A Telford dad who lost almost a year of his life battling a rare form of cancer is launching a Cancer Research UK appeal to support life-saving research.
This time last year Will Bowen was given the news that the stem cell transplant he’d received from his brother was working. It was remarkable news because – just six weeks earlier – his fiancé Emma had been told she might never see him again.
He said: “By November 2021 the Omicron COVID variant was rife and hospitals were only letting people in to see relatives if they were dying. Emma was with me for two days and she asked the nurse as she left if that would be the last time she’d see me. The nurse didn’t know the answer.”
A year on from the day he finally got the good news he’d been waiting for, Will is backing a Cancer Research UK campaign to help give hope to future generations. The charity is currently funding further research into one of the drugs that saved Will’s life.
With around around 32,100 people diagnosed with cancer every year in the West Midlands, Will’s message is clear – to save lives tomorrow, Cancer Research UK needs the public’s support today.
The 31-year-old engineer had been diagnosed with T-cell lymphoblastic leukaemia in April 2021 and spent the months that followed fighting for his life as the nation battled the second wave of the COVID pandemic. He missed all three of his children’s birthdays and had to learn to walk again after falling into a partial coma that doctors warned he may not survive.
He added: “My consultant said I had two choices. I could stop treatment and live and enjoy the time I had left. Or I could try a drug they had only ever used sparingly before. Doing nothing was not an option but they told me not to expect a miracle. I even had to sign a form to say I understood that the drug was going to manage the symptoms of my cancer, not cure it.”
Will hopes that sharing his story will encourage people across the Midlands to give regularly to the charity to help fund long term research projects that could drive new breakthroughs for cancer patients. Life-saving cancer treatments are made possible by months and months of trialling, testing and learning. But monthly progress in research needs monthly donations.
“Without research I wouldn’t be here,” said Will. “It’s as simple as that. Twenty years ago the treatment I’ve had didn’t exist but there’s still a long way to go. I got to know people in hospital who weren’t as lucky as me which is why I feel passionately about supporting further research. By donating monthly to Cancer Research UK people can help give hope to many more families like mine and save lives for generations to come.”
Will first began experiencing symptoms in February 2021 when he noticed he had a sore neck and bruising on the top of his chest. At the time his wife Emma was being treated for a benign brain tumour, so he didn’t give either of these symptoms much thought.
“There was a small lump on my neck, but I just thought it was a swollen lymph node,” said Will, who works at Schneider Electric in Telford. “I didn’t give it much thought because my wife was having treatment for a benign brain tumour. My mum had also had a benign thyroid tumour so I just assumed whatever lump I had would also be benign.”
Will was sent to Shrewsbury Hospital for tests but a week later, Will became very sick overnight.
“Suddenly I couldn’t breathe or swallow very well and I felt like my windpipe was being crushed,” said Will.
“I was taken to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham and the first questions I asked was ‘am I going to live through this?’ I remember the doctor saying, ‘let’s get some sleep and we’ll talk about it in the morning’. I never asked that question again!”
Will was told he had T-cell lymphoblastic leukaemia and would be starting chemotherapy the next day. Treatment was so intense, he remained at the QE until the end of May before tests results showed the chemotherapy wasn’t working.
“My consultant came over to me and said, ‘I’m going to prepare you now – you might not make it until Christmas!’ Even though my body had been hammered with chemo I still had high levels of cancer in my blood.
“They said I had two choices – I could enjoy what was left of my life or try a new treatment that probably wouldn’t work.
“I was devastated but I refused to admit defeat. I remember having to sign a form saying that I understood the chemo was only being given to manage my symptoms – not to cure it.”
Will was once again admitted to hospital for another round of gruelling treatment which caused severe sickness and diarrhoea as well as more hair loss. Despite the grim outlook, the drug – Nelarabine – worked well enough to give him the chance of a life-saving bone marrow transplant.
But within hours of getting the good news, Will was rushed to intensive care with parainfluenza and fungal pneumonia. He didn’t see his children again for another two months.
“There were quite a few times when Emma was called and told to come in because it wasn’t looking good,” said Will. “I was rushed to intensive care twice but, in the end, I was able to leave hospital for a few days to celebrate my 30th birthday in August with my family.”
One by one, Will’s sister and three brothers were tested to see if their stem cells could be donated. One by one, the tests came back negative until the fourth and final one showed Will’s brother Ben was a 100 per cent match.
“The news really motivated me to carry on, even though the treatment was horrendous,” said Will. “I really felt for Ben who had to put his life on hold for me. He actually said to me, ‘there’s another day I can have a beer but there won’t be another day I can have a brother’”.
After five days of radiotherapy, Will had transplant surgery on November 16.
“I began to feel really poorly to the point I lost my mind and was unconscious for the best part of a month,” said Will. “The world outside the hospital was going crazy at this point with Omicron but the situation was so bad that they let Emma in to see me. At that point they only let visitors in when their relatives were dying.”
On December 14, 2021, Will woke up feeling disorientated and immediately called a doctor.
“I remember wondering where the hell I was,” said Will. “I pressed the buzzer and the nurse went to fetch the doctor who came to tell me the most amazing news. He said that two days earlier my body had just started producing white blood cells. For the first time in weeks, I started talking to people and I remember Facetiming my mum who was beside herself.”
Will was well enough to return home for a few days over Christmas, before being discharged on New Year’s Day 2022. But just weeks later he caught Covid and had to be readmitted to hospital.
“It was frustrating to be back in hospital, but my consultant came to see me with my latest bone marrow biopsy results on World Cancer Day and said that the transplant had done its job,” said Will. “This was great news after everything I’d been through.”
Will’s last stem cell top-up was on March 16, 2022, and his body is now producing blood cells like any normal person. He married his fiancé Emma in November last year and is back at work full time.
“Last year I got to see all my kids’ birthdays and got married which was massive,” said Will. “I’m so grateful to everyone who supported us and helped enable the kids to live a normal life. Now I just want to give hope to other people and support research that will save lives for generations to come.”
Cancer Research UK has been at the heart of the progress that has already seen survival in the UK double in the last 40 years.
Its research has led to more than 50 cancer drugs used across the UK – and around the world – from widely used chemotherapies to new-generation precision treatments.
In fact, drugs linked to the charity are used to treat more than 125,000 patients in the UK every year – that’s 3 out of every 4 patients who receive cancer drugs on the NHS.
People can also help support vital work such as this by getting a World Cancer Day Unity Band from one of the charity’s shops while stocks last. Available in pink, navy or blue, wearing one is a way of showing solidarity with people affected by the disease.
Cancer Research UK spokesperson for the West Midlands, Paula Young, said:
“This World Cancer Day, we want to say a heartfelt thank you to our customers, donors and supporters like Will. Thanks to their generosity and commitment to the cause, we’ve been at the forefront of cancer research for over 120 years and we’re not stopping now.
“Regular giving is crucial to our work because it means we can fund long term research – research that could lead to new discoveries about cancer and unlock new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat it.
“One in two of us will get cancer in our lifetime**, but all of us can help beat it. So, we hope more people will donate monthly – if they can. We’re working towards a world where we can all live longer, better lives, free from the fear of cancer.”
Cancer Research UK was able to spend over £10 million in the West Midlands last year on some of the UK’s leading scientific and clinical research.
You can donate monthly to life-saving cancer research at cruk.org/donate.