Backpacker's jet lag turned out to be leukaemia

After heading off to Colombia, South America, for a seven-week backpacking trip, graduate Ella Dawson expected some jet lag.

But when her tiredness didn’t go away and she developed bruises over her body, she saw a doctor.

Eventually, she was told that her symptoms weren’t down to the travelling but she actually had leukaemia.

As she was too sick to fly home, she was left 5,000 miles away from her family, with a cancer so aggressive it had invaded 90% her blood.

The 23-year-old, from Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, said: ‘By the time I got my diagnosis, I was so unwell that I was expecting a bombshell.

‘But it was such a chaotic situation that I almost didn’t have any time to process everything.’

Ella first started to feel run down and fatigued around April 2019, when she returned home from university for the Easter holidays.

But as she was studying for her final year of a Fine Art degree at Newcastle University, she put it down to stress and an ongoing issue with an underactive thyroid, which she was diagnosed with when she was younger.

Once her degree show was over in June and she moved back to Huddersfield, she was soon distracted by her trip to Colombia with a friend.

She became increasingly worn down and kept catching bugs and colds, sometimes feeling like she would pass out so she saw the doctor just before heading off.

She said: ‘She took my blood pressure. Everything looked normal, so I was told it was likely just the heat making me feel faint. The doctor said to come back a week later if I felt worse, but I’d be in Colombia by then, so I couldn’t.

‘The day I left for my trip, I looked and felt absolutely knackered, but I just kept telling myself that once I got there and relaxed, I’d be fine.’

Once she touched down, she felt so exhausted, she spent three days in bed.

She continued: ‘I spoke to the staff at the hostel where I was staying at and they reassured me that, because Bogota has a high altitude, a lot of people struggle to acclimatise when they first arrive.

‘That, plus the jet lag, made perfect sense, so I didn’t worry too much.’

As the week went on, she tried to do some of the activities but things became serious during a six-hour trek of the jungle.

She said: ‘Usually I’d be bounding ahead, but I was having to stop and sit down every five minutes. My body couldn’t cope.’

Over the following week, Ella’s condition dramatically declined so she decided to see a doctor, who told her that she probably had a low platelet count and ran some blood tests – sending the results back to her GP in the UK for a second opinion, which took four days to obtain.

By that point, she felt so unwell she had decided to go home and was on the verge of booking a flight when she received a phone call from the Colombian doctor, urging her not to travel.

Arriving at her nearest casualty, Ella was admitted to intensive care, where further tests were run, before she was transferred to a larger, more specialist hospital the following day.

Communicating using broken Spanish and a translation app on her phone, she was told that she had leukaemia – a form of cancer affecting the bone marrow and blood cells.

Medics also explained that her blood platelet levels were dangerously low, making flying home too risky.

By that point, Ella’s mum Jane and dad Kevin had been told her diagnosis by her doctor in the UK and were flying over to be by her side.

Over the next week, Ella had seven blood transfusions and five bags of donor platelets pumped through her body. Thankfully, the treatment stabilised her enough to fly home.

She said. ‘I was put in first class, so I could lie down, but I was so exhausted that I slept the whole way.’

Once back in the UK, Ella was told she had acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL), which is characterised by an overproduction of immature white blood cells, known as blast cells.

According to the charity Leukaemia Care, who have been tirelessly supporting Ella throughout her journey, ALL accounts for less than 1% cases of cancer in the UK.

In September 2019, Ella began chemotherapy, which left her immune system so compromised that she had to stay in hospital in isolation.

She continued: ‘When I started chemo, I was given a six-month treatment plan, which helped me to get my head around things.

‘But around a month in, after the first round, it was clear it wasn’t working, so doctors said they needed to change to a different type.

‘That was very difficult – the chopping and changing. As doctors wanted to respond to what was happening immediately in front of them, we could only plan a month or so ahead, which made it hard to wrap my mind around.’

In November, Ella started her adapted treatment regime, which involved having four different types of chemotherapy every day for five days.

She added: ‘That was one of the worst times so far. My whole body was in excruciating pain. I’d get splitting headaches, blurred vision and lost all my hair.’

In December, after a month in hospital, she was discharged – being told shortly afterwards that she was in morphological remission, which happens when the number of blast cells found in the bone marrow is less than 5%.

She prepared for a stem cell transplant but just two days before, tests showed she had relapsed.

‘I didn’t believe them at first as I felt absolutely fine,’ she said. ‘Doctors then decided to refer me for CAR-T treatment, but as it involved harvesting my blood cells and sending them away to be reprogrammed to fight the cancer, the coronavirus created some delays in getting them back.

‘While I waited, doctors struggled to keep the cancer at bay. It was developing really fast.’

Finally, in June, Ella began CAR-T treatment at Manchester’s Christie Hospital and is now awaiting tests to see how successful it has been.

Currently recovering at home with her family, Ella is keen to shine a light on Leukaemia Care’s Spot Leukaemia campaign to raise awareness of the six most common signs of the disease – fatigue, shortness of breath, fever and night sweats, bruising or bleeding, bone and joint pain and repeated infections.

She said: ‘I am the perfect example of somebody who never believed this would happen to me.

‘It’s important to listen to your body and learn when to push yourself and when to rest.

‘I also want anybody reading this who might be going through what I did to know that, while it sometimes feels impossible to stay positive, by keeping moving and finding the bright side where you can, you can get through.

‘Staying positive has very much been aided by the excellent care I’ve received from the teams at St James Hospital in Leeds and The Christie in Manchester, so I want to thank them, too.’

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