Chris' Story - Why I will never ignore an anonymous call again

Chris Brammer shares his story about his Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia - CML - diagnosis

12th November 2018

I am a 36-year-old sports journalist, whose life was turned upside down in May 2016. Since then, everything has changed. Here is my story.

‘We’ve all had them. Unknown callers, usually trying to tell you about that PPI you never took out, or that accident at work that didn’t happen. More recently I had been receiving calls from a company asking to speak to a “Mr Mitchell” and it seemed like they had me on speed dial. 

Then, on May 24, 2016, I was preparing for my late shift at the Ipswich Star and East Anglian Daily Times, when I received two unknown calls in quick succession. I didn’t answer them.

Right now, as I write this, I have a nauseous feeling, my heart is racing and my hands are shaking. I don’t like looking back at what unfolded. But back to the story…

I received a third phone call in the space of five minutes and this time it had an area code, so I answered. At this point, I should say that earlier that day I had been called in for a second routine  - or what I thought was routine  - blood test. So the warning bells should have been ringing. Oh yes, I forgot to tell you, I have been a Type 1 Diabetic for the past 9 years. When my Specialist had first called I thought he was just going to tell me to come in and review my diet as my blood sugars had been running at an all-time low. But it was my Specialist on the phone again now – saying that the hospital had been urgently trying to get hold of me. 

The next part of the conversation is a blur, but I clearly remember hearing three words – ‘White Blood Cells’.

Now, I’m no expert, but I’ve watched my fair share of medical programmes and I associated those three words with the “L” word. I say the “L” word as I am only still getting used to saying it in full. The word is LEUKAEMIA. And to my horror, the voice on the end of the line was telling me that I could well have leukeamia and that I needed to get up to the hospital as quickly as I could.

My heart sank and I burst into tears. After 20 seconds of disbelief my first instinct was to call my fiancée, Nicki – my rock over the past three-and-a-half years. She has been through some tough times with me before but nothing like this. My hands still shaking, I called her. All I could say repeatedly was ‘Please just come home’. Even her calm reassuring voice was having no impact.

Nicki doesn’t work far away, but that day her journey seemed to take a lifetime. Whilst waiting I somehow managed to pack a bag, just in case  – I remember it was a fetching pink one belonging to my other half! In went underwear, a t-shirt, jeans, trainers and, amidst the chaos, my i-phone charger, my i-pad and my Kevin Pietersen autobiography. Get your priorities right, Chris!

I started to contemplate my life being cut short and leaving the people I love the most. I called Nicki again despite knowing she was only minutes away. When she arrived, I broke down in tears as I explained what the doctor had said on the phone.

Once at the Medical Assessment Unit I was greeted by a member of staff. Reassuringly he said he understood that I had a form of leukaemia that could be managed. I felt a brief sense of relief but that quickly reverted to panic as I started firing questions at the poor man. ‘Will I lose my hair?’ ‘Am I going to die?’ He tried to reassure me again but he also said that nothing is 100 per cent certain in life. Like the other hospital staff I encountered, he pulled no punches. They tend to tell it like it is.

My future brother-in-law Mark arrived  - he works at the hospital and was brilliant throughout my ordeal. And I gradually started to focus on my immediate situation. What will they do to me? How long would I be in here?

I was taken to a bed, hooked up to a cannula and more blood tests started. For the next 12 hours I wasn’t sure what to expect. It wasn’t until the next day that the doctor, who had originally been trying to get hold of me, eventually showed up.  Meanwhile I was joined by Nicki’s parents, who proved to be a huge support throughout my time in hospital. At that point my own parents still were miles away in Sheffield - I decided not to contact them until the morning so as not to panic them, but they were never far from my thoughts.

After a whirlwind few hours I fell asleep, exhausted.

By 8.30am next morning Nicki had arrived to say that she had called my parents at 6.45am. So I rang them myself to repeat the news  - it wasn’t an easy call.

By 9.30am I was having my first proper chat about my condition with the doctor and then one of the hospital’s superb Macmillan nurses arrived. She wanted to reassure me about several things before I began taking my Chemo tablets. Like how the treatment could affect my fertility and what options there are for sperm banking. Later, when my parents came I made sure the nurse gave them all the same information she had given me – she was an incredible support to myself and my family during my stay. In fact all the staff on my Ward were brilliant.  It’s only in your time of your need that you realise how much the NHS is taken for granted. Their support was second-to-none.

The illness I have is called Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia (CML). The doctors and nurses were straight with me from the start. They told me that my CML would not be cured, but that it could be controlled by drugs, and that there was no reason why I could not live a long and prosperous life. 

I arrived at the hospital on Tuesday afternoon and stayed until Friday. I had so many well-wishers that my phone had never beeped so much. Whilst my dad and cousin called ‘shotgun’ on being at the front of the queue, should I ever need a Bone Marrow Transplant!

I became more positive with each passing day even though I had to endure some pain -  like when a bone marrow biopsy was taken to determine for sure that I did, indeed, have CML. There was excruciating pain for a few seconds as a needle, seemingly the size of my arm, entered my body -  followed by tears as I released all the pent up emotion, anxiety and fear I had experienced over the last 48 hours.

The night before I left the hospital there was a pamphlet explaining CML on my bedside table, but I wouldn’t go near it. It was like I wanted to bury my head in the sand. I did not want to read anything about it, that was everyone else’s job! I was also nervous about going back home. It sounds silly. I wanted to be around my loved ones, but I didn’t want to leave a place where I felt I had everything I needed in terms of medical expertise. 

Once home, I would be away from the experts and, knowing how my mind has worked in the past, my anxiety would go into overdrive.

Now, more than two years on, however, I’m still here to tell my tale.

And on the eve of all my hospital appointments, even though everything is near-enough back to normal, I am still always anxious at the thought that something may have gone wrong. With every ache and pain I get now, I think the worst. It’s a horrible place to be. But given how lucky I have been, I guess it’s just something I will have to fight, not only for me but for Nicki, and our families. At my lowest times, Nicki will lay it on the line and tell me that I am not the only person affected by CML and she’s 100% right. That quickly stops me feeling sorry for myself. Tough love I think they call it, but it’s warranted.

There are three stages of remission or response – albeit in my case this word does not mean that my CML will be completely cured.  I am almost at the third stage, molecular remission that means that the leukaemic stem cell is almost now non-detectable. However, in order for me to keep the condition at bay, I will have to continue with my treatment for the rest of my life which, to be honest, is a very small price to pay.

In terms of the intricacies, I am now on one tablet a day, the weakest of three possible tablets I could be given and, so far, so good.

At the moment, I am going back to the hospital every eight weeks or so for check-ups - the taking of blood never gets any easier. The anxiety is something I still have to work on, but I am getting there. And, if I can help anyone who reads this, who is going through similar or has friends and family that are doing so, then I will be happy.'

Leuka supports ongoing research into better treatments and cures for blood cancers and leukaemias like Chris' CML - in fact, Leuka's founding chairman, Professor John Goldman, was instrumental in the development of Imatinib, the drug that Chris and other CML sufferers take to control their condition. Find out more about Chronic Myeloid leukaemia and Imatinib here.

If leukaemia has impacted your life, or the life of someone close to you, and you'd like to share your story, please get in touch on info@leuka.org.uk