We couldn’t have got through the past year without you
A blood cancer diagnosis at any age is a devastating blow, but for young adults, often in the peak of their lives, the impact can be even greater.
Looking back on the past 12 months many people will think of certain milestones; birthdays, Christmas, maybe an overseas trip, starting a new job or even buying a first home.
But for Dan Hartley those milestones will look little different; day of diagnosis, first round of chemo, stem cell transplant, all-clear day, going home day.
Dan (28), from Launceston, Tasmania, experienced over three months of chronic pain and fatigue leading up to a shocking leukaemia diagnosis.
“My whole body was aching, I couldn’t sleep, had night sweats with all my muscles, lungs and everything aching,” remembers Dan.
“I even decided to give up my carpentry job, thinking that was causing it all and when I first went to the doctor they originally thought I had rheumatoid arthritis.”
As things worsened Dan’s fiancé and partner of nine years, Nat became increasingly concerned.
“I’m a nurse as well, so seeing Dan in that type of pain for weeks was really hard,” said Nat. “He was just so symptomatic, it was obvious there was something seriously wrong,”
After numerous trips to the GP without any answers, Dan was sent to emergency in September 2018 to undergo further tests.
“I was in the hospital for two weeks speaking to a million different doctors but no one could get to bottom of it,” said Dan.
“They eventually got me in to see a rheumatologist and from there, things moved really quickly.
“They did a heap of tests; MRI’s, CT and bone scans and the very next day I finally got my diagnosis; I had leukaemia.”
Dan was diagnosed with B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) with the Philadelphia chromosome. Although this chromosome accelerates the growth of the cancer, it also makes it easier to target and treat.
“I started chemotherapy straight away at Launceston Hospital,” said Dan. “That first cycle was definitely the worst as they just wanted to attack it and get on top of it all, but I handled the second pretty well.”
During this time, Dan and Nat were put in contact with the Leukaemia Foundation in Launceston.
“The support was absolutely invaluable to us and we couldn’t have got through all this without the Leukaemia Foundation,” said Dan.
“It was great to have someone to speak to about it all and have an idea of what to expect.
“They offered to cover our power, water and phone bills and if Nat had to work, the Leukaemia Foundation would organise someone to take me to appointments.
“It took such a burden off in that tough time and we even got a Leukaemia Foundation hamper at Christmas time packed full of awesome stuff.”
At the end of his second cycle of chemotherapy, Dan was flown to Melbourne to start preparations for an allogeneic stem cell transplant.
“It was all very overwhelming, meeting with the specialists, getting the blood tests, being faced with all the terminology – that was definitely my worst day,” said Dan.
“We flew over at 10 o’clock that morning and didn’t get home until 9 o’clock that night. I just went into my bedroom and broke down for about an hour.”
Having to leave behind their two beloved dachshunds, Murphy and Millie as well as a half-renovated house, Dan and Nat travelled to Melbourne in early February 2019.
“Dan was lucky as both his twin brother and his older sister were a match,” explains Nat. “But they like to have a little difference with the cells, so his sister was chosen as his donor.”
“In preparation, I received a total body of radiation for about four days, three times a day,” said Dan. “I also received a chest boost and a testicular boost of radiation as I had a bit of localised cancer there.”
“So my sister flew over at the end of February and we did the transplant – everything went really well.”
Dan and Nat were referred onto the Leukaemia Foundation team in Melbourne to assist with accommodation and further support during the transplant.
“They covered the cost for a unit nearby while we waited for the Leukaemia Foundation accommodation to become available,” said Dan.
“After about a month we were able to move across to the self-contained units which was just fantastic,” said Nat.
“Our families have been so supportive, with Dan’s parents moving back to Launceston from Melbourne a week after we received his diagnosis. Everyone has really chipped in looking after our house and dogs for us.
“Our nieces and nephews drew a heap of pictures and was sending Dan videos – it keeps our spirits high throughout those hard times.”
Dan and Nat found connecting with others going through the same journey invaluable throughout the treatment.
“Back in Tassie we met another young couple who was also going through the same thing,” said Nat.
“They were also a nurse and a carpenter which was funny – It’s great to talk with someone who understands completely because speaking with people who haven’t been through cancer, there’s a lot of explaining and you get really tired of it.
“You don’t need to talk about the cancer all the time either and it’s not awkward at all, you can just speak about normal everyday things.
“We’re now best mates and are so thankful we have had them throughout this whole process.”
Dan and Nat also attended a support group session at the Leukaemia Foundation in Melbourne, speaking to other young adults and their carers about living with blood cancer.
“Many of the others there were just starting their treatment and I think we’re quite grateful to listen to our story,” said Dan.
“One of the guys partners was quite worried and she thought she was alone throughout it all, so it was good to talk it out and reassure her there are others she can connect with and relate to.”
A Leukaemia Foundation support co-ordinator has been helping Dan with his post-treatment plans since he won’t be able to return to his physically-demanding carpentry work.
“She’s been helping me out, giving me advice on some study options and looking at a few university courses,” said Dan. “We’re thinking project management or OH&S, so I can use my 10 years’ experience working in the construction industry.”
Dan has now completed his 100-day recovery from the transplant and the couple were able to return home to Launceston in early June.
“I’ll still be seeing the doctor frequently back home in Tassie for the first couple of months and be back and forth from Melbourne to do blood tests, bone marrow biopsies and get immunisations again,” said Dan.
“But we are just loving being back home, catching up with all our friends and family and of course spending as much time as possible with Murphy and Millie.”
“We’d also love to do some travelling and to live our lives a bit more doing whatever we want…just getting back to normal life,” adds Nat.