It’s the Christmas that Joel Atkinson, his fiancée Amy Gannon and their four-year-old daughter Isla feared they would never see.
The Bishop’s Stortford family have been reunited for the festive period, with their little girl finally able to cuddle her daddy having spent more than four months apart after a traumatic 2021 dealing with a shock cancer diagnosis.
Joel, 30, has been allowed out of hospital to spend Christmas at home in Dunmow Road, having been kept in since the end of July – when he was rushed to hospital in an emergency and learned over speaker phone in the back of the ambulance that he had blood cancer.
The diagnosis a month later of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) came several months after being told the back and joint pains that had plagued him since early 2019 was down to arthritis.
In his time in hospital, Joel has endured sepsis, gruelling chemotherapy, an adverse reaction to the treatment which put him back into intensive care and then Covid-19.
He spent a month in isolation on a Covid ward at Addenbrooke’s in Cambridge, unable to see Isla or any of his family. Amy alone was permitted to visit him for one hour a week – and she had to wear full PPE and wasn’t allowed to touch him.
But now Isla is overjoyed to have her daddy home again, and the couple, who grew up in Stortford, have approached the Indie to tell their story to spread awareness of blood cancer and its symptoms.
‘He’s had to go through more in these last four months than most of us have to in our entire lifetime’
Isla is “overjoyed” to have her daddy home again – and her parents have an extra-special reason to celebrate having recently got engaged.
“It’s such a happy moment in all of this sadness,” said Amy, who I can sense smiling as she imparts this final detail to me in a phone interview that traverses the highs and lows of a two-year health battle which culminated this summer with the love of her life being rushed to hospital and learning in the back of the ambulance that he had blood cancer.
“We’re battling through the toughest of times as a family and Joel’s been truly inspiring throughout, showing superhuman strength and levels of bravery,” said Amy, who herself has fought cancer after a rare tumour was discovered during a routine pregnancy scan.
“He’s maintained his beautiful bond with Isla throughout, their love has stretched the distance, and even in the depths of his despair he’s a truly wonderful, loving father and partner.
“I’ll never ever be able to articulate how truly in awe of his resilience and strength I am. He’s an amazing person, an absolute inspiration to me and a true fighter.
“He’s had to go through more in these last four months than most of us have to in our entire lifetime.
“He’s been in hospital for four months and, until now, hasn’t returned home since that drive to A&E.
“Due to the pandemic delays, we had to wait four long months for an MRI scan. On the day we were due to go and collect the results from the scan I went into our bedroom to wake Joel. His lips were blue, he was in agony and we rushed him to A&E.
“On route to A&E his consultant rang us, as we should’ve been at the appointment, and told us on speaker phone ‘Joel has blood cancer’. I will never, ever forget his face when those words were said. Twenty-four hours and our world was turned upside down.”
The couple grew up in Stortford – Amy attended Herts and Essex High School and Joel went to Birchwood High School – and approached the Indie to tell their story to spread awareness of blood cancer and its symptoms. It has given them a focus and, for Joel, the motivation to keep battling.
“I think it is beyond important for the symptoms of blood cancer to be promoted, for them to be more widely known and for more training provided to health professionals on spotting blood cancer,” said Amy.
“We were never thinking cancer, but perhaps if we’d been more aware of how blood cancer presented itself we would’ve taken this to the GP and fought even harder for help.
“That’s our main motivation, to raise awareness, and if we could help just one other family, that would be amazing.”
The charity Blood Cancer UK is working with Joel and Amy to help tell their story, featuring it as part of its Christmas awareness campaign.
Also, Amy is writing a children’s book that she is looking to self-publish. “It was a story I wrote for Isla to explain Daddy’s absence and I hope it might help other families as well as raise money for Blood Cancer UK.”
Initially, Joel, an electrician by trade, experienced back and joint pain which were put down to his job.
“He grew very fatigued and that was put down to not being able to sleep from the pain. He was off his food and lost weight, but there always appeared to be an answer for everything,” Amy recounted.
“After countless GP appointments, calls to 111, A&E visits and swapping GP surgeries, constantly challenging his diagnosis, we were finally given an MRI scan and blood tests for Joel.
“A lot of the battle was to do with the pandemic – struggling to get face-to-face appointments, massive delays with blood tests and the MRI.
“He was misdiagnosed with arthritis, but I ended up ringing the consultant daily because I just didn’t accept that,” Amy said.
“He couldn’t walk, I was watching him lose weight and fall apart rapidly in front of me and sadly we were right – it was more sinister.”
On arrival at A&E, minutes after he had received the devastating news in the ambulance, it was discovered Joel had sepsis. He was admitted to intensive care the next morning.
He recovered and within a few weeks had his first round of chemotherapy. But he had an adverse reaction to a drug which caused pancreatitis and multiple organ failure, and he once more ended up on a ventilator in intensive care.
“Addenbrooke’s have been outstanding – so many times they’ve directly saved Joel’s life,” said Amy.
“He came through intensive care again and was up on a cancer ward for four days before he caught Covid. He’s asymptomatic and doesn’t require any medical support from that perspective, but had to be isolated.
“I got an hour once a week with him, but couldn’t physically touch and cuddle him, I had to wear full PPE, but at least I got an hour with him.
“He just keeps saying he’s really glad it’s happening to him and not someone he loves.
“I’m so in awe of him. He’s very strong and determined, but even he has his limits and he’s been through so much, it’s mentally very tough for him.”
Joel’s parents, who live locally, and his older brother and sister have also not been able to see him throughout. “They’re finding it hard being separated physically although maintain their closeness and support via messaging daily,” said Amy.
Isla, who started reception in September, has been a saving grace for the couple.
“She’s our main focus – without her we just couldn’t have got through it,” said Amy. “We’re just trying to keep her happy.
“Joel and Isla talked via Facetime when he was able to or they had voice calls and she drew pictures for Daddy.
“He got her a Build a Bear and recorded him saying ‘Love you, Isla’, so when she cuddles it she hears his voice.”
For Amy, raising Isla and raising awareness keep her going – and, of course, a wedding to plan.
She works part-time for JoJo Maman Bébé in North Street, who she said had been incredibly supportive throughout their ordeal.
A fundraising page for the couple’s wedding has been set up by Amy’s cousin, Susannah Adams, where she describes in detail the couple’s journey over their seven-year relationship and how Amy, aged 23 at the time, underwent pioneering surgery during the latter stages of pregnancy to remove her tumour.
To donate visit https://www.gofundme.com/f/amy-and-joels-wedding?qid=f7861a2fa7dc53197bd581bf0b5c5c98.
Blood cancer: THE STATS
It’s the UK’s fifth most common cancer but the third biggest cancer killer – and yet, according to Blood Cancer UK, awareness and understanding of it are much lower than for other types of the disease.
- Every year in the UK, more than 40,000 people are diagnosed and around 15,000 of these die from it.
- About 250,000 people are living with blood cancer in the UK.
- One in 16 men and one in 22 women will develop it at some point in their lives.
- It is the commonest type of childhood cancer. More than 500 youngsters under 15 are diagnosed with it every year. Of these, about 400 have leukaemia and 100 have lymphoma.
- The risk of blood cancer rises as you get older – just under 40% of people diagnosed with it are 75 or over.
The term ‘blood cancer’ is used to describe different types of cancer that can affect the blood, bone marrow or lymphatic system. It happens when something goes wrong with the development of red blood cells. In almost all cases, these changes are linked to factors we cannot control and happen during a person’s lifetime, so they are not genetic conditions that can be passed on.
Blood Cancer UK says that while the NHS gives world-class treatment to many thousands of people with the disease, there are still areas where it could do better.
“Just 67% of people with blood cancer only have to see their GP once or twice before being diagnosed. This compares to 94% for breast cancer and 82% for prostate cancer. This is a serious issue because the sooner you are diagnosed, the better your chances of treatment being successful.”
For more information about the disease visit www.bloodcancer.org.uk.
Blood cancer: THE SYMPTOMS TO LOOK OUT FOR
Amy and Joel are working with Blood Cancer UK to raise awareness of the symptoms of blood cancer and for improved training for medical professionals to assist with early diagnosis.
According to the charity, symptoms can vary, depending on the type of blood cancer. They include:
- Unexplained weight loss
- Unexplained bruises or bleeding
- Lumps or swellings
- Shortness of breath
- Drenching night sweats
- Persistent, recurrent or severe infections
- An unexplained fever (above 38C)
- Unexplained rash or itchy skin
- Pains in bones, joints or abdomen
- Tiredness that doesn’t improve with rest or sleep
Not everyone will have the same symptoms, and some people may have symptoms that are not listed above. For more details see https://bloodcancer.org.uk/understanding-blood-cancer/blood-cancer-signs-symptoms/.
Amy hopes that by highlighting their story and the symptoms, it will help save someone’s life.
“I truly hope this article can help someone else achieve a faster blood cancer diagnosis and promote awareness of the wonderful charity that is Blood Cancer UK,” she said.
“Additionally, I hope it will raise the issue that there isn’t enough low-level training to healthcare professionals such as GPs to spot the signs of blood cancer. Leukemia Care, another blood cancer charity, are trying to change this.
“I join them in calling on the NHS and Government to implement the following recommendations to reduce the number of emergency presentations and aid early diagnosis:
- Work with charities, such as Blood Cancer UK and Leukaemia Care, to undertake a mass awareness campaign as part of existing public health initiatives
- Ensure everyone presenting with one or more of the symptoms of leukaemia has a blood test to rule out or diagnose leukaemia as early as possible
- Make leukaemia learning a mandatory part of GP continuing professional development and increase training for other healthcare professionals, e.g. opticians and pharmacists
- Provide more clarity on the available data for monitoring early diagnosis rates in blood cancer and urgently publish the latest data from the Covid-19 pandemic period
- Give specific consideration of the challenges of diagnosing leukaemia in policy and strategic documents related to cancer.
Amy added: “Joel and I feel so pleased to be able to have this platform and to bring this into people’s lives. He feels that maybe it will make a small amount of difference to someone else.”
Early 2019 – Joel initially starts experiencing back and joint pain, but this is put down to the physical exertions of being an electrician. His symptoms continue for the next two years.
Early 2021 – Joel is diagnosed with arthritis. He is fatigued, which is attributed to not being able to sleep because of the pain. He has lost his appetite, is losing weight and becomes very pale in complexion, but “there always appeared to be an answer for everything”.
Spring/summer 2021 – Joel is finally given an MRI scan and blood tests after a four-month delay due to the pandemic. It follows countless GP appointments, calls to 111, mutiple A&E visits and swapping GP surgeries, constantly challenging the diagnosis.
30 July 2021 – The day Joel is due to get his scan results, he is rushed to hospital by ambulance having been discovered by Amy lying in agony in his bed with blue lips.
The consultant phones during the journey to A&E to say that Joel has blood cancer. He hears the devastating news over speaker phone.
He is admitted to the Lister Hospital in Stevenage where it is discovered he has developed sepsis and he spends two days in intensive care.
One month later – He is transferred to Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge where he finally receives a diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL). Chemotherapy begins with a 30-day block treatment.
Towards the end of the chemo, Joel has an adverse reaction to a drug and develops pancreatitis and is admitted to intensive care for a second time. He remains sedated and on a ventilator for four days.
Sept/Oct 2021 – As Joel comes round from sedation he asks Amy to marry him. He spends a further two weeks in intensive care.
Mid-October 2021 – He is moved to an oncology ward.
25 October 2021 – After a week on this ward, he tests positive for Covid-19 and is confined to his box room in isolation. Amy can only visit once a week for just an hour and has to wear full PPE. She cannot touch or hug her fiancé.
10 December 2021 – Joel is allowed to return home for a six-hour visit after more than four months in hospital.