17 Oct 2023

Two decades of grueling chronic leukaemia treatment

Alan Birleson was unexpectedly diagnosed with leukaemia in 2007, whilst in the midst of treatment for another cancer. Married to his beloved wife Bridget for over 58 years, Alan lived in Hornchurch and had three children, four grandchildren and two great grandchildren. Here, his daughter Beverley explains the shock of the diagnosis, and the gruelling treatment he went through over two decades until his eventual passing.  

“It started in 2002 when I noticed that dad had started to develop back ache,” said Beverley, 55. “After much persuasion, he visited his GP, who sent him for a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test. It was slightly elevated and he was sent to King Georges hospital Urology department in Goodmayes, Ilford for further investigation. No cancer was found but he continued to have biopsies and tests, and then finally in 2007 was diagnosed with prostate cancer.” 

“He started on radiotherapy treatment. But they also took a blood test and that was when his consultant telephoned him at home and said his white blood count was extremely high. Dad asked if this meant leukaemia and she said possibly, but he would need a lymph node removal before confirming.” 

“They tested the lymph node and told him he had chronic lymphatic leukaemia (CLL). He was started on treatment at Queens Hospital in Romford, Essex. It meant blood tests the day before, then five days in the oncology unit for chemotherapy, then the weekend off and coming home with a massive bag of tablets to take, then back again on the Monday. This went on for three weeks.   

“It was extremely hard on him. I remember going to pick him up from the oncology unit and he could hardly stand. It was awful seeing my Dad like this. Sometimes he would need blood transfusions as his platelets would drop. I dreaded picking him up because, being our dad, he wouldn’t ever want assistance and would try to walk. He also lost so much weight but was still wearing the same clothes, so they were hanging off him.”  

The treatment fortunately worked well, and Alan was clear of CLL for the next three years. But, in 2010, he developed a bad cough. Alan’s leukaemia had returned.  

“Dad had insisted going on a planned holiday to Spain with my aunt and uncle before starting his treatment. He said he needed a break first. On his return, he had lost even more weight and was breathless, so by the time he started the immunotherapy he was extremely weak and frail and looked dreadful. He was 73 by this time.” 

The grueling treatment cycle started again, along with blood transfusions. Eventually, yet again Alan made a good recovery, and his prostate cancer was also in remission. Life was good and for the next few years he and Bridget enjoyed many cruises to the Mediterranean, Alaska and even Australia and New Zealand.  

“Dad would come home and load the photos onto his laptop and write comments beside them,” said Beverley. “It was only after he had passed away that we found his hilarious commentary and it did make us laugh. He and Mum loved their cruises. But at the end of 2019, he started to have trouble with his prostate again and had difficulty passing urine.” 

A CT scan of Alan’s pelvis found a white spot – potential cancer. But, fed up with and exhausted after a blocked catheter, several visits to A&E and a hospital stay, Alan refused a biopsy.  

“Covid hit and Dad still refused the biopsy, and you couldn’t get a blood test during the pandemic. Finally in October 2020, I insisted that he have a blood test. His levels were through the floor. It was clear his leukaemia has returned again. His consultant put him on Ibrutinib and Allopurinol, plus Co-Trimoxazole and Pregabalin.” 

The following May, a scan revealed Alan’s prostate cancer had spread to his bones. Treatment continued but, in October 2021, his needs were too great for his wife and family to support at home, and he was admitted to a nursing home.  

“He agreed, thinking it was for respite care,” said Beverley. “But we knew his prognosis by now was three months, which had been given on the 1st September 2021. He had a very comfortable room and a buzzer to press as soon as he needed anything, and we could visit anytime we wanted. At first, he seemed to rally a little, but over the weeks we could see him slowly getting weaker and weaker.” 

Alan died peacefully with Bridget, Beverley and her brothers Martin and John by his side on 2nd December 2021.  

He was our hero and never once complained, or asked why him,” said Beverley. “He truly was a wonderful man. He sat with you if you were sick, frightened or just plain upset. He was a taxi service, a fantastic foot and shoulder rubber when you needed stress relief, an amazing magician, hysterically funny when he didn’t mean to be, a little grumpy at times. He was generous and kind. He was fiercely loyal, especially to his family and friends and his favourite football team, West Ham United, who he supported all of his life. I’m sure recently when West Ham won the Europa Cup, he would have been singing ‘I’m forever blowing bubbles’ in heaven. Most of all though, he was our dad and granddad and we loved him dearly.  

Read more stories from people affected by leukaemia.

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