Leukaemia sufferer in remission thanks to drug

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A Northern Irish man who was diagnosed with leukaemia is now in remission thanks to a new drug which significantly improves the chance of survival, according to research carried out.

William Nelson from Co Londonderry was diagnosed in November 2008 with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL), a blood cancer caused by a type of abnormal blood cell but now, thanks to the administering of MabThera (rituximab) he is now in remission.

And his daughter Diane Johnston has spoken to me about his remarkable recovery which has been attributed to the drug used in conjunction with chemotherapy.

It comes as data presented at the American Society of Haematology (ASH) annual meeting shows that the addition of MabThera to chemotherapy in previously untreated patients with CLL significantly improves chances of survival.

“My dad discovered an enlargement on his left side, and to be honest, it came as quite a surprise because he is a very fit and healthy man and had been a lorry driver all his life,” said Diane. “He never had any other health problems so it arrived completely out of the blue.”

Mr Nelson visited his GP to assess the enlargement and was then referred to the a cancer unit.

“At the start of December it was confirmed that he had CLL with an enlarged spleen. I don’t think the doctor had seen such an enlargement before. It was really tough because it was Christmas,” said Diane. “But the doctor said that being healthy had stood to Dad and it would allow him to cope with this.”

For the family, especially wife Marjorie, the news of an uncertain future was worrying and the family was desperate for more information about the newly-diagnosed condition.

Mr Nelson received his first treatment in December 2008, starting with steroid treatment. At that point his blood count was dangerously low and the treatment generally had little or no effect, according to Diane.

“Dad just felt the steroids gave him some sort of boost. Then in January he was given two drugs to target the spleen – Fludarabine and Cyclophosphamide – and he was on these until September,” said Diane.

It was at this point Mr Nelson was given a glimmer of hope with the offer of the new drug MabThera to be combined with his chemotherapy. This was administered slowly via a drip during the course of one day.

“Initially Dad had a reaction to it and we believed he wasn’t going to be able to continue on with it, but thankfully once the drug got into his system, the side-effects disappeared,” said Diane.

Commenting on the findings presented at the AHA annual meeting, Professor Peter Hillmen, Consultant Haematologist at Leeds Teaching Hospital, said these results are extremely significant.

“Never before have we seen proof that any treatment has led directly to improved overall survival in CLL. The combination of rituximab and fludarabine-based chemotherapy has proven to be a formidable partnership, sending more patients into remission, extending the period before their leukaemia returns and now increasing the length of time people survive overall,” he said.

And he added: “This is certainly one of the most significant steps forward we have seen for a long time.”

Diane told me medics are pleased with her dad’s progress to date and everyone is optimistic about his future.

“We were told with all cases of cancer they can’t say for sure whether it is cured – they can treat it, and at the moment, he’s in remission. The doctors are really pleased with Dad’s progress and he’s in really good form,” she said.

“We’re so thankful to the staff at the cancer unit who were fantastic and we’re pleased to have this opportunity to be able to speak about how this drug has helped Dad. It’s opened up a new chapter on our lives.”

Mr Nelson, meanwhile, keeps busy with his three grown-up children and nine grandchildren.

“He just loves spending time with the grandchildren and we’re delighted he has been given the chance to do this. Family times are always precious,” she added.

Mr Nelson said he was very thankful for the power of prayer and God’s healing hand upon him.

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