I saw pride rest on my parents’ faces as we flew to Vienna to stay with my sister for a long weekend. At last, I was a freelance computer developer. I talked about my work and the excellent prospects with my first twelve-month contract successfully completed. It turned out to be my last contract. Mum and Dad had seen all four of their children flourish in their careers and, perhaps, their only remaining wish was for a grandchild or two. A week later, as I sat in their lounge, I could hardly bear to look at them as I told them I’d just been diagnosed with leukaemia.
People have routine blood tests all the time but are usually referred by their doctor. However, even if you believe you are healthy and have no need to see a doctor, a blood test could save your life.
My experience is a perfect example and began in December 1999 when I was 29-years-old. At the time, I was in seemingly good shape. I ate reasonably healthy meals, drank little alcohol, didn’t smoke, took regular exercise and had a stress-free job. Being self-employed though, I needed to cover my own back if I couldn’t work. I paid for a private health check, partly because I was curious and partly because I needed to be sure I was healthy throughout. The blood test was a short, almost insignificant element to the half-day check-up. I thought no more of it until a few days later when my own doctor rang to tell me the bad news.
The medical world calls this situation asymptomatic, meaning to look and feel healthy while actually being potentially seriously ill.
It is important to note blood tests are not all equal. A sample in one laboratory may be tested for one disease, while another laboratory may test for something completely different. In most cases, laboratories perform all these tests at some time. The point is your blood is not looked at just to see what is there. First, a decision is taken about what to look for and then see if it is present. The most important tests are the Chemistry Panel (or Comprehensive Metabolic Panel) and the Complete Blood Count. These tests will identify most problems, serious or trivial.
Most people will have nothing to worry about from their results. When there are abnormalities, again, these are mostly trivial and can be resolved with a simple change in diet or exercise, or a course of medication.
This was proved again in 2010. As part of my ongoing assessment since my initial diagnosis and subsequent hospital treatment, I’ve had blood tests every six months. One result showed I had high cholesterol despite feeling well and continuing with my reasonably healthy lifestyle. Whilst in my case this may have been related to my earlier illness and subsequent treatment, it is also possible my body is simply predisposed to a build-up of bad cholesterol.
This also proves the point that not all blood tests are equal. My routine hospital appointments involve a complete blood count test and after a few days my local doctor receives a copy of the results. So when my local doctor received the information about my high cholesterol, she requested another test but this time it was a fasting blood test, meaning no food for nine hours prior to the appointment. This provided a more accurate result. Whilst the cholesterol levels in my blood were slightly higher than average, taking my age and lifestyle into consideration, it was not so high that it required further medication. Instead I made a few minor changes in my diet and six months later following another fasting blood test, the level had reduced.
Most sensible people would have their boiler or car serviced annually, even if there were no obvious problems. Why take the risk with your own life?
My simple curiosity to prove I was healthy led to the devastating consequence that I was not. Had I not had the health check, I would have gradually become seriously ill and hospital treatment much less likely to succeed. I got another chance of life.
After the gut-wrenching worry of watching my parents’ faces in 1999, the pendulum swung and five years later in August 2004, I announced to them they had become grandparents with the birth of my beautiful twin sons.
At the end of 1998, I went freelance as a software developer. My income trebled, the hours were reasonable and I didn’t have to wear a tie. As soon as I saved sufficient money for a deposit, I bought a house. My first house. I joined an exclusive sports club, bought a big new TV and extra sound recording equipment for my home studio. I was fit and young, single and stacked.
Of course, as a freelancer, if I wasn’t working, I wasn’t earning. But I was working, so no problem. I wasn’t completely naive though, I knew that if I did happen to break a leg while skiing in the Alps or fall off the rigging while sailing in the Western Isles, paying the mortgage, gas, electricity and buying food would be a major problem. So I took the precaution of investing in an income protection policy and had a complete health check just to make sure I had everything covered.
My 12-month freelance contract ended and I decided to take a few weeks break for Christmas. A few weeks? But I could, I was a freelancer. I went away for a long weekend to stay with my sister in Vienna. It was bitterly cold but fabulous.
When I got home, there was a message on my answer-phone from my doctor. As with most answer-phone messages, it was garbled but I did understand there was a problem with a blood test result from the health check I’d had recently. I just needed to make a routine appointment to see him and it would be sorted.
The following day I saw my doctor, I was still not at all concerned until he delivered the swingeing body blow. As I sat facing him he said, “I’m afraid it’s not good news. One of the blood test results has revealed you have a condition called Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia.” After the words ‘bad news‘ and ‘leukaemia‘, I heard nothing more. He continued talking but I wasn’t listening. The only thing I knew about leukaemia was that people who had it, died. As he talked, I felt myself heating up and my vision blurred like an untuned TV. I mumbled, “I think I’m going to pass out”. He replied, “No, I don’t think you will.”
As I regained consciousness, images and sounds flashed rapidly through my head. It was so dizzying, it felt like being stuck on a children’s roundabout spinning at a hundred miles per hour. I was caught in this bad dream and couldn’t wake up. These symptoms were familiar from when I’d been seasick during sailing trips and while seasickness is said to be one of the worst feelings, coming round from passing out was just as bad for me. Slowly though, my head cleared and thoughts of dying returned. My doctor led me to another room where I laid across a line of chairs. Then he left me alone for a few minutes.
Alone. Loneliness. That was just one of the emotions that would later come to haunt me.