A woman who was admitted to hospital for a serious bout of tonsillitis was told the next day she had acute myeloid leukaemia and had just weeks to live.
It was only thanks to her partner’s quick thinking that Marian is still alive today, 18 months later, but now she is facing an even more heartbreaking situation.
Miraculously, she has fought off the cancer but the treatment has left her body so damaged, she is likely to die from a simple childhood virus.
Now, 47-year-old Marian Thomas is focusing on spending as much precious time as she can with her partner, Derek, and her three grandchildren.
Speaking from her home in Mold in Denbigh, Marian’s voice is strong and steady and belies the fact she is very ill indeed.
The news that there is nothing more doctors can do for her came earlier this month and it has barely sunk in. But this is a woman who is not used to taking the easy route and was a born fighter, she says. She is determined to make the most of every day she has left.
Her partner Derek is her “diamond” she says in her lilting north-Walian accent and it is largely down to him she has remained so strong. Even so, he has little power to bring back her physical strength, which leaves her ready to collapse at any moment “like a Mr Whippy ice cream”.
Back in April 2019, Marian, a normally “very very fit” person couldn’t understand why she was constantly feeling so tired.
“I couldn’t work out why I was so tired,” Marian said. “I even wanted to sit down in the shower. I thought this isn’t me, maybe it was all in my head?
“I was so exhausted I couldn’t even hold a cup to my mouth.”
Then, one weekend, lying on the sofa, Derek decided enough was enough and took her to Wrexham Maelor Hospital.
“It looked like the life had just run out of her,” Derek said. “She was absolutely wiped out on the settee and I said this can’t carry on.”
Doctors thought she might have a rare and potentially serious complication of tonsillitis, known as Quinsy, and Marian was admitted overnight.
By 8.30am the following Monday morning, tests showed that Marian actually had acute myeloid leukaemia and she was told she had just five months to live.
If Derek hadn’t have brought her in, she might not have made it to the end of the month, they said.
Marian said: “The doctor said the reason why I was the way I was was because I was anaemic. And the reason why I was anaemic was because I had leukaemia.”
That very same day, Marian underwent her first bout of chemotherapy. She was given 32 does of chemo in those first 10 days and spent five months in hospital.
The speed of her deterioration and diagnosis was in some way a blessing, said the couple, who are both members of the Wirral 100 Motor Club and are familiar faces on the race track.
“We are fortunate in that we didn’t have time to sit down and think about it,” they both said.
Thoughts were firmly on getting the right treatment. She was referred to Ysbyty Glan Clwyd where she underwent the brutal regimen of chemotherapy and where several bone marrow samples were taken from her hip.
Throughout, Marian suffered every side-affect imaginable and more, she said. “Even the doctors said I had been challenging,” she said.
Derek said they had “thrown everything at her” and doctors were astonished Marian was still alive after the treatment alone, “let alone the disease”, he added.
By the end of September, Marian’s condition was in remission and she was allowed home. But on New Year’s Eve she was told her cancer was back and this time, chemotherapy wasn’t an option. Her only option was stem cell treatment.
“I thought I was in recovery,” she says quietly. “I certainly acted like I was in remission, helping with the grandkids and I was ready to go back to work.”
She didn’t question the doctors, she said. “They told me not to Google it and I didn’t look into it,” she says. “I thought it was worth having a go. I thought to myself, if I could fight chemo then I could fight anything.”
Her first transplant was on February 13 but true to form, Marian started suffering side effects almost immediately.
Her body went from a size eight to a size 14 overnight as she reacted to the drugs. “I look like a hamster now,” says Marian, before Derek butts in quickly and says: “She looks stunning.”
Stem cell treatment comes with the risk of Graft Versus Host Disease (GvHD), which is when the donor’s cells (the graft) view the patient’s healthy cells (the host) as foreign, and attack and damage them. GvHD can be mild, moderate or severe. In some cases, it can be life-threatening.
In Marian’s case, she no longer has leukaemia, but due to the GvHD, her bone marrow function failed, her skin has permanent red blotches and she has become diabetic.
She currently visits Christie’s Hospital once a week and treats her condition with steroid cream, which can take two hours every night to apply.
The treatment has damaged her kidneys beyond repair. Coronavirus put a stop to her having dialysis treatment but while this can now resume, “there’s no point”, Marian says.
She currently has a minor virus in her lungs which she had as a child and which would normally be easily treated, but because she now has a severely compromised immune system, her body has no way to fight it.
The drugs she needs to treat her lungs cause even more damage to her kidneys and because her body is so ravaged and her immune system is “non-existent”, she would not be able to overcome the treatment she needs to fix the kidneys.
It’s a “vicious circle,” she says and her care is now wholly palliative.
“I know what’s happening,” Marian says, in a disconcertingly cheerful voice. “I’ve only been given three to six months to live. I’m still trying.
“If I had known how hard it was going to be, I don’t think I would have bothered and would have just enjoyed life instead.
“I have hit rock bottom during treatment, but then I think I’m glad I carried on and gave it a shot.”
She adds: “It’s not the transplant that’s killing me now, it’s all the side effects that are letting me down. I have fought everything.”
A friend of the pair has set up a fundraising page online to raise money for Marian and Derek. The Wirral 100 Motor Club has also announced they will hand out ‘Marian’s Trophy’ to the winner at all future Anglesey Grand events, in honour of Marian who is an avid Wirral 100 race fan.
Derek got into side car racing a coupe of years ago “by accident” he said and the couple attend the meets together. Marian, a keen artist, even designs the logo for the team and is a “valuable member”, says Derek proudly.
For now, Marian is trying to do as much as she can. “I’m trying to carry on as much as I can until it wants to take over,” she says. “I don’t know what else to say.” It’s the first time the bubbly woman has been lost for words during the conversation.
There are moments when the monumental challenge she is facing overwhelms her, she admits. Not so much at night time but at moments she is least expecting it, like while she is watching a film.
Where she does get emotional is talking about Derek, who she met eight years ago through work. The couple are trying to sort out a wedding in the next couple of months. They got engaged at the beginning of September when doctors told Marian there was nothing left they could do.
“It won’t be a long engagement though, due to circumstances out of our control,” she said. “We are going to enjoy every moment we have though.”
She has even written a song dedicated to Derek, saying: “I wanted to say thank you and to say what I thought of him. I called it ‘Diamond’ because he’s my rock, my diamond and he is unbreakable.” She hopes to record the song and release it to raise money for charity.
Her wish is to raise awareness of her disease and to urge people who have any doubts or concerns about a condition they are experiencing, no matter how small or trivial, to seek a medical opinion early.
The donations coming in from the GoFundMe page “mean the world” to Marian and Derek and ease the financial pressures that come with fighting a terminal illness.
Even little things make a difference, like allowing Derek to get time off work so the couple can spend as much precious time together as possible.
“It means time together without the stress of one less day pay,” Marian added. “Every moment we get together is a blessing and every donation is helping us do that.”
As well as Derek, Marian is trying to make the most of her time with her two adult children, who are 25 and 22, and her two grandsons and her one-year-old grandaughter.
“I have been lucky,” Marian says. “I’ve managed to get that in but I was expecting a lot more to be honest.
“It’s just a shame this has come to bite me on the bum.”
You can donate to Marian’s GoFundMe page here.