A Lancashire woman who has spent almost all her adult life fighting cancer is preparing for her next battle. Heather Parkinson, 32, was first diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at 19 and has spent the last 14 years undergoing surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Heather’s cancer has returned and she is now going to undergo a second bone marrow transplant - with her mum as the donor. Heather tells AASMA DAY her story and why she remains positive and upbeat despite everything life has thrown at her.
Heather Parkinson always has a cheerful smile on her face and a positive demeanour capable of finding the silver lining in the grimmest of news.
Even though Heather has spent the last 14 years fighting cancer and dealing with the blows of being told the disease has returned, her attitude is to simply laugh and say: “I’m still here aren’t I!” and she remains ever optimistic that there’s always hope of a cure.
Despite being told her cancer had returned once again despite a successful bone marrow transplant from her sister Shelley a few years ago, Heather has taken the news in her stride and is now preparing to undergo her second stem cell transplant - this time from her mum Sheila Parkinson.
Heather, 32, who lives in Leyland, near Preston, says: “It will be 14 years this May since I was diagnosed with cancer and started the first of many treatments.
“But in a strange kind of way, it is normality for me so I just get on with things as you have to keep positive.
“Doctors have told me there are no more drugs I can have to fight my cancer as I have had them all.
“So the only option was to look at another transplant.
“But me being me, I have to be awkward by having an unusual tissue type so they have been struggling to find a match for me.
“As well as looking at the list of possible donors in the UK, the opened up the search worldwide, but they still couldn’t find a match.
“The nearest they could get was an eight out of 10 match - but it wasn’t even a good eight out of 10.
“So they have decided to do a haploidentical stem cell transplant as your parents make up half of you.
“They tested my mum and tests showed she was a six out of 10 match. However, she is a perfect six out of 10 which is still better than a rubbish eight.”
Heather’s long battle first began at the age of 19 when she began suffering from a cough that wouldn’t go away.
Tests revealed Heather had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in which cancer originates from a specific type of white blood cells called lymphocytes.
Heather, who owns a pet shop in Kirkham, near Preston, managed to beat the disease with chemotherapy and radiotherapy - only for it to return two years later.
Heather’s plights first hit the headlines in the Lancashire Evening Post when health chiefs refused to fund a trial cancer treatment which experts believed was Heather’s best chance.
Even though the treatment would have only cost the NHS £3,000, as a private patient, she faced forking out £16,00 - which she just didn’t have.
After the Evening Post highlighted Heather’s tale, generous readers rallied round and donated the £16,000 needed and she got the treatment she needed.
The trial treatment was successful in shrinking Heather’s tumours drastically enough for her to undergo a stem cell transplant for which her older sister Shelley was the donor.
The transplant was a success. But just seven months later, Heather was dealt a massive blow when a routine scan showed new tumours in her chest.
Ever the fighter, Heather began a new targeted chemotherapy with a newly licensed drug and it managed to keep the cancer at bay even though it was still in her body. When the cancer remained unchanged for 12 months, Heather was thrilled to be told by doctors that she was in remission.
However, her happiness was short-lived as last year, regular checks revealed there were signs the cancer had returned once again.
Once again, Heather faced more gruelling treatment and she was given more infusions of her sister Shelley’s lymphocytes.
But things reached a stage where Heather had taken the maximum dose of lymphocytes from Shelley and the only option left was to look at another transplant.
As if that wasn’t enough for Heather to contend with, a routine test showed a blood clot on her heart and she was put on blood thinning injections to dissolve it.
Heather says: “Shelley was still donating lymphocytes to me, but it had got to the stage where it was taking two days to donate them and it was taking a toll on her body.
“Once I’d had the maximum, doctors knew a transplant was the only option left.”
Heather has had chemotherapy in preparation for the transplant and will also need total body irradiation.
Heather explains: “I will have a low dose of radiation for my whole body at the same time.
“It will kill off the rest of my cells in my bone marrow after chemotherapy to make room for the new ones I will be given by transplant from my mum.
“After the haplo transplant, I will need another round of chemotherapy and hopefully that will do the trick.”
The transplant will take place at The Christie hospital in Manchester on February 3 - two days after Heather marks her 33rd birthday.
After more chemotherapy, Heather has now lost all her hair again after it had grown long following years of treatment.
But Heather refuses to let things get her down and is just grateful for all the extra time treatment has bought her over the years - and she remains ever hopeful that a new cure is just around the corner.
She is very grateful to her mum Sheila for being her donor as she knows she will face an invasive procedure involving general anaesthetic and bone marrow being taken from her pelvis.
Heather faced tragedy at a young age when her dad Ernie died of a brain tumour when she was just 12. She says: “I don’t remember an awful lot about my dad as I only knew him for 12 years.
“But we were very family-orientated and did lots of things together and loved going on holidays.
“I remember my mum would sunbathe on holiday while my dad would build sandcastles with us. He was a great dad and it was horrible when he was diagnosed with cancer.
“I had never really heard of cancer until that point and that was my introduction to it. Little did I know what the future held for me.
“My dad had some experimental chemotherapy when he was ill and that made him go downhill quickly.
“However, I am more upbeat about my situation as there have been so many medical advances, even in recent times.
“A lot of studies say these haplo transplants are the way to go.
“But the reason I am having it is that it is the only option. You can’t get down by these things and you have to look at the bright side of things.
“I have had four years of getting back to work at my pet shop since my transplant from Shelley but now I am off again but the shop is in good hands.
“My mum is brilliant as she helps out at my shop and now she is going to be my donor.”
Mum Sheila, 67, who lives in Lostock Hall, near Preston, says she didn’t have to think twice to help Heather as she would do anything to help her daughters.
Sheila, a retired postmistress, explains: “It is devastating to discover your child has cancer and it was a huge shock for us all when Heather first became ill at 19.
“As a parent, it is so difficult seeing your child suffer and you would do anything and everything to help them. Unfortunately, Heather’s dad Ernie, my husband, died 20 years ago when Heather was just 12.
“It was a horrible time for us as he became ill one Christmas and was found to have a brain tumour and he died the Christmas after.
“He was only 48 when he died. Since losing him, it is only me and Shelley to look after Heather and Shelley donated to Heather.
“There is no one else in the world who is a match for Heather even though they have looked on the UK and international register.
“I hope that after reading Heather’s story, more people come forward to register as bone marrow donors as many people don’t even realise you can do this. I am more than happy to be Heather’s donor and have no fears or worries about doing it. I would do anything for my girls and when Heather first became ill, I told her if I could take it off her, I would.
“I am getting older and would do anything to help my child have a happy and longer life.Heather has been fighting this for 14 years and has had cancer nearly all her adult life.
“But Heather has been so positive through it all and has dealt with everything so optimistically and never complained.
“It is Heather’s strength and determination that has kept us strong.”
l Heather has set up a Facebook page sharing the story of her battle. Join it at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/transplanttales/