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Bansri Dhokia, 30, from Ealing, west London, was suffering from fatigue, breathlessness and a period that lasted three months when she got her diagnosis - but it was a long road to get answers.
She was eventually diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, but by the time it was picked up on her fifth blood test, she was so ill, doctors sent an ambulance straight to her house.
Her symptoms started in May 2020 but initially she just put them down to managing her busy job as a business analyst at the height of the pandemic.
“I really noticed the fatigue first," she said. "I could sleep for 12 hours a night and still feel exhausted.
“Then I started to get breathless all the time. There were activities like climbing stairs or walking down the road that I used to find easy but was suddenly finding more difficult.
“I blamed it on being overworked. With blood cancer, the symptoms are often quite vague and hard to diagnose.”
One of the things that was particularly strange was that Bansri had a very heavy period, lasting for three months, which was out of character for her body's menstrual cycle.
Bansri made repeated trips to the doctor to find out what was wrong – but kept being pushed back.
She said: “I just knew something wasn't right and repeatedly asked for blood tests.
“I did think it would be something like anaemia or low thyroid function that could be treated with medication.”
The first four blood tests between May and July came back clear and by the time she had a fifth on 21 July, she was starting to get fed up.
Busy with work, Bansri almost missed the appointment but luckily, her husband Amrit Sagoo encouraged her to go.
She said: “I went for the blood test in the afternoon and that evening, I was brushing my teeth when I got a call to say the ambulance was coming to collect me.
“They explained I needed to go to hospital right away. I thought it was just for a night and packed an overnight bag.
"I didn’t know what was wrong and that I would end up staying in hospital for 12 weeks.”
Taken to The Royal London hospital, Bansri wasn't told that doctors suspected she had blood cancer until after a bone marrow biopsy to diagnose exactly what type.
The horrific news then came.
She said: “One of the first things I asked was if that meant I had cancer. I didn't know much about leukaemia.
"I was really scared for my life. I had no idea what the prognosis was.
"I just cried and I kept questioning why this was happening to me."
The patient was forced to start chemotherapy straight away due to the aggressive form of cancer.
And with lockdown restrictions still in place, Bansri wasn’t able to tell any of her friends and family about her diagnosis in person.
She said: “I had to tell them over Zoom. It was the hardest thing I have ever had to do.
"I asked my sister to gather my family in the living room. We are very close and I could not look at her because I just couldn't deal with seeing the sadness in her face."
Bansri also wasn’t allowed to go home or to see any visitors for the first eight weeks.
She said: "I think that has really impacted my mental health and recently I have started to see a therapist. In hospital, you aren't given much emotional support.
"With such a difficult year, all I wanted was to be around my friends and a family."
She ended up having three rounds of chemotherapy, which heartbreakingly caused her to lose her hair.
She said: "I'd always had long hair and I was growing it as we were planning to have Hindu and Sikh religious wedding ceremonies in 2020, after our civil wedding the year before.
"It was so upsetting seeing pieces of my hair fall out on my pillow.
"One day I just asked the nurse to shave my head, and in that moment, I felt really empowered."
The chemotherapy put her into remission but as the type of leukaemia she had was very aggressive, Bansri was advised to have a stem cell transplant to reduce the risk of it coming back.
She said: “Normally, the first place that the hospital would look is the global donor registry but I knew immediately that being from an Indian background, there was a very low chance that I would find a match.
“That was quite scary because I knew how important it was to have a donor to save my life.
“Luckily, one of my two siblings was a partial match and was able to be used for my stem cell transplant.”
The transplant took place in February 2021 and although it is currently working, Bansri remains high risk for two years and needs regular check ups.
She is taking it one day at a time and continues to get stronger as the months go on, hoping to eventually return to work.
Bansri said: “My recovery is going well so far but a stem cell transplant comes with many side effects, which are lifelong.
“I have a long road to go but I take it day by day. Each month I get through is a success."
Having a transplant had also made Bansri particularly vulnerable to coronavirus as her immune system is suppressed, so she and her husband have been forced to shield throughout the last 18 months – and continue to do so.
She said: “For many cancer patients, the vaccine doesn’t give you enough protection.
“If I meet family and friends, it’s outside at a distance.
"I am a people person so that has been really hard but it’s a sacrifice I have to make for my health.”
Bansri is now speaking out to encourage people to join the stem cell donor register, particularly those in Asian communities.
She said: “People often have a misconception that, when you join the donor registry, you're giving something up, for example, in a kidney transplant, you do give up your kidney, and it's a longer recovery time.
“A stem cell transplant is one of the least invasive types of transplant.
“My sibling was in hospital for a few hours on the day and didn't have any side effects afterwards.
“In my community, cancer is a bit of a taboo subject and people don’t speak about it so I think there is a lack of awareness of the importance of signing up to be on the register.”
Bansri is also taking part in the Leukaemia Care’s Spot Leukaemia campaign, which urges the general public to understand and recognise the signs.
She said: “I felt it was really important to talk about it and share my journey.
“I’ve encouraged my family to speak openly about it too.
“I want to see more Asian people talking about it because it’s not the fault of the person - it’s just bad luck.
“If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms, contact your GP and ask for a blood test. Early diagnosis saves lives.”
Read More about Spot Leukaemia and support Leukaemia Care here.
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