In March 2018, 56 year-old Jennifer Boulton, from Cessnock, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), a disease she previously knew little about. For Jennifer the diagnosis came as a ‘bolt out of the blue’. She started the day at the grand opening of a new hair salon, an exciting joint venture with her daughters, but following a call from her GP, the very next day she was admitted to Calvary Mater Newcastle.
For the next six weeks Jennifer didn’t go home or step foot in her new salon instead she spent the time in one of the hospital’s isolation rooms, or as Jennifer affectionately named it, the “igloo”. In between treatments Jennifer kept herself busy setting up many of the new business systems and the hospital became somewhat of “a hair salon headquarters”. As Jennifer says with tongue in cheek, “A good row with Telstra always helps fill in the time!”
Jennifer desperately needed a bone marrow transplant but a match couldn’t be found for her. “I thought, it can’t just be me that there is no donor for. AML is so much more prominent now.”
Each year in Australia, more than 3,700 people are diagnosed with a form of leukaemia. Sadly AML is one of the most common types of acute leukaemia in adults, with about 1,050 people diagnosed each year.*
She continues, “We need more awareness about the disease and how people can make a difference, particularly within our Indigenous communities. Our younger generation need to be aware and know how they can make a difference. It affects them too!”
Jennifer’s grandmother was tragically part of the stolen generation. Born in Cobar NSW, Jennifer discovered she was part of the Ngiyampaa people. She says, “It has taken time to try and find my tribe. There was talk in my family but no-one seemed to talk about our family history. When you are faced with a blood disorder you really need to know who your blood family is and knowing your family history for a sense of belonging is so important.”
It is because of Jennifer’s passion for the cause that she is now urging people to sign up and become part of the bone marrow register. She says with tears in her eyes, “It’s such a generous gift to give. It takes no time, or money, just a bit effort.”
Jennifer was fortunate that her eldest son was found to be a 50 per cent bone marrow match, so in July 2019 she went to Westmead Hospital for her transplant. Her son gave blood and from this blood collection bone marrow was extracted. Jennifer says, “He felt tired and had a slight headache after the blood was taken but that was about it.”
Jennifer spent over 100 days in the Westmead Leukaemia Unit. At first it seemed that the transplant had not worked but thankfully after a couple of weeks the new cells kicked in. Such are the gruelling effects of the transplant for the recipient that most people only undergo the procedure once regardless of the outcome. “Out of the five people I knew who underwent the process, two made it and three didn’t. It’s a huge undertaking but thanks to the generosity and kindness of another person at least that opportunity was afforded.”
In March 2020 Jennifer received the devastating news her AML had relapsed and she had come out of remission. For now she continues to receive supportive chemotherapy and is concentrating on the important things in life, spending time with her beloved family – her husband and four children.
Cancer treatment usually comes with a rollercoaster of emotions; the gift of another chance at life from a bone marrow donor, often a complete stranger, can never be repaid.
Bone marrow donors need to be specifically matched to the patient and so finding a donor for those with rare tissue types can be very difficult. Only 1 in 1,500 donors will be asked to donate for a patient requiring a transplant in any given year. A blood marrow type can now be easily determined when blood is donated.
To enrol as a bone marrow donor visit https://www.donateblood.com.au/learn/bone-marrow-donation or complete the form next time you give blood.
Jennifer says, “My children and their friends now all give blood and get such a ‘buzz’ knowing they are helping other people. They signed up to the register as well on the off chance they can help someone else in my position.”
When you become a bone marrow donor, your donation is often the last chance for life for someone with a serious illness. Jennifer is grateful she was afforded that chance.
“This is my story to tell. If a few people decide to join the bone marrow register from reading this story then I’ll be happy.”
Helen Ellis is the Public Affairs & Communications Manager at Calvary Mater Newcastle