Man makes huge sacrifice to save his sister’s life after ‘horrifying’ cancer diagnosis

By Staff 10 Min Read

Rebecca Bridges, 54, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia in August 2020 after suffering from breathlessness, aching joints and bleeding gums

A man donated his stem cells to save his sister’s life after she was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer.

Rebecca Bridges, 54, was told she had acute myeloid leukaemia – an aggressive cancer of the myeloid cells – in August 2020 after suffering from breathlessness, aching joints and bleeding gums. She underwent two rounds of chemotherapy and was told she would need a stem cell transplant – to treat the bone marrow when it is damaged and no longer able to produce healthy blood cells.

Doctors told Rebecca her best chance for a donor would be a sibling – so her brother, Ollie Bridges, 53, who works in IT, was tested and found to be a match. The transplant took places over two days in January 2021 and, thanks to her brother, Rebecca is now cancer-free.

Rebecca, a former teacher, from Penzance, Cornwall, said: “My brother is a year younger than me – we grew up very close. Like all siblings we scrapped like Tom and Jerry when we were little. I was very grateful that he was willing to do this for me.”

Ollie, also from Penzance, added: “Hearing about Rebecca’s diagnosis was horrifying. One minute a person you love is carrying on their life as normal, the next, a life-altering and potentially ending diagnosis lands. When I first heard that stem cells could help, it felt like there was hope. Finding out the test results, and knowing that I was a match was brilliant news and felt like a path to recovery was being mapped – what everyone who goes to a doctor wants to know.”

In May 2020, Rebecca started suffering from fatigue, breathlessness and bleeding which she originally put down to the menopause. Rebecca said: “I spoke to a nurse and she gave me HRT – to replace the hormones that your body produces less of as you go through menopause. After I got the HRT my symptoms didn’t go away.

“I then noticed some enormous bruises on my body that had no explanation.” In August 2020, Rebecca went to her local GP concerned her symptoms didn’t go away. She was checked over by a nurse who said she would need a blood test as her blood oxygen was low.

After the test a doctor called to say there were some ‘worrying indicators’ and Rebecca needed to go to Royal Cornwall Hospital, Truro. Rebecca said: “The morning I was due to go to hospital, the doctor called again to say he was sending an ambulance as I was too ill to go there myself.” Once she got to hospital, Rebecca was put into a private room as she was “prone to infection”.

Four days later a bone marrow biopsy revealed Rebecca had acute myeloid leukaemia. She said: “I was in utter shock, I thought Sod’s law I get it during the pandemic. My son, Uther, was 14 at the time and the biggest thing was I wanted to live to see him grow up as an independent adult. They said I had to remain isolating, they planned to get me in as soon as possible for chemo and said a stem cell transplant might be on the cards.”

Rebecca went home for 10 days to spend time with her family before she started inpatient chemotherapy. She had two rounds of chemo and spent 10 weeks in hospital. Rebecca said: “About eight days into the chemotherapy I got very ill. I would shiver and shake – I felt freezing cold.

“I then spent a week at home between chemo, which was lovely as I got to spend my birthday at home. A week into my second round of chemo they told me I would need a stem cell transplant.” In January 2021, Rebecca was transferred to Derriford Hospital, in Plymouth, Devon, for a stem cell transplant.

Rebecca said: “I have a number of siblings and I got told it would be better if I had a sibling donor. They tested my two full siblings and my younger brother was a complete match. There was a huge amount of relief that there was no searching and waiting. I had a huge amount of gratitude for my brother.”

Ollie added: “The donation process was simple, but it made me feel blessed to be in a world where our medical and scientific knowledge can take such a bad piece of news and fix it. Not only that but that our NHS, whilst struggling in many areas, really deals with these major, life-saving procedures so brilliantly.”

Ollie went to hospital for the day to have his stem cell taken on January 14 and 15, 2021. Rebecca’s transplant took place over two days on January 19 and 20, 2021. She said: “After the transplant, I had six weeks in hospital. I was discharged and went into hospital accommodation.

“They wanted me to go into the clinic as the chances of me getting an infection were high. As soon as I got into the hospital accommodation my husband, Paul Puckey, 55, was allowed to stay with me.” Rebecca was discharged from the hospital and allowed to go home in February 2021.

She said: “It was the happiest day of my life, the treatment was so rough. It was like being tortured the chemo is so strong for this cancer. I often thought I was going to die and never see my husband and son again. It was such a relief to get home to see them both.”

List of symptoms for acute myeloid leukaemia:

  • Fatigue
  • Night sweats
  • Bruising
  • Breathlessness
  • Headaches
  • Bleeding gums
  • Break through bleeding
  • Aching joints

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