'˜It felt like our whole lives were ruined'
When Joe Thomas began to find himself suffering from back pain, he assumed his job as a HGV driver was to blame.
What he didn’t expect was to discover that he had cancer.
The 41-year-old from Hayling Island has had his life turned upside down.
Joe was diagnosed with multiple myeloma – a type of blood and bone cancer in October 2014.
Joe works away during the week and he began to notice that he was regularly in pain.
‘I used to get a lot of back pain, especially in my lower back,’ Joe says.
‘Sometimes I would feel like I had broken a rib. I would have terrible pains. I used to get a lot of pain in my side as well.
‘I had a lot of trouble walking. I thought it was my job because I was sitting behind a wheel for 70 hours a week.’
One day, Joe called his wife Sharon while he was away for work and said that he was in a lot of pain. And when he returned home two days later, he could barely walk.
Sharon told him he couldn’t go back to work and days later he suffered a panic attack because the pain was so bad.
A few days later after several tests, Joe was called into the oncology department at Queen Alexandra Hospital and was told to bring his wife with him. It was then that he was diagnosed with cancer.
‘I felt like I needed a drink - my mouth went completely dry,’ he says.
‘The first thing you think when someone says you have cancer is “that’s it - I’m going to die”.
‘I asked if it was terminal and the consultant said he didn’t know but that they had patients who had had the condition for 15 years.
‘It’s very hard to explain the feeling. It’s a gut twister. I think Sharon took it harder than me.’
Sharon, 44, adds: ‘I just felt like the floor had opened. I felt like our whole life was ruined. Everything had gone completely wrong.
‘That same year I had lost my best friend to bowel cancer. I just couldn’t believe it. It was just horrendous.
‘But at the same time, I knew I had to be really strong because he would really need me now.’
Multiple myeloma is from the same family as leukaemia but it affects the bone as well as the blood.
This means that it can damage your bone structure. As a result, Joe has 37 fractures to his bones.
It means he has holes in his bones where the cancer has chipped away at it.
As part of his treatment, Joe went through a course of chemotherapy which lasted five months. He then had a short cycle of radiotherapy and shortly afterwards he had a bone marrow biopsy.
He then went on to have two bone marrow transplants.
The first one, which was in July 2015, was called an autologous stem cell transplant which means stem cells from Joe are harvested and cleaned and put back into the body to prepare it.
The second bone marrow transplant is called an allogeneic stem cell transplant which is stem cells harvested from a donor.
This had to be performed to give Joe a new immune system to help fight the myeloma and to put him into remission.
But the operation came with its risks.
‘They tell you that there’s a 15 per cent chance it can kill you,’ Joe adds.
‘You could pick up an infection and then they can’t stop it.
‘But they said if the cancer comes back - without a donor it will come back worse. Because of my condition, anything I get has to be looked at closely.’
Joe and Sharon were told not to make a decision straight away and to go home and think about it.
But it didn’t take long for Joe to make his mind up and he called them later that afternoon and said he wanted to go ahead with the operation.
The donor came from Germany, where it’s compulsory to have a swab to see if people could be a match and could become a donor.
It turns out that Joe’s donor was a 10/10 match and it was as close as it could be without being related by blood.
His doctor told him he probably wouldn’t have found another match that close.
It was a long recovery after the operation and Joe spent six weeks in hospital.
Both Joe and Sharon have heaped praise on the NHS for the care that he received during that time at Southampton General Hospital.
But shortly after his second operation, doctors found the glandular fever virus and Joe was rushed back into hospital.
He came out two days before Christmas so he could spend it at home with his family.
‘I wasn’t allowed to drink but that was the least of my worries,’ he says.
‘It hurt to eat anything. Then just after Christmas I caught another infection. I had a high temperature and they put me in hospital again.’
The type of cancer he has arises from plasma cells which form part of the immune system.
As a result, Joe’s immune system was extremely weak and still is. It means he has to be so careful now about catching any illnesses as it can have serious consequences.
He often wears a mask when he goes out to avoid catching any germs which could develop into something more serious.
‘I wasn’t allowed to leave the house at first,’ he adds.
‘I couldn’t even answer the door in case someone had a cold.’
Sharon has been providing constant care to Joe, whilst working full time and trying not to pick up any germs.
‘She had to get me up in the morning, give me my medication, get me dressed and then go to work,’ he says.
‘All that time I was very ill and I was lucky that I didn’t pick anything up. But that’s by being sensible and trying not to pick anything up.’
But by March last year, Joe had improved massively and was feeling much better. In October he went back to work part time.
The condition isn’t curable, but it’s treatable.
‘It’s highly possible that it will never show its face again - or it could return tomorrow.’
Sharon adds: ‘It’s always with you, in your head. But he has been so good and so positive. He just gets on with things. He’s amazing.
‘I am very proud of how he’s done and how he is fighting fit. His attitude is very good.’
Now, Joe doesn’t often leave the house because it’s not safe. He rarely goes shopping or goes out for dinner and he can’t even leave the country.
The couple have children in their extended family that they don’t see because it’s dangerous as Joe could pick up an infection.
But despite all that, the couple make the most of what they can do, going on walks together with their dogs and enjoying their time together.
Last year, they bought a caravan and they go on holiday in different parts of the UK. It means Joe has his own space and is less likely to get ill.
‘We do go out for meals but we have to be careful about where we go and what time. I’m not allowed to be around kids at all,’ he says.
‘It has totally changed my life. But you’ve got to be positive. You can’t give up at the first hurdle.’