In 2007, Ray Funnell’s wife, Lynne, convinced him to see a GP about a bruise on his arm that wouldn’t heal. The results of his blood tests and a bone-marrow aspirate were bad news – he had leukaemia.
The doctor told him that although there were many treatment options, his chance of survival was only 20%.
Brothers in arms
When Ray was told he needed a donor, the first people to consider were his siblings.
“If you have a sibling, you have a one in four chance of a match,” Rays says. “I have one brother, so the chance of a match was only 25% for me.”
DNA blood tests were done to check if they were a match. “My brother, Gary, lives in Cape Town so they tested his blood there. It took a couple of weeks before we received the good news – he was a match.”
‘Our relationship changed’
Ray’s treatment started with induction chemo. Once they found his brother was a match, the next step was for Ray to receive Gary’s stem cells.
“First I had to have my bone marrow wiped out completely, which took about a week,” Ray recalls. “And then I received an infusion with my brother’s stem cells. It took about 10 days before they started to graft. You could actually see them start to produce blood for me again!”
Ray says he has Gary’s bone marrow growing inside him. “I used to be A negative and Gary is O negative. After I received the infusion, my blood type changed to O negative. So it’s more than a relationship – he actually lives inside me! His blood is producing blood for me – I think it’s just crazy how it works.”
Climbing mountains, chasing dreams
Once Ray had got over the diagnosis and treatment, he decided he was going to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
“There’s actually a very strong link with that,” he laughs when asked why. “I think it’s related to being in a hospital for a very long time. I had the induction chemo, I had the transplant from my brother, but then about a year later I relapsed and the leukaemia returned.”
Ray endured another year of high-dose chemo. “Spending a year in an isolation ward will drive you potty; you’re cut off from the world, your energy levels are at zero, and the only thing that keeps you going is dreaming. I was dreaming about forests, mountains – and when I was eventually discharged, I wanted to go and experience what I’d dreamt about. And I started with Mount Kilimanjaro.”
Kilimanjaro was just the first mountain. “I decided I wanted to climb the highest mountain on every continent,” Ray says.
“When you get so close to dying, your appreciation of what you have increases. You don’t want to waste any time. I made a pact with myself that I will never say no to anything. It’s a simple attitude change – just say yes to everything. Once you’ve tried something, then you can decide whether you want to do it again.”
In January 2017, Ray climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with his daughters, Kimberley and Sarah (pictured here) and his son, Jayson. Unfortunately Ray had difficulties with the altitude and didn't reach the summit with his children.
Take life slowly
Dealing with a cancer diagnosis is incredibly hard.
“Not only have you got the clinical part, you’ve got the emotional side effects that go with it – the worries, do you have enough money, what’s going to happen to your family...” Ray says. “You can easily get overwhelmed. I learnt to take everything really slowly, take it a day at a time. If you can’t even cope with a day it a time, take it five minutes at a time. Set little targets for yourself until you can get through longer periods. And if you’re cut off in the isolation ward, then just dream.”
The Sunflower Fund connection
Ray knows how lucky he was in finding a perfect match in his brother so quickly. “It’s pure luck that my brother and I are a match.”
He is also grateful to the numerous blood donors who kept him alive. “I had about 50 blood transfusions that kept me alive for about a year.”
Meeting someone from the Sunflower Fund was just another stroke of luck for Ray. “It turned out to be pure luck that I bumped into someone from the Sunflower Fund on a beach in Cape Town. It was a match made in heaven – it was exactly what I wanted to get involved with. They work so hard for a very good cause,” he says.
“I became an ambassador for them and I’m always looking for ways to help them raise awareness and funds,” he says.
One event that Ray helped to organise was a stair climbing event. “We wanted to climb the height of Mount Everest, 9 000m, in a weekend. It slowly became a big charity event and we raised about R500 000 for the Sunflower Fund.”
What’s next for Ray? He wants to take on Mount Everest but fears he’s left it too late. But, he continues to dream.
“You have to think about your future,” he says. “You evaluate your whole life when you go through something like this.”
Ordinary people doing extraordinary things
15 September is Sunflower Day – read more about the day and the valuable work the Sunflower Fund does here.
Image credits: Supplied