Leukaemia survivor improves recovery after transplantation
Morgan Atkinson is living testament to the importance of keeping fit after cancer treatment and he is using his experience and expertise to enhance recovery for blood cancer patients.
Diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia at the age of 16, Morgan, now 27, has been in remission since late 2001. He is physically active, competes in sport at a high level and works full-time as an exercise physiologist.
“Although I endure some minor complications related to my transplant, I now live a normal life,” said Morgan. Back in November 1998, he was studying for his Year 11 final exams when he was stopped in his tracks by leukaemia.
He played football with the Norwood football club in Adelaide, and having just been selected by the Australian Institute of Sport / Australian Football League football academy, he was in peak physical condition, training up to seven times a week.
At a training camp in Melbourne he was put through a series of strenuous fitness tests when he found it increasingly difficult to eat solids because of a sore throat.
When he got home to Adelaide and returned to school, he felt extremely tired and lethargic. After a myriad of blood tests and a bone marrow biopsy he was diagnosed with a highly aggressive form of leukaemia.
“I was told that without treatment I would be dead in two to four weeks,” said
Receiving this news was devastating: “It all happened so quickly…I went from an elite level athlete to a cancer patient. Not only was I forced to miss exams, the doctors told me I might never play football again which I found difficult to accept.”
Morgan went through two and a half years of treatment, including chemotherapy and radiation therapy, then relapsed. He then had a life-saving stem cell transplant and his sister, Stacey, was his donor.
“I went through the transplant with relatively few complications,” Morgan said. “After the transplant I became interested in the lived experiences of other people who were recovering from their transplants.”
This shaped the course of Morgan’s university studies and was the subject of his Bachelor of Health Science Honours thesis in 2006.
From his research, carried out with support from the Leukaemia Foundation, Morgan concluded that the physical burden that resulted from transplantation contributed to various social, emotional and psychological problems and intervention programs were needed to assist patients through this physical and emotional rollercoaster.
In September 2006 Morgan started an exercise and cancer program at the Hampstead Rehabilitation Centre, which is part of the Royal Adelaide Hospital. The next step was to take the program out to transplant patients at other hospitals and to that end Morgan wanted to look at different cancer and exercise programs around the world.
“It was a fantastic learning experience,” said Morgan who spent three months investigating exercise rehabilitation interventions for cancer patients in the U.S., Canada, Spain and Germany.
“In Australia we’re falling behind in this area because we don’t have that much in the way of support systems in the clinical setting. People are left to their own devices to recover,” he concluded.
“There needs to be a facility within a hospital to help these people recover physically, and a survivorship program to help their recovery from a social standpoint,” explained Morgan.
In the last 12 months nearly 100 people have been through Morgan’s exercise program. “We’re getting really good feedback and there is some amazing improvement physically, especially by myeloma patients.”
During treatment, Morgan used the Leukaemia Foundation’s free patient transport service to travel to and from medical appointments. He also supports the Foundation education program as a speaker.