“The next 30 seconds of your life are going to be the scariest 30 seconds of your life.”
The doctor sat 24 year old Vithiya Alphons in a room. “I'm really sorry to say, but you have got acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), it is a type of blood cancer. It is life-threatening. You might not be here in a couple of days or months,” he said. Just two days into her final year at Cardiff University, Alphons was an average person; fit and young, about to begin her final year in optometry. The doctor told her it was advancing at such a speed, that she could potentially die within hours.
In the next two hours, Alphons went through a bone marrow biopsy and began a course of chemotherapy. She described it as strong enough to make her constantly throw up. “In between I sat on my bed worrying about how my parents, who were on their way from Walthamstow, London, would take it,” she said. She went through an intense 10-day course of chemotherapy, and stayed in hospital for three weeks after, later travelling to London where she underwent another round of chemotherapy at University College London Hospital. The whole treatment took a hard toll on her as she remained sick up to 15 times a day and had diarrhoea up to 25 times.
“I was so tired, I couldn't eat. I started losing my hair within a week and told the nurses to cut it off. It was so hard. Weeks before, I had been independent, living on my own, I was cooking, cleaning, shopping, studying, everything on my own. Now I couldn't even open a water bottle. I couldn't eat, I couldn't walk, I couldn't feed myself. Every night I would wonder if I could see the next morning,” Alphons described.
After the second round of chemo, she was told she was in remission, however, if she didn't have a bone marrow transplant, the cancer would be back within six months. Doctors told her she had two months to find a match, “but warned me it would be difficult because of my Tamil heritage- both my parents were born in Sri Lanka.”
The bone marrow register for people from black, Asian, and minority ethnic backgrounds is severely short. Alphons described her odds of finding a 100 per cent or even 90 per cent match not good. If the match is closer, it becomes easier for the body to accept the cells. However, if it rejects them, it becomes life-threatening. The student got more chemo that bought her more time, meanwhile, her family and friends got tested and organised donor drives in London, where people could come and do a mouth swab to register. “People I didn't know then started doing their own donor drives. There were drives in Birmingham, Cardiff, Germany, Canada, and France. More than a thousand people turned up at one and they ran out of the testing kits. At another people were queuing out of the door in the rain, but time was running out,” she said.
Doctors said they will have to make do with her mother, who was only a 50 per cent match. Alphons was told there was a 40 per cent chance of death if my body rejected the cells. Amazingly, her body began to accept her mother's stem cells. While it takes up to five years to fully recover from the transplant, her drive to graduate helped her shift back to Cardiff a month after she was reluctantly given the go-ahead by doctors. She stayed with her mother, and studied from home. At clinics where she had to treat members of the public, patients were vetted to make sure they had no visible signs of coughs or colds.
Vithiya graduated in July this year, will start a job at Colchester Specsavers, one she had lined up before she fell ill. She also found the love of her life, who waited for her to recover first.