HANDS! The instruction comes from Lee Davis-Conchie, as his partner Simone’s teenage sons charge into the family home off Squires Gate Lane. “I’m neutropenic again.”
It essentially means his immunity to infection is at all time low. An infection could make him very ill indeed.
The two lads go dutifully to the bottle of heavy duty hospital strength anti-bacterial cleanser – and liberally apply it to their hands before tucking into their lunch.
It’s a routine they have become accustomed to since Lee was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia – a rare type of cancer – little more than a year ago. It’s the same type of leukaemia with which Aston Villa captain Stiliyan Petrov was recently diagnosed.
Lee’s white blood cells were at an all time low. Platelet transfusions followed – along with several courses of chemotherapy.
An all too brief period of remission was declared over when his blood count in March showed his white cells were nearing rock bottom anew.
White blood cells (leukocytes) fight infection, red blood cells (erythorcytes) carry oxygen and remove waste products from organs and tissues. Lee also needs platelets, which enable the blood to clot. Platelets are donated in much the same way as blood is donated – although the process takes longer and is carried out at specialist centres. The nearest to the Fylde is at Lancaster.
Now Lee, 43, who is likely to become one of the poster boys of the Anthony Nolan Trust, is pinning his hopes on three things to keep him alive.
One – his own positive mental attitude. “I won’t stand for any negativity. I can beat this.”
Two – a course of salvage chemotherapy. Generally a higher and more aggressive course of chemo is used when a patient has not responded to other forms of treatment – or the cancer has recurred.
Three – a bone marrow transplant if a matching donor can be found. Seventy per cent of people needing a transplant are unable to have one because a suitable donor cannot be found. In patients with leukaemia, the stem cells in the bone marrow malfunction. Chemotherapy can also destroy healthy bone marrow. A transplant increases likelihood that the disease will not recur, or at the very least prolong the period of survival.
“Without it,” declares Lee, a man who believes in facing challenges head on, “I could have months, or years. I just don’t know.”
Leukaemia is what Lee calls the “elephant in the room”.
“We all see it, we don’t want to talk about it. But we need to spread the word.”
He’s doing just that through his Facebook and Justgiving Gift of Life appeal sites.
Lee is also lined up to promote the Anthony Nolan Trust on BBC1’s The One show – although interviewers cried off from filming at the weekend. A representative of the lifesaving national bone marrow transplant register had boarded her train from London to Blackpool to be at Lee’s side. Lee was disappointed. “We were bumped off the show by an item on wolves being released into the wilds,” he says. “I know it’s interesting but...”
The Anthony Nolan Trust saves the lives of people with blood cancer. Every day it matches donors willing to donate their blood stem cells to people who desperately need lifesaving transplants. It was set up in 1974 by Anthony Nolan’s mother, Shirley. Anthony died five years later.
Lee’s own mother Pat Conchie is just as passionate about helping her son – by encouraging more people to take the now painless test required to register as potential bone marrow/stem cell donors to boost the pitifully low numbers of platelet donors.
“There are only about 14,000 platelet donors, and they give time and again,” she explains.
“Meantime, we’re desperately hoping for a match for Lee on the bone marrow register, too. It means everything to us. We’re living in hope.”
Pat is already a carer – her second husband has had a stroke. But, like Lee, she brushes negative thoughts aside. “Every now and then I’ll have a good cry, and then that’s it.”
As a tai chi teacher, Lee went to the gym three times a week to train, and put eight hours in teaching on other days.
He still teaches Chen Taiji, but is limited by his condition. “It’s a no-go if you’ve got your chemo head on, or feel too weak,” he admits.
He has regular blood tests, platelet transfusions, chemo and other treatments. “I also have bone marrow biopsies every couple of months.”
Around 2,000 are diagnosed with AML each year. It’s more common in people over 65. In most types, the leukaemia cells are immature white cells.
In other types, immature platelets or immature red blood cells fill up the bone marrow, occupying the space otherwise taken by health cells. Some circulate, increasing risk of infections or conditions caused by fewer healthy cells and platelets being made.
Lee knew none of this when he found a small black spot on his tongue in February 2011.
But he had the sense to consult his family doctor. Hours later he was summoned to Blackpool Victoria Hospital.
Lee can’t praise the haematology staff enough. “They work so hard under immense pressure, and yet the atmosphere there is so light and uplifting,” he admits.
He often combines treatment with a session of tai chi on the ward or one of the hospital’s open communal spaces.
“I’d have been a goner within two to four weeks without their help,” he concludes. “I’m very lucky it’s a specialism at the Vic, and that it’s a teaching hospital too. I have access to expert help and I don’t have to travel miles – as many do.”
n For more information see www.justgiving.com/giftoflifeappeal, www.anthonynolan.org and www.blood.co.uk/platelets