Henlow fundraiser tells how she donated stem cells to save brother’s life

Hitchin's James Leigh with his sister and stem cell donor Susan Hunter, who is set to run the London Marathon in aid of the UK Stem Cell Foundation. Picture: JP Asher

Hitchin's James Leigh with his sister and stem cell donor Susan Hunter, who is set to run the London Marathon in aid of the UK Stem Cell Foundation. Picture: JP Asher

Archant

There are few bonds closer than that between a brother and sister, but siblings James Leigh and Susan Hunter actually share the same DNA.

Susan Hunter, centre, during the Hertfordshire Half Marathon at Knebworth House. Picture: Hertfordshire Half Marathon Susan Hunter, centre, during the Hertfordshire Half Marathon at Knebworth House. Picture: Hertfordshire Half Marathon

That’s because Susan, from Henlow, donated stem cells for a transplant to save James’ life when he had a relapse of stage IV non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a blood cancer affecting his bone marrow.

Now 57-year-old Susan has surprised her family by revealing she is training for the London Marathon to raise money and awareness for stem cell research, and help save more lives.

Speaking to the Comet across James’ front room in Hitchin, the pair told how Susan had watched as her younger brother – who had intense chemotherapy to kill all his bone marrow – received her donated blood stem cells. The transplant was three years ago on Sunday – February 25, 2015.

“I will never be able to express in words the emotions I felt at that time,” said Susan, who wanted James to live to feel the same way she did when her two boys graduated from university.

Susan Hunter crosses the finishing line of the Hertfordshire Half Marathon at Knebworth House. Picture: Hertfordshire Half Marathon Susan Hunter crosses the finishing line of the Hertfordshire Half Marathon at Knebworth House. Picture: Hertfordshire Half Marathon

Now dad-of-three James is set to see his eldest, Catherine, graduate in June.

The journey began in January 2014, when James was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphona that was already at stage IV – meaning it was very serious.

Three weeks of chemotherapy at University College Hospital in London appeared to have cured him – but a month later he found a rash under his arm that spread around his torso.

After tests including five biopsies in one sitting, doctors gave him the dreaded news that the cancer had returned.

After more chemotherapy was unsuccessful, doctors offered a stem cell transplant, but an expensive injection produced none of his own.

It was therefore necessary to find a donor – a difficult ask, particularly as James’ ethnic background is mixed. Fortunately, Susan and her sisters had already been tested, and she was a match.

“Everything has to match,” said Susan, who runs a GP practice in Luton. When you’re a child you have certain illnesses, and it builds up a certain immunity.”

After hormone injections to force stem cells from her bones into her bloodstream, three days of harvesting produced only a quarter of the original target – but the transplant was a success.

Now James, who used to be an avid sportsman, is even getting back into football as a referee. The transplant even means he now has a different blood type.

A marathon is a huge challenge for mum-of-two Susan, who had never run more than 200 metres before last year. She sprang the news on family at a New Year get-together – after keeping her training secret for seven months.

Susan is one of three runners for the UK Stem Cell Foundation in the marathon on April 22, and she has so far raised more than £1,400 – well on the way to her target of £2,001.

She has been building up to the 26.2 miles by completing events like the Silsoe Stride, Letchworth’s Standalone 10k and the Hertfordshire Half Marathon at Knebworth House. On March 18 she will run in the Oakley 20, a 20-mile race north of Bedford.

“It’s not something I ever thought I’d do – I’m not a Zumba type of girl,” said Susan.

“I never even had a pair of trainers. I just want to complete the marathon and raise as much money as I can for the charity.

“Not a day goes by when I’m not thankful this treatment exists – my brother wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t available, and research made that possible.

“I’d do it again in a heartbeat. And I’d do it for somebody else if I was a match, too.”

The UK Stem Cell Foundation’s research aims to enable new possibilities for stem cells to help fight diseases like Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, dementia and many more as well as cancer.

James and Susan have urged others to join the Anthony Nolan register, to donate blood stem cells and help save lives. Find out more at anthonynolan.org.

To find out more or make a donation to Susan’s cause, see uk.virginmoneygiving.com/SusanHunter8.

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