A young woman’s cancer journey: A story of resilience and survival

A young woman's cancer journey: A story of resilience and survival.

A young woman's cancer journey: A story of resilience and survival. Image: Anna Darwin.

Anna Darwin’s life took a sudden turn in October 2018 when, at just 39 years old, she received a diagnosis of triple-negative breast cancer.

What began with discomfort in her right breast evolved into a journey of resilience and survival.

“At first, the signs were brushed off,” Anna recalls.

Discomfort during exercise and heat from her breast seemed inconsequential until she felt a lump during a shower.

Medical consultations and tests confirmed her fears.

Despite her outward health, the diagnosis shook Anna to her core.

Twelve rounds of chemotherapy followed by a lumpectomy and radiotherapy became her new reality, all while she continued to look after her two young sons and work in hospitality, refusing to let cancer define her.

Discussing the side effects of the gruelling treatment, Anna confirms: “Chemotherapy is brutal; you lose your hair, your sense of taste and appetite, you feel tired and nauseous, you can get nosebleeds, the steroids they give you cause insomnia, you are vulnerable to illness as your immune system is compromised and, in some cases, you develop peripheral neuropathy which is where the nerve endings are damaged in your fingers and toes.”

“I was one of those and started to get tingling in my hands quite often.”

Despite being in treatment, Anna still worked, there were days when she sat in a chemotherapy chair for six hours and then went to work after, working in hospitality for a top football club.

“I wanted to prove to myself that I was not going to let cancer get the better of me and to show my boys that no matter what, you get up and go to work.”

She adds “I did have days where I could barely function, but overall, I do not think I had many days where I was too sick to do things.”

Anna had her lumpectomy in May 2019 and there were a few weeks where she had to forego chemotherapy when her blood counts were too low which pushed things back a bit.

Luckily she recovered from the operation well and radiotherapy happened in July.

All seemed to be heading in the right direction, but, in late November 2019, Anna’s health took another hit.

“When I started to feel a bit off in late November 2019, I put it down to being run down and busy with birthday and Christmas preparations.”

Anna added: “The peripheral neuropathy intensified and so I sought help from my doctor thinking that I would be given a supplement or medication to help with the problem. I was instructed to get a blood test and come back.”

“I did not think it was important and so went through the festive period with peripheral neuropathy and tiredness.”

Anna says: “When my two sons went back to school in January 2020, I took myself to get the blood test, I did not even tell my husband I was going as I genuinely did not think anything of it.”

“I received a phone call within four hours of the blood test telling me to go straight to the hospital to be admitted to the observation ward as they were concerned about my white blood count.”

A normal white blood count range is between 4000 and 11000 but Anna’s count was in the 100000’s indicating that there was something significant happening.

“I did not go to the hospital straight away as my youngest son had an optician’s appointment,” she notes, “and I wanted to make sure that everyone was fed and looked after.”

“My husband took me at about 9:00.PM the same day, five hours after I was told to go directly to the hospital, do not pass go, do not collect £200 style!” Anna jokes.

“I was worried and I realised that something sinister was going on again. I did not realise that this would be the last time I would be home for almost six months.”

“I was admitted to the haemato-oncology ward the following day when a bed became available.”

“I did not realise how sick I was as I felt fine, probably the best I had felt since October 2018.”

“However, when a consultant was at my bedside at 7:30 on a Friday evening to do a lumbar puncture, I realised how serious it was.”

“He told me that he would know more about what type of Leukaemia it was by the Monday and that I was lucky I had the blood test done when I did as my white blood cell count indicated that I was merely hours from sepsis!”

“I do not know what made me get the blood test on the day I did, but I am glad I did as my story could be vastly different if I did not listen to my body.”

At this point, Anna was diagnosed with B-cell acute Lymphatic Leukaemia with a genetic translocation, so chances are the disease had been dormant in her body for years and was woken by the breast cancer treatment.

Image: Anna Darwin

Luckily for Anna, there was a silver lining, as she was young enough the UK NHS said they would do everything they could to give her a second chance at living.

The most pioneering treatments available were given to Anna and this included new chemotherapies, immunotherapy, and other innovative treatments.

Anna adds: “It is exceedingly rare to have a second cancer so close to another, so I am a textbook situation.”

“Initially I thought that treatment was a doddle compared to the chemotherapy for breast cancer, but boy was I wrong!”

“To bring me into remission, I had lots of chemotherapy and other treatments, all had varying side effects. I even had a type of immunotherapy that meant that I was hooked up to a drip 24/7 a month at a time!”

“The crazy thing is how the treatment cost so much money,” Anna reflects, “all told, the NHS has spent over £1M to keep me alive, for which I am forever grateful.”

Against the odds, Anna returned home, though the road to recovery was far from easy, with lingering side effects and health complications.

It took a full year for the leukaemia to be eliminated from Anna’s body and she was admitted for a stem cell transplant in January 2021.

Anna went back into the hospital on January 4, 2021, and told her consultant she would only be there a month, he was not so confident as the average stay is six to eight weeks.

But Anna defeated the odds and came home on February 4, 2021!

“A stem cell transplant is no easy feat, your body is taken to the brink of existence.”

“Your immune system is stripped, and you feel weaker than you can ever imagine.”

Anna confirms: “Even standing up is difficult. Around one in ten do not survive the transplant so it is a very daunting time.”

Throughout it all, Anna found strength in her teenage sons and a newfound appreciation for each day.

Of her experience, Anna highlights the importance of cherishing moments.

“Life is for living,” she says, “the here and now is important.”

“Do not save for a rainy day as it may never happen, be spontaneous and out there.”

“You cannot take money with you when you pass, so live each day as it may be your last and have fun!”

“Even the wealthy cannot stop cancer, Steve Jobs died of the dreadful disease and King Charles is an example of someone with great wealth who is suffering.”

“Show your loved ones how much they mean to you regularly and simply enjoy life as you have only one.”

Anna’s brave journey is a testament to resilience and the enduring spirit of hope in the face of adversity.

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Written by

Anna Ellis

Originally from Derbyshire, Anna has lived in the middle of nowhere on the Costa Blanca for 19 years. She is passionate about her animal family including four dogs and four horses, musicals and cooking.