After a relaxing six week holiday touring New Zealand with his wife and two young sons, 36 year-old Shaun Watts returned to South Africa feeling rather tired.
“At work, I would make it until midday and then felt totally exhausted,” says Shaun. “I put it down to having been so relaxed and returning to a stressful environment.”
Shaun went for a check up with his doctor and thought he would be coming home with a prescription for vitamins. But during the routine examination, the doctor discovered that his spleen was enlarged and ordered some blood tests and a sonar scan.
“The doctor said the tests had revealed some abnormalities in my blood counts and felt that I should go for further tests with a specialist,” says Shaun.
Getting the news
Shaun wasn’t too concerned so while his wife went to watch their sons at cricket practice, he admitted himself into hospital for more blood tests.
But the specialist had bad news. Shaun’s white blood cell count was higher than 400 000, compared to the normal range of between 4 000 and 12 000 per micro litre, signalling that he had leukaemia – cancer of the blood.
“When I was told that I had Chronic Myelogenous Leukaemia (CML), I was stunned!” he says. “The diagnosis itself was upsetting, but what really got to me was the thought of not being around for my wife and young boys who were ten and six at the time.”
Although he knew little about leukaemia, Shaun dreaded the worst and suspected he did not have much time to live. “Dying was simply not an option so from day one, I decided that I would not give up and that my only thoughts would be positive no matter what I had to endure.”
Taking immediate action
He was immediately admitted to hospital and began chemotherapy. “The side effects were terrible and the cancer was not coming under control so a year after the initial diagnosis, the doctors felt I needed to consider a bone marrow transplant,” recalls Shaun.
So began the search for a potential bone marrow donor. Neither his sister nor his brother were a match, nor was he able to find an unrelated match from the very small bone marrow donor pool they could access in South Africa at the time.
“We decided to move from Johannesburg to Cape Town and undergo an ‘autologous transplant’ using my own stem cells instead,” says Shaun. This is a risky procedure because there is always a chance that a contaminated cell could slip through and begin to multiply.
After another course of chemotherapy and radiation to kill off the cancerous CML cells, the two-day stem cell ‘harvest procedure’ was successful and a transplant date was scheduled for 31 July 1997.
Kept in isolation
“The procedure was very much like a blood transfusion,” says Shaun. “Afterwards I was kept in isolation for many months to minimise the risk of infection as my new immune system began to take hold. It was a lonely and painful experience, but the support of my family kept me going.”
It took some time before Shaun’s body began to produce healthy white blood cells again, but after these were detected, it only took about a week before he was able to go home.
However, six months later, tests revealed that there was still a presence of the cells containing the abnormal chromosome that causes CML and Shaun was forced to accept that the transplant had failed.
Frustration sets in
“It was very frustrating, especially since I had to then go back onto chemotherapy and deal with its terrible side effects,” says Shaun. “I deservedly earned the nick name ‘grumpy’ from my children and friends, especially on Sundays, the day after I had my chemotherapy jab.
Toward the middle of 2000, Shaun heard about some encouraging results from initial clinical trials in the US of a new ‘miracle’ drug. The drug worked by disabling the cancerous cells causing CML.
“After much investigating, we eventually managed to have the clinical trials extended to South Africa and in February 2001, I began clinical trials as Patient 001,” he says. “Within six months, my CML cell counts had dropped to below 10% and within a year my count was zero.”
4 years of remission
It has been 14 years since Shaun’s initial diagnosis and he remains in remission, meaning the number of cancerous cells in his blood is undetectable.
He still undergoes regular blood tests every three months and although three years ago, he suffered a slight relapse, he is now on a higher dose of the anti-cancer drug and continues to lead a full and productive life. His business is expanding and he has managed to see both his sons complete matric and begin their university degrees.
Shaun now helps other cancer patients by volunteering as a buddy for the organisation People Living with Cancer and supporting the Sun Flower Fund.
“I believe that my positive attitude, together with my faith and quest to find out as much as possible about the disease and treatments, helped equip me to fight leukaemia.”
CML: a journey of hope
(Bespoke Comm for Novartis, October 2010)