Stevenage mum shares shock leukaemia diagnosis to help others

Stevenage mum Jo Rowley who has leukaemia

Stevenage mum Jo Rowley is keen to raise awareness of the symptoms of leukaemia after she received a shock diagnosis five years ago - Credit: Courtesy of Leukaemia Care

A mum diagnosed with leukaemia after having "a few random bruises appear" has told her story during Blood Cancer Awareness Month, in a bid to help others recognise the signs and symptoms.

Jo Rowley, from Stevenage, said: "I'm a busy working mum. I work full-time in early years, do a lot of charity work, and I have a husband and two grown-up boys, so having a few random bruises appear didn’t bother me until one of them had a large lump in it."

She said both her husband and her mum were worried, so Jo went to see her GP "to stop them nagging!"

The GP thought Jo, 51, may be starting the menopause, so ordered some blood tests.

The next day, Jo went to a friend's wedding. "We had a lovely evening but left around 10pm because I felt so tired," Jo remembered. "Looking back now, I had been tired for about a good month or so, but put it down to my busy lifestyle.

"Unbeknown to me, the hospital had been calling me all afternoon about the blood test results, but they had been calling an old number listed for me."

The following day, Jo's doorbell rang. "I was shocked, as I opened the door to an on-call doctor who wanted to talk to me about my blood," she said.

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"He asked how long I had felt poorly for, and I remember saying 'I’m not poorly'. He said the blood test showed my white blood cells were at 194, which meant nothing to me. He said he expected me to be a poorly person, but this still meant nothing to me, so I asked what they should be and he replied 'between four and 11'.

"I felt scared. He said I would need to see a doctor but potentially I could be looking at a cancer called leukaemia. Hearing those words took the wind out of me and I heard my two children, then 15 and 23 years old, recoil in horror outside the lounge door.

Stevenage mum Jo Rowley who has leukaemia

Jo, pictured here two weeks before her diagnosis - Credit: Jo Rowley

"At that point, that was my only concern - my two boys. What if I didn’t see them grow up? Who would look after them? I also thought about my mum and my wonderful husband. We had been together for 12 years at the time and I had waited a long time to find him, but what if now I might not get to grow old with him. My mind was a blur, everyone was in tears."

The next day a doctor at Stevenage's Lister Hospital confirmed Jo had chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML).

She said: "There was lots of information he shared with me and the options that were available to me. I had CML, yes, but I hadn’t been given a death sentence and that is what I held on to that day and still hold onto today, five years on."

Jo had chemotherapy and has since taken daily medication to keep the cancer at bay.

"I truly feel lucky," she said. "Yes, I get tired and I get a lot of bone pain, but I am positive, and I really think that helps me every day. There are many people in a far worse situation to me. I am not in remission, but always hopeful."

The most common symptoms of leukaemia are fatigue, bleeding and bruising, repeated infections, fever or night sweats, bone or joint pain and shortness of breath. If you have any of these symptoms, contact your GP and ask for a blood test.

Jo said: "Raising awareness could save lives, so please be leukaemia and blood cancer aware, share the signs and symptoms with everyone you know. You never know, you might just save someone.

"I knew nothing about leukaemia before I was diagnosed. I want to help raise awareness so people know the signs and symptoms and can hopefully be helped sooner."

NICE guidelines for GPs in England call for GPs to organise an urgent blood test (within 48 hours) for anyone presenting with any of the symptoms of leukaemia.

However, a recent survey by charities Leukaemia Care and Leukaemia UK found that 23.5 per cent of patients with acute leukaemias said it took three to four months after presenting to the GP with symptoms to get a blood test. Only 68 per cent of people were given a blood test within 48 hours.

The charities have launched a campaign - Spot Leukaemia - in a bid to increase early diagnosis. 

Zack Pemberton-Whiteley, chief executive of Leukaemia Care, said: “It is imperative GPs have the capacity and support to order and interpret blood tests. We are calling on the government to set out how they will increase GP numbers, to adhere to these NICE guidelines. We also call on NHS bodies, both locally and nationally, to provide more support for GPs, such as better access to colleagues in haematology departments." 

Fiona Hazell, chief executive of Leukaemia UK, added: “The earlier people are diagnosed, the greater the range of treatment options available to them. By enabling patients to have access to the best range of treatments as early as possible, early diagnosis combined with advancements in treatments thanks to research can help to save and improve lives.

"A leukaemia diagnosis has a devastating impact at any stage, but by detecting it early via a blood test, the additional anxiety, complications and potential loss of life caused by an emergency diagnosis can be avoided."

To find out more, visit spotleukaemia.org.uk