Hardwood timber A man who had “never been sick” was given three weeks to live after spotting purple spots on his chest while in the shower. Harry Simpson, 27, saw marks on his chest last February but thought nothing of it and went to Dubai – where he spent two weeks skydiving, riding jet skis and celebrating his birthday.
But the search and rescue worker knew something was wrong after he spent a week winter training in the mountains. Harry said: “I was really tired, just fatigued. I was going to the gym and I was out of breath, nowhere near as good as what I could be.
“I went to my doctor and they were like, ‘We think you might have a viral infection from Dubai’, so they gave me antibiotics to take for about two weeks. I thought I must be alright, so I went down south and climbed the highest mountain in Ireland.
“I had to stop 20 times going up that mountain and I was like, ‘Something really isn’t right’. I could literally feel my heart going mad in my chest, like really pumping. And I could feel it in my arteries, down my neck, and my lymph nodes had swollen up on one side. I just couldn’t breathe, I was just struggling to breathe.”
Harry’s colleagues told him he had lost weight and was ‘turning white’, so he asked the doctor to take blood tests, reports The Echo. He later picked up his phone and saw 10 missed calls from different consultants. They’d also called Harry’s mum who contacted him telling him to call the hospital.
Harry said: “It was just a random consultant who’d looked at my bloods under a microscope that day. They just said, ‘Look, don’t want to scare you or anything, but we need you to come to the cancer centre in the city hospital tomorrow morning. It’s the only bed we have available in Belfast. Bring a bag, you might have to stay for one night’.”
Harry still “thought there was nothing wrong”. He said: “I just could never think I would be sick. I’ve never been sick in my life with anything small, I don’t get colds. I’ve never really been sick at all, so I just didn’t expect anything. I was just expecting something silly that needs to be sorted out.”
Harry Simpson on holiday in Dubai where he celebrated his 26th birthday, not knowing he had a rare blood cancer (Image: Harry Simpson)
But Harry was quickly placed into isolation in hospital and had bone marrow extracted from his pelvis. The results took two weeks, then two more days to arrange for Harry;s family to be there when he got the news.
Harry had early T-cell precursor acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ETP-ALL), it had spread to his skin causing the purple spots, and he could have “maximum three weeks left” to live. Harry said: “I just sat and cried. My granny was sitting there and she was upset, and my dad was trying to be a bit of strength for me.”
Harry needed “intensive chemotherapy” to “destroy my whole body” before doing a stem cell transplant, donated by his sister. He said: “No amount of chemo in the world was ever going to solve my issue. My cancer was always going to come back because of where it developed. The stem cell was literally my only chance at living.”
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Harry spent 19 weeks in hospital having chemotherapy, 12 lumbar punctures and enzymes treatment. Blood clots made it feel like someone was crushing Harry’s skull.
The treatment also accelerated his heart to such an extent he was put at risk of a stroke. Harry said: “I lay in bed at one stage for like three weeks and didn’t move because it was just dreadful.”
Two weeks later Harry had a week of full-body radiotherapy, which made him vomit but gave “a really good tan”, along with more chemotherapy before having a stem cell transplant. The effects of the treatment left in a dark room on morphine for 24 hours a day, being fed through a tube.
He lost 15kg in five weeks and Harry’s condition was so bad his clinicians considered calling his family in. Harry said: “They didn’t think I was going to make it, but thankfully a few days after, I started getting slightly better again.”
Harry Simpson nearing his final days in hospital after six months of treatment for early T-cell precursor acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, a rare blood cancer (Image: Harry Simpson)
He said: “If you’re in that situation, it’s sort of your only option. This is what it is, and this is how you have to go about it. Straight from the start, I was like, ‘If I can keep my mind occupied on other things, or trying to help other people, it will make them make me think about it less and mentally I’ll cope with it a bit more’. Obviously at the start I was extremely upset because I was like, ‘Why is this happening to me?'”
He added: “I’m not sure where I got it from, but I just changed. A click went and I thought, ‘I can mope about and let it ruin me and take over and not be here in however long’, and I was like, ‘No, that’s not going to happen, I’m going to make sure I’m in a good headspace, think positively, be strong about it all, try and raise awareness’. Because I knew nothing about it myself, my friends knew nothing about it, a lot of people my age knew nothing about it.”
When he was able, Harry rode an exercise bike in the hospital, and raised £40,000 for charities like Friends of the Cancer Centre, as well as Anthony Nolan and DKMS. Harry said: “When I set out, if I’d raised £3,000 I would’ve been delighted. It was just crazy the amount of people who wanted to help me, wanted to support me and what I was trying to do, help other people.
“It’s incredible how people just rally around you and you really see what people mean to you. It definitely changed my outlook on everything. A lot of people I’ll cherish forever because, I mean, you can’t really put into words what it’s like going through an experience like that, and then your nearest and dearest have been there for you every single day. It’s good because there are a lot of bad days.”
Two days before Christmas, Harry learnt there was no sign of cancer, the first time this has happened since he was diagnosed. He’s at high risk of the cancer returning, and the treatment he’s had to clear it have increased the chances of him developing secondary cancer.
He still goes for weekly check-ups and takes medication. Harry said: “I take every single day as a new challenge. Every night when I’m going to bed, I just take a minute or two to be thankful for something I’ve done during the day, and I go to sleep and I’m happy. Then when I wake up, I wake up happy because here’s another day.”