For Kate Winning, Christmas will be very similar to that anticipated and enjoyed by so many people across the world.
Quality time with family and friends, plenty of food, the odd drink or two, playing games or watching a festive film on television.
Fun, smiles and laughter, just as it should be.
And yet, 46-year-old Kate could be forgiven for cherishing each and every Christmas, birthday, anniversary or similar special occasion, just that little bit more than the rest of us.
Because, there was once a time, during a second gruelling and intense battle with leukaemia, that Kate’s chances of survival were rated no higher than five per cent.
That she is still here today is, as she herself admits: “a bit of a miracle.”
It was when faced with the need for a second stem cell transplant, after the first bone marrow transplant had ultimately failed, that the prognosis for Kate and her family looked so bleak.
That was 20 years ago in October, an anniversary forever etched in the Winning family archives, as the day Kate received a second dose of bone marrow from elder sister Sarah which has, despite the gloomy outlook prior to the operation, ended up saving her life.
To understand Kate’s journey in full however, you have to go back to the latter months of 1996.
A football fan, and a Newcastle fan, Kate would have enjoyed the summer’s European championships in England, particularly enjoyed Alan Shearer’s world record move from Blackburn to Newcastle, and perhaps been less enamoured by the break-up of Take That earlier in the year.
Working as deputy store manager for Curry’s in Stratford-upon-Avon, preparing for a holiday in Turkey with her then partner, as a 23-year-old, life was good, and the future bright.
Sadly, before long, that was all about to change.
“There was a bit of travelling involved to get to work, and gradually I just started to feel desperately tired all the time,” Kate recalls.
“I kept thinking, ‘I’ve got this holiday coming up, everything will be fine’, but, looking back, I wasn’t right at all.
“In Turkey, there were a lot of stairs up to the apartment, and every time I got to the top I was really short of breath, and my ankles were swollen.
“The fact I had a suntan probably masked the fact that I was also very anaemic by this point, and my immune system must already have been pretty rubbish because I picked up food poisoning.
“When I got home, I was treated for the food poisoning, and it was a couple of weeks before I was eventually referred for a blood test.
“On the same day as having the test, the doctor called my Mom and said she needed to take me to hospital straight away.
“My haemoglobin level was desperately low, 3.5 when it should have been around 14 so when I arrived at hospital I was given six units of blood immediately.
“After that I felt fantastic!
“But it was clear something was very wrong.
“I was under the haematology department at Russell’s Hall Hospital in Dudley, and they said that because my blood levels were so low, even just doing normal things every day for me was the equivalent of climbing a mountain.
“When women are pregnant, if their haemoglobin levels drop to around 8.0 they can be at risk of passing out, so they didn’t really know how I had managed to keep going.
“Had I not been diagnosed when I was, then I think my days would have been numbered.”
It was October, 1996, that the diagnosis was delivered. Acute Myeloid Leukaemia.
“Horrible,” is Kate’s description of that day, of hearing that news, the dreaded ‘c’ word - blood cancer.
“I had actually seen my diagnosis before I was told.
“I had been walking around the nurses station, chatting to the nurses, and saw my notes on the desk.
“As soon as I did, I was just desperate for my Mom and Dad to come to the hospital to be with me.
“So then, I was back in the ward, and they came in with the China tea set and closed the curtains to give me the diagnosis.
“I was fairly naïve at that time, I didn’t know anything about leukaemia and had never even known anyone who had suffered with it.
“It was horrendous news though, I knew that, but at the same time I was 23, fairly healthy, and was told I had a good chance of coming through it and out the other side.”
So began a period of chemotherapy, and the mental and physical challenges associated with blood cancer in terms of the lengthy hospitals stays and need for isolation.
Kate was into the routine of a spell of chemotherapy, followed by a patient wait for her blood counts to respond, and then moving onto the next treatment.
“My consultant at the time was the wonderful Dr Guy Richardson who had such a lovely manner and explained in his unique way that I had so many weeds and flowers, and that the treatment would kill both of them off and hope that the flowers would come back and the weeds die away,” says Kate.
“That gave me something to focus on in my mind.”
Such focus was crucial, as Kate suffered a range of symptoms during treatment including high temperatures, rigors, septicaemia and a bout of pneumonia which would prove temporarily life-threatening as she was struggling to breathe.
And yet, agonisingly, despite battling through all the side effects of the treatment, and associated mental battles or long periods in isolation, five bouts of chemotherapy failed to have the desired effect.
“There were quite a few young people having similar treatment to me at the time, and they all seemed to be doing really well and making progress whereas I was struggling,” Kate recalls.
“It was tough, really tough, and I was talking recently with my Dad about the day I told him that I didn’t think I could do it anymore.
“He said ‘please don’t say that to your mother, it would devastate her,’ so I somehow managed to find that extra fight from within.
“With the treatment not really working, the next step was to have a bone marrow transplant, and for that we needed to test my siblings.
“I had an older sister Sarah, and brother and sister Matthew and Hollie who were much younger, but they couldn’t have been happier to try and help and have their bloods samples taken as a potential donor.
“We really hoped it wouldn’t be them – it would have been so much to go through at that age – and, as it happened, it was Sarah who was a perfect match, which was incredible.
“Armed with that news and a sense of excitement, we went off to see the Haematology Consultant at Birmingham Queen Elizabeth hospital with a view to looking around the transplant unit.
“But he took one look at my notes, said I wasn’t getting into remission as we needed to see, and therefore didn’t think it was advisable to go ahead with the transplant.
“That was devastating, it came right out of the blue, and it was even more horrendous when he told me that I probably had about three months left to live.
“And that appeared to be that.”
Kate’s parents Ken and Judy had a caravan, and so the family went away for the weekend, somehow trying to digest such dreadful news.
A Newcastle United fan under the days of Kevin Keegan, she took in a game at Sheffield Wednesday against the visiting Magpies, and a feeling quickly grew of needing to complete a Bucket List if the worst was to happen.
All the time though, Kate’s family refused to accept that the fight was over.
Call it parental instinct, love, determination, a refusal to accept what had been described as inevitable, they were simply not going to roll over and acknowledge that there was nothing more left to be done. Fortunately for them, Dr Richardson shared their determination and refused to accept Kate’s fate.
Having heard that Hammersmith Hospital in London was highly regarded as a champion in treating leukaemia, Kate was granted a consultation, and received a far more positive prognosis.
“They said I had a chance, and that gave us some hope,” says Kate.
Any organisational concerns around having to relocate for anything from six weeks to several months, were quickly allayed by the family caravan pitching up in Buckinghamshire for the summer holidays of 1997, and, with Sarah then working in St Albans, a transplant date was set.
Kate was hit hard with a final bout of strong chemotherapy in preparation for the procedure, which involved bone marrow being taken from Sarah’s hipbone.
And on July 18th, 1997, the transplant took place.
“Sarah was in a ward next door to me, and we’ve got a photo after the procedure, where it actually looks like it is me saving her life,” says Kate.
“I am all red-cheeked and chubby because of all the steroids, but Sarah looked dreadful.
“She had to give a lot of bone marrow so was very sore bless her, and said it felt like she had been kicked by a horse.
“But it all went o-k - there are a lot of things that can go wrong but I tolerated it fairly well.
“I suffered from awful mouth sores, infections, temperatures and all the other nasty side-effects came back, but I came through it.
“And even though I was pretty much confined to a hospital room, there were some good times as well.
“My parents and siblings were around a lot – it was a very different school holiday for them but occasionally they would go into London for the day and even went to see a show. As young teens at the time, they were amazing.
“The one night I was even babysitting for Matthew and Hollie as Mom and Dad had got tickets to go to the recording of the National Lottery!
“The staff at the Hammersmith were absolutely unbelievable, so brilliant, and as far as things went after the transplant, at times they were bad but never horrendous.
“Every single day I was waiting for my blood counts to respond, even just a tiny bit to show signs that the transplant had worked and that my body was capable of making its own blood cells. Eventually they did!
“And about six weeks after the operation, I was released from hospital – weak and fragile but, at last, I was going home.
“It was actually a couple of days after that when Princess Diana died, and I remember coming downstairs the morning it happened and my Dad being really upset.
“I think the news about Princess Diana had just brought out all the feelings that he had kept contained during my illness, which had been such a difficult time for all the family.”
From there however, life returned to a form of normality, even if at times the twice-weekly hospital visits from the Midlands to London weren’t ideal.
For the next year, all attention was focused on recovery, a very gradual process, but successful enough for Kate not only to make plans for the future with her partner and buy a house, but also take a part time job with Abbey National before moving on to Coventry Building Society.
And yet, another devastating blow was just around the corner.
It came, just a week after moving into the new house, which would normally be considered a positive sign of a fresh, new start.
Sadly not in this situation.
All of a sudden, Kate noticed a lot more bruising, and while everything about her mentality was hanging onto a crumb of comfort and screaming, ‘it can’t be’, in the back of her mind, she just knew.
The leukaemia was back.
“I went back to see Dr Richardson, and my blood results were going haywire, with platelets dropping and white cells multiplying,” she recalls.
“He was saying that everything was going to be alright, but by that point, I think we were so close to him that he wasn’t even sure that he could tell us that the leukaemia had probably returned.”
At this point, Kate’s voice tails off.
Throughout the conversation up to now, she has recalled such a harrowing time in her life with unerring accuracy and incredible courage.
But recalling these utterly soul-destroying days in September, 1999, even all these years on, is clearly still, understandably, very tough to take.
And the emotion takes over.
“I had a bone marrow aspirate done again, and Dr Richardson gave us the slide and told us to take it with us to go and see Charlie (Craddock) at Hammersmith,” says Kate.
“My Mom clung onto that slide, hoping against hope, that everything was going to be alright.
“Charlie checked everything out and just said: ‘I’m so sorry. It has come back, but we are going for a cure this time’.
“That meant trying for a second transplant, and it is incredible to think that for a long time between my illness and now, they wouldn’t actually do second transplants.
“They wouldn’t even consider it for a time, and if that had happened to me, I would have had to walk away and that would have been it.
“But there were certain things that were in my favour.
“I had felt fairly well for two years after the transplant, so there had been a good period before relapse, and with the way treatment had progressed I would be able to have Sarah’s stem cells rather than bone marrow this time, which wouldn’t be as invasive for her and would hopefully offer a speedier ‘rescue’ to my obliterated immune system.
“Even so, even with those positive thoughts, it was still a horrible prospect, as having been through it all before, this time I knew exactly what to expect.
“I was going to have to do it all over again, and go through that treatment and everything that comes with it, and be separated from my family.
“Mentally I knew what was ahead, and tried to prepare myself for what was coming, but little did I know it would end up being a million times worse.”
A bout of aggressive chemotherapy and total body radiation followed, and the transplant of stem cells from Sarah took place on October 14th, 1999.
Once more, there were hurdles to overcome in the weeks that followed, including numerous infections, but again, little by little, Kate’s condition started to improve.
“It is still such a positive story, against the minutest of odds, and let’s face it, there was a very good chance that I would not have been around today to tell it.
“Not everyone is fortunate to have a donor match, and to make it through, and thank goodness for people like Charlie Craddock and countless others I could name who helped me during the treatment.
“A few years ago I had to go to the Queen Elizabeth for a bone density scan, and Charlie was literally parading me around his department, introducing me to everyone.
“’This is Kate’,” he was telling people. “’For all of you who don’t believe in second transplants, how could you ever deny someone that opportunity?’
“Even thinking back to that first time, when the consultant first said they couldn’t do the transplant, I don’t think Mom and Dad would ever have given up.
“Thank goodness they didn’t either, or that we all just didn’t say alright and thank you, I’ve got three months to live and that’s it.”
Despite so many trials and tribulations over what was effectively a three-year period, and despite the continuing struggles which she faces every single day as an unwanted reminder of the disease which almost took her life, Kate remains remarkably positive and without bitterness about her ordeal.
Living in Wollaston near Stourbridge with husband Sam, a horse racing journalist for the Daily Mail, and their pet dog Millie, the cockapoo who was bought as a surprise present for her 40th Birthday, Kate now works with sister Sarah as the key figures behind Player PA, a player liaison and lifestyle management company for professional footballers and football organisations.
Kate is also keen to wreak every ounce of positivity about what she has had to endure, both two decades ago and ever since.
“People sometimes ask if I regret what I went through, and I think I would have to answer with a ‘no’,” says Kate, who became something of a local celebrity during her illness with so much supportive coverage in the local newspaper, the Stourbridge News.
Through this almost £20,000 was raised mainly for the new leukaemia unit at Russell’s Hall Hospital with the remainder donated to the Children’s Ward at the Hammersmith.
“We were all living in our own worlds at the time, I was working stupid hours – although I am probably doing that again now! – and not really thinking about what was important.
“Mom and Dad were busy, with myself and Sarah and then also the two younger children, and life was just mad.
“What happened to me made us all stop, and think, and understand what life is really about.
“I remember when I had initially recovered from the first transplant, we all went away to Menorca together in the summer of 1998, a lovely family holiday, but we’d never have done that if it hadn’t had been for the illness.
“With Sam now, who I met after I had recovered, we make sure we have time away together and appreciate new experiences and adventures whereas I might have taken that for granted before.
“Mom and Dad have been phenomenal, holding it together all the way through, and it’s lovely that they live just down the road from us now.
“Obviously I owe everything to my strong family – and particularly Sarah, and, while working together in a stressful industry can interfere with a normal sisterly relationship, we all get on really well and family is so important.
“Charlie Craddock has also been a very important part of my life and reading up on the advances being made in science and how Cure Leukaemia has been helping is great to see.
“It used to be the exception that someone survived it if they were diagnosed with leukaemia – now people have a far better chance and hopefully that is going to become the norm.
“So many medical advances have been made in the last 20 years since I was diagnosed, and it is amazing to think what might be achievable 20 years from now.”
What was also amazing, in October of this year, was the opportunity to mark the 20th anniversary of the second transplant, with a family dinner, and a chance to reflect, and count blessings, that it turned out to be successful.
Next year will be Sam and Kate’s tenth wedding anniversary, and the man who met Kate after her illness, but sees at first hand the lingering effects day after day, has nothing but unconditional praise for his partner.
“I don’t think I have ever met anybody with the amount of mental strength that Kate has,” says Sam.
“Every day I see what she has to go through with the effects of the graft-versus-host, but the legacy of that transplant is that Kate is still with us, which is brilliant.
“To do a full-time job as she does, with long hours that can extend to 12 hours a day, run a house, be a fabulous Auntie, cook for an incapable husband . . . how she gets up every single morning with the motivation to drive herself forward is incredible.
“It is difficult to be positive all the time, I don’t think that is possible, but she is remarkably cheerful given everything she still has to go through.
“It would have sent most people spiralling, most of us blokes would probably have thrown the towel in, but this wonderful woman is still here to love, cherish and enrich all of our lives, and for that we will forever be thankful.”
And now, once again, comes the chance to celebrate another landmark, a family Christmas, with positive thoughts ahead for 2020.
“Life is too short, and the mantra now is to make the most out of everything that you can,” says Kate.
“I don’t necessarily fill my life with hobbies – I love my home, and my family and all that brings. My nieces and nephews bring so much joy to us and for that we are so grateful.
“Some people have to go and do a big challenge after coming through a life-changing event or illness, whether that’s climbing Everest or doing a marathon in a diving suit like Lloyd Scott.
“Some people need those challenges in life, but for me it’s the little things, family and friends, and just enjoying what I can.
“I also felt so much love during my treatment - an incredible amount of love – and received so many prayers all over the world so I have been told.
“And I always have to remember that so many people are still going through the same ordeal today.
“It’s so desperately sad that many of the wonderful people I met who were suffering at the same time as me never went on to make it – such special people I will never forget.
“But I always remember one of them that did once told me something that made perfect sense.
“She said that opening the curtains every day and just seeing the daylight was just the best feeling in the world, and when you have been through what we have been through, it is very difficult to argue with that.”
*Would you like to help Professor Charlie Craddock and Cure Leukaemia continue to help patients like Kate in the future and continue the search for a cure for all forms of Blood Cancer? For just £5 a month, via Regular Giving, you can help make a difference. Click HERE to find out more.
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