘This is what you’ve given me.”
Claire’s box for Keely
On 17 December 2018, the same date she was diagnosed with leukaemia six years prior, Claire was offered a job as a haematology nurse.
“So now I work on a day unit looking after patients who are also waiting for stem cell transplants - it’s lovely” she added.
Since her transplant, Claire’s life has changed. She adopted a dog and developed a special appreciation of the outdoors.
“If it wasn’t for Keely donating, I wouldn’t have a life. She has actually physically given me my life. It’s just fantastic, isn’t it?” said Claire.
“Keely says the best moment for her was when she received a Christmas card from me. At this point she didn’t know anything - how I was doing, whether I’d survived, nothing. She got this card on Christmas Eve and she says it was the best Christmas present she’d ever gotten. She said she cried because she knew that what she had done had helped.”
To mark turning 50 in April, Claire is planning a big celebration with her extended family, for which she wants Keely by her side.
“It feels absolutely amazing to be celebrating my 50th this year. I never thought I’d reach 50. I never thought I’d see my daughter get married or meet my first grandchild but [thanks to Keely and Anthony Nolan] I have.”
When asked what she would say to someone thinking of joining the register Claire said: “Donating is an easy process to do and you are potentially going to save someone’s life.
“That’s the biggest reason to do it. How fantastic would it be for you, to know that you’ve saved someone’s life.
“Anthony Nolan will always be very close to my heart. My husband and all my family have got involved in fundraising and supporting the charity. I’m thinking about doing a skydive next year - it’s something I’d like to do, and I want to do it for Anthony Nolan.”
Rebecca Pritchard, Assistant Director of Engagement at Anthony Nolan said: “Claire’s story is one of remarkable resilience, stoicism and the love and support of her family.
“Through the selfless actions of Keely, a stranger at the time, Claire has been given a second chance of life. There is a beautiful serendipity to this story: from the scrapbook of milestone moments that Keely made possible, to the mutual penchant for salt and vinegar crisps to Claire’s decision to retrain as a haematology nurse. I’m sure her story will help many other people going through a similar experience.
“Every single person who signs up to the register has the potential to give hope to someone like Claire in need of a lifesaving stem cell transplant. We urgently need more young men to join, as they’re most likely to be chosen to donate their stem cells.
“Together, we can work towards a future where nobody is waiting for their match.”
Anthony Nolan recruits people aged 16-30 to the stem cell register as research has shown younger donors are associated with better survival rates for patients. .
The charity also carries out ground-breaking research to save more lives and provide information and support to patients after a stem cell transplant, through its clinical nurse specialists and psychologists, who help guide patients through their recovery.
It costs £40 to recruit each potential donor to the register, so Anthony Nolan relies on financial support.
Find out more at www.anthonynolan.org