02 Jun 2023
National Cancer Survivors Day: Gill’s story
After experiencing fatigue, breathlessness and unusual bruising, Gill Winsor was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) in August 2020. Now aged 63 and back to full fitness, Gill has shared her story to mark National Cancer Survivors Day.
‘I went into remission in October 2020, then had a further 3 rounds of chemo – consisting of Venetoclax and Azacytidine in November, December and January 2021, with a final bone marrow biopsy still showing no signs of cancer.
In between cycles I was as active as possible at home, using my cross trainer everyday and going for a walk weather permitting.
I did everything I normally do around the house – cleaning, cooking, etc. Apart from visits to the hospital for blood tests, I wanted to just be normal. Sometimes my neutrophils would drop so I needed to inject myself with a booster, and I soon got used to doing them myself.
I think as I was just being ‘mum’, my son and daughter weren’t even thinking I that I might not survive. Even from diagnosis to remission, I refused to let myself or my loved ones think of any worse case scenarios.
The time came at the end of February 2021 to go to St Bartholomew’s for a 3 week stay, during which time I had my stem cell transplant. The only problem I had was a reaction to cyclosporine, which is the drug to help stop severe GvHD. I had high blood pressure, high temperature and sickness. They gave it to me on a drip, then tried me back with the tablets. I was then put on a similar tablet called tacrolimus as I still reacted.
Transplant done, I was back in the physio room within 2 days – using the exercise bike and any other equipment I could find. After a couple of weeks my hair started to fall out from the intense chemo before the stem cell transplant.
I was sent home once my neutrophil count reached 5. Once home, I asked a friend to come round and shave off all the remaining hair.
I quite liked my new look and loved the fact I didn’t have to wash my hair when I showered!
I wore baseball caps if it was chilly. My hair started growing back within a few weeks, grey and curly at first but now, over 2 years down the line, it’s thicker and more blonde than before cancer.
I continued with my fitness and started going back to the gym where I would run on the treadmill and use the weights. I then started running back outside with the better weather. I went for long walks too. One moment which made me reflect on how lucky I had been was when a fellow patient I had become friends with through trips to hospital sadly passed away. She was a lot younger than me and never went into remission. I attended her funeral and did experience feelings of guilt when I was among her family. Guilty because I’d survived, and she hadn’t. Her family were so pleased I’d got to the stage I had though, so that made me feel better.
I also attended another funeral for a lady I shared a room with. She had been given 2 transplants but neither could make her 100% in remission. We had such good fun together in the ward that we shared for 3 weeks when I was in for my first round of chemo. Both women have a special place in my heart.
As time went on the magical 100 days from transplant arrived.
This is when counts should be in a good place and some medication can be reduced. I did have some GvHD, which I was told is good, as it means the donor cells are working. I had a sore mouth, my food pipe somehow became deviated and also I had a problem with one of my ears. All of these cleared up with mild steroids.
I returned back to work as a Tesco Delivery Driver six months after transplant in September 2021. I had 2 weeks of reduced duties then straight back full time.
I carried on with all my fitness and started going to a bootcamp class. In June 2022 I took part in the Southend Half Marathon and October 2022, the London Marathon. My appointments at the hospital are now 3 monthly and will become further apart as time goes on.
I am aiming to keep challenging myself, and I have a skydive and a zip wire in mind! On a recent holiday I ticked off something on my bucket list; a Hot Air Balloon ride when we were in Turkey.
Now that it’s been over 2 years since my SCT I have made contact with my donor who is in America. My bone marrow is his DNA and I have his blood group now, so it was a very emotional read when I received his email in reply to mine. We will stay in touch and one day I hope that we will meet.
I had a tattoo done on my arm of an orange ribbon with the words Hope, Strength, Faith and Positivity, plus the date of my SCT. These I think are the most important words when facing something like cancer: hope, strength, faith, and positivity.
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