16 May 2023
“My symptoms rapidly escalated”: Charles’ story
A trip to see university friends in Bristol in the summer of 2022 was a turning point for Charles McGrath in his leukaemia diagnosis. A month earlier Charles, who serves as a Conservative Councillor on Wiltshire County Council and Salisbury City Council, had been doing several miles walking a week. Now he found himself breathless and breaking into a sweat after trying to walk up a road in the hilly Clifton area of the city.
“I was in Bristol visiting a friend from university who now lives there,” said Charles. “I could normally manage hills easily, but as I walked up this one hill towards the restaurant where my friends were waiting, I found myself panting heavily and having to take a break.”
It was the most dramatic of the strange symptoms that had been plaguing Charles since April, when he first had a bout of cold sores which kept repeatedly cropping up and disappearing.
“I was struck down with a cold in June which rapidly turned into a chest infection,” said Charles who lives in Salisbury, Wiltshire, and who also works as a marketing executive for an IT company. Unlike the cold sores, this wasn’t out of the ordinary. I can count on one hand the colds I’ve had which didn’t then go onto my chest, requiring treatment with antibiotics. So, after a trip to the doctor’s and a prescription for antibiotics, my chest cleared up and I was on my way again.”
“But if one chest infection is bad luck, having a second a month or so later is no luck. Something was different with this one, too. Coupled with the chesty cough came a severe shortness of breath.”
Struggling to function
Charles struggled to get another GP appointment so went to his local NHS Walk-In Clinic where he was prescribed antibiotics. These cleared up his chest infection (which a chest x-ray later on when he had his leukaemia diagnosis revealed was actually pneumonia) but he was still left with the breathlessness and a nasty chronic pain in his neck.
“Then I went on a work trip to Portugal and my tongue became ulcerated,” added Charles. “Was it something to do with the salty cuisine the Portuguese enjoy so much and of which I sampled plenty during my stay? The pain in my neck also intensified. Then in the week between the end of my work trip and my eventual leukaemia diagnosis, my symptoms rapidly escalated. I was on paracetamol four times a day, every day, and I was gargling salt water like no tomorrow. I could barely get out of bed and had started to struggle to function at work.”
Unable to get an appointment with his NHS GP, Charles booked in with a local private GP who sent him immediately to the hospital for blood tests. Four hours later, he found himself in the Acute Medical Unit at Salisbury District Hospital, being told by the man who would become his consultant that he had acute leukaemia.
90 days in hospital
Charles was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) on 16th September 2022 at the age of 26. Since then, he’s spent over 90 days in hospital having three rounds of chemotherapy and is still undergoing treatment. Charles found the third round of chemo – high dose cytarabine – the hardest, leaving him suffering from nausea, vomiting, sore eyes, and fevers.
“It’s been very gruelling but I’ve found keeping a positive mindset has allowed me to pull through,” said Charles. “Being an inpatient definitely helps too – while the boredom of isolation is real, when things go wrong it’s always best to be in hospital and have nurses and medications nearby to help treat the side effects. The doctors, nurses and healthcare assistants on the Pembroke Ward at Salisbury District Hospital took such good care of me that I decided to make something positive out of my inevitable hair loss, shaving my head in aid of the hospital’s Stars Appeal charity. I was so pleased to be able to raise £1750 for such an incredible cause.”
Charles’ mum Debbie was fortunately living with him before his diagnosis. During his second and third rounds of chemo he spent four months at home, so she reduced her work hours and worked from home, isolating to keep him safe from infections. As well as caring for him she took him back and forth to hospital and delivered his laundry. Charles’ entire family pulled together, his grandparents helping his Mum, and his great aunt who herself had breast cancer, and lost her husband to prostate cancer, offering valuable insight and support. Charles’ cousins, friends and colleagues have also been regular visitors, helping him feel like he wasn’t alone during the gruelling treatment.
“Leukaemia has been an education,” said Charles. “Aside from the medical knowledge I’ve had to absorb at breakneck speeds since September, I’ve learnt about myself, my mortality and my newfound desire to live life to the full.”
What’s next for Charles?
Charles is currently waiting for his measurable residual disease result, which will determine whether he needs a bone marrow transplant in the future.
“I would urge people to know the symptoms, study the signs, and always go to your GP if you feel you’re experiencing them. Chances are they’re not AML, but never rule it out without seeing your doctor. I was 26 at diagnosis. It is not exclusively an over-65’s disease. It can happen to anyone.”
“But leukaemia has also taught me about mindfulness and the joy one can get from thinking in the present and not wasting valuable time worrying about the future. Now that’s a lesson we should all learn.”
Find out more about the signs and symptoms of leukaemia.
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