Empty Chairs – Joanne McCawley

Currently, thanks to advances in research and treatments, three out of every four people diagnosed with blood cancer in Northern Ireland survive.

Joanne McCawley is the eighth survivor to feature in our year-long campaign. She was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukaemia in November 2015, and was in remission from January 2016. But last month, whilst planning for her campaign appearance, Joanne found out that her blood cancer has returned.

On meeting Joanne, she comes across as an incredibly optimistic, calm and positive person. She openly declares that she has had a good life. She breezed through school, then university where she trained as a nurse, travelled a bit, and eventually met her partner Jason. They married, and soon after Joanne found out she was expecting their first baby. She was 29 and it was a happy time for them.

In November 2015, she went for her ten week baby scan and wasn’t long away before she was contacted by the hospital to say that she was anaemic and needed to start taking iron supplements. As a nurse, she queried the diagnosis. She said: “As soon as I heard the results, I knew that my anaemia wasn’t caused by the pregnancy, it was too severe. It took weeks to confirm the cause, but eventually I received a call to say I had leukaemia. I was at work at the time – I had to leave immediately.”

Joanne’s initial shock wasn’t just that she had cancer, but that it was an extremely rare cancer and the same one which had killed her uncle, at the same age. She had been tired, but not overly tired, and she hadn’t suffered from morning sickness during her pregnancy. She had thought it was going well.

In December, after her first bout of chemotherapy, Joanne lost her baby. She then found out that the treatment hadn’t worked. She needed a second round of chemo, which fortunately, along with a bone marrow transplant, helped her into remission.

Joanne admits her blood cancer experience has shaped her into a completely different person, who doesn’t stress and wakes up appreciating every single day, no matter what it may bring.

Last month, as we were planning Joanne’s story for the campaign, we got the news that her blood cancer returned. We told her to forget about the campaign, concentrate on coping with her illness, but she was adamant that she wanted her story to be told.

Joanne said: “My recent diagnosis has only increased my intent to help with this campaign. It shows how up and down, how powerful this disease is and how it throws curveballs, but we just have to give it our best shot. You just keep fighting on – that’s all you can do.”

Joanne has decided not to take any more aggressive treatment, and instead she will be living life to the full in the time she has left. She is bravely philosophical about the life she has enjoyed.

Research done by scientists, like those funded by Leukaemia & Lymphoma right here in Belfast, continues to work towards developing new and more effective treatments for blood cancer.

We’d love it if you shared Joanne’s story and spread the word. Together, we can help reduce the number of empty chairs created by blood cancer.


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