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Young mum fights blood cancer with positivity and perseverance

A shocking blood cancer diagnosis forced Zoe O’Connor and her young family to permanently relocate to a capital city without time for goodbyes.

The O'Connor Family
The O’Connor Family. 

In July 2020, Zoe and her family were living a quiet but happy life in the remote town of Port Hedland, Western Australia.

“My husband, Ian had diving work up there at the port, my six-year-old son, Myles was in school and my three-year-old, Ryan was spending a couple of days in daycare,” said the 34-year-old.

“I was a stay-at-home mum and studying to be a teacher’s aide.

“We had been enjoying school holidays, going camping a lot and I had just come back from a girl’s night in nearby Karratha, with no clue that something could be seriously wrong.”

Suddenly, Zoe started to notice bruising and a rash forming all over her skin.

“We did look at ‘Doctor Google’ and the words leukaemia came up,” remembered Zoe.

“I thought that was just the worst-case scenario, but still headed to the hospital as something didn’t feel right.”

Zoe in hospital for treatment with Myles and Ryan
Zoe in hospital for treatment with Myles and Ryan.

While nursing staff were concerned, a doctor dismissed Zoe’s rash as something viral and insisted blood tests would not reveal anything.

“Four days later, I woke up with what felt like ulcers in my mouth, which were actually blood blisters,” explained Zoe.

“My friend is a nurse, she’s my designated medical person, and she could see I wasn’t clotting and told me to go to the hospital immediately.”

This time, Zoe underwent blood tests which showed her platelet levels were dangerously low.

“The doctor told me there and then I had a blood disease,” said Zoe. “I rang Ian and my nurse friend to come to the hospital straight away.

“I didn’t go home or say goodbye to friends.”

“I was airlifted to Perth that day to start treatment immediately with Ian and the boys following the day after.”

After further tests in Perth, it was confirmed Zoe had B-lineage acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) making her eligible for the ALL-09 immunotherapy trial at Fiona Stanley Hospital.

The trial investigates whether introducing a new immune based therapy called blinatumomab can improve outcomes for young adults with ALL.

“My doctor strongly recommended I do the trial as it had been returning some great results,” said Zoe. “I was also keen to help future patients by participating in the study.

“After 28 days of infusions with the drug, my bone marrow biopsy showed that no specific markers could be found. I was taken off the trial and would need to go the high-risk line – a stem cell transplant.”

Shortly after arriving in Perth, Zoe and her family were visited by Leukaemia Foundation staff and offered a unit to call home in Perth, completely free-of-charge.

“We were so incredibly grateful to be offered the accommodation as we still had to pay rent up in Port Hedland,” said Zoe.

The family were given a unit at a Leukaemia Foundation Patient Accommodation Centre
The family were given a home away-from-home at a  Leukaemia Foundation Patient Accommodation Centre.

“It was perfect for Ian and the boys, kitted out with everything a young family would need, and we were able to enrol Myles at the local school in the district.

“Ian could jump on the freeway and be at the hospital within half an hour.

“And the boys loved having the unit – it was such a novelty after coming from a small town and the only thing we had to negotiate was who got to push the elevator button!”

When talking about her illness to her boys, Zoe has chosen not to reveal the seriousness of her diagnosis but to assure them that the doctors are doing everything they can to make her better.

“Myles is hilarious and whenever we speak about it, he’ll say, ‘If I ever saw that leukaemia, I’d punch it in the face’,” laughed Zoe.

Zoe and her sister, Rachel have also participated in World’s Greatest Shave this year, raising $8000 to support more families going through a diagnosis.

“My sister drove all the way from Queensland, via South Australia and then did the two-week quarantine so she could be here to support me,” said Zoe.

“I knew I was going to lose my hair anyway and so we decided to make the best of it.

“My dad, who also flew from New South Wales during the pandemic with my step mum, kept making his farmer-jokes about shearing the sheep and then Ian shaved my head.

“We were all looking around at each other just crying, laughing, and freaking out – it’s a day I’ll always remember.”

Zoe and her sister, Rachel took part in World's Greatest Shave this year raising $8k
Zoe and her sister, Rachel took part in World’s Greatest Shave this year raising $8k.

The family have now decided to stay in Perth permanently and Zoe is preparing for her stem cell transplant which she will receive from an unrelated matched donor.

“Of course, I have my bad days when I need to have an ugly cry and ask, ‘why me?’,” said Zoe. “I focus on seeking out positive people and stories to get me through the bad times.

“My advice; listen to your body, ask lots of questions and trust your treatment team.”