A young Ballymena woman who was diagnosed in March with Acute Myloid Leukaemia is on the road to recovery.
Lauren Neilly, aged 24 from Carniny was given the devastating diagnosis on March 23 after she went to her GP for chronic toothache and a small cut that wouldn't heal.
Just hours after being diagnosed Lauren, a bank worker living in Glasgow, was admitted to Queen Elizabeth University Hospital where she spent the next six months.
Lauren was unaware at the time but her haemoglobin count was so low hospital staff were “stunned” that she was able to walk into the hospital.
In fact if it had been a day or two later Lauren's body would have completely shut down and the outcome for her would have been entirely different.
Now in remission Lauren has moved back to her home town of Ballymena to recuperate after months of treatment. She plans to move back to Scotland after her wedding to fiance Ben which takes place in Brig o' Doon, Ayrshire next June.
Lauren explained that focusing on her upcoming nuptials enabled her to get through some tough times. She underwent four rounds of chemotherapy, two of which were aimed at killing the cancer and the other two to keep her in remission.
During her treatment Lauren spent long periods of time in her hospital room unable to venture out due to the risk of infection.
She said: “The longest I spent in my room without getting outside was four weeks and I felt very confined, however when I was allowed out I would go down to the canteen and the shops. I did a lot of wedding planning because I needed something positive to focus on.”
However, Lauren added that it “wasn't all doom and gloom” thanks to the presence of her fiance Ben, mum Sam and dad David and the care she received from hospital staff.
She said: “The staff decorated my room with balloons and banners for my birthday and got me a wee cake. They also hung a countdown to my wedding on the wall which gave me something to focus on.
“The care I got was brilliant and there were so many things the staff did for me which I was so grateful for. I was a member of a band at school and when an orchestra came to play at the hospital, even though I wasn't allowed to leave my room, they sectioned off a small area where I could sit alone and watch.
“It was also a great boost to have my mum and dad there and that was possible due to all the fundraising efforts in Ballymena and Glasgow. Thanks to the money that was raised my parents and Ben were able to be with me through my treatment and I also had lots of visits from my friends and colleagues.”
Lauren was discharged from hospital on August 31 and said an “emotional goodbye” to the staff.
She said: “I was happy to get out but it was emotional saying goodbye to everyone. They will definitely be getting a wedding invite.”
Lauren explained that before her diagnosis she had been feeling unwell for a while and visited the dentist due to problems with her gums.
She said: “My dentist was fantastic, she became concerned after I had a root extraction which failed to heal and organised an appointment at the dental hospital.
“However, in the meantime I was feeling run down and my mum came with me to one of my GP appointments where she insisted I have a blood test done. Later that day at around 4pm I got a call to say I needed to go to hospital straight away.
“I thought I was going to the hospital for a blood transfusion and I had planned to go back to Ballymena that night for a break. Instead I spent six months in hospital.
“I knew I was run down and I wasn't feeling my best but I never once thought it could be cancer.”
Lauren was told she had Acute Myloid Leukaemia, a cancer that is normally found in older people.
She said: “I was in a daze and everything was a blur. I was listening to the consultant and thinking this is not right. You hear people taking about cancer but you never expect it to happen to you. But the moment we got to the hospital the staff were amazing. They were able to tell me that they thought it was Leukaemia but they would have to do a bone marrow test to confirm it.
“My dad asked the consultant what the outcome would be and he said 50/50. It was a shock to me but he had to be honest.”
Through her experience Lauren has also become aware of the importance of blood donation, particularly blood platelets.
She said: “I have become so aware now of the importance of blood donation especially platelets which I had never heard of before. There are certain requirements that need to be met to donate platelets but it is something people could look into if they wish. Blood donation not only helps people in accidents but it is crucial for people with blood cancers.”
Lauren said that despite “some wobbles” during her treatment she “surprised” herself.
She said: “I had bad days when I felt really down. It is hard but I knew I had to get through each round of chemo.
“In a way being back home in Ballymena has been harder emotionally. In hospital you have this adrenaline and that feeling of I have to get through this. But now I am home I have all this time to think. I am in remission and hopefully it will stay that way. I have regular check ups at Laurel House at Antrim Area Hospital. They have been fantastic and I have received a lot of support from them.
“I am still getting aches and pains and I get tired quite easily but it is nice to be able to get out and about in the fresh air of Ballymena. It is all about trying to get back to normal. I still get nervous at each appointment about whether the bloods will come back ok.
“The first day I was at the hospital all they said was just take each day as it comes and that is still what we are doing.”
Lauren, who works for a branch of Barclay's, added that she has been overwhelmed by the support from friends, colleagues, family and the public over the last few months.
She said: “They have left my job open for me while I recuperate and Ben has just qualified to be a teacher and has a probation year to do in Scotland. At the moment I am just taking one day at a time but the plan is to move back to Scotland at some point.
“My colleagues at the bank have been amazing, especially Liz Myles, who organised a justgiving page to raise funds to help with finances during my treatment.
“They also climbed Conic Hill in Scotland on June 10 and on July 15 they climbed Ben Lomond and were joined by my mum, dad, brother Adam and his partner Charoltte to show our support. To coincide with that over 100 people in Ballymena climbed Slemish Mountain which was fantastic.
“On the day McAtamney's of Thomas Street provided all the burgers and had collection tins in their shop and Sainsburys provided the baps.
“The support my family and I have received has been overwhelming. Thanks to the generosity of so many people a lot of the financial stress was taken away.
“CLIC Sargent was also a big help. We knew nothing about them until I was diagnosed and they provided wonderful accommodation across the road from the hospital. They support children and young adults with Leukaemia and cancer.”
Collection tins were also placed in Follow Coffee, Cafe Nero, McAtamney's Greenvale Street, Frys Road Spar and the Front Page bar. Castle Tower School took part in raising funds for Lauren as did Boots opticians in the Tower Centre where Lauren's mother works. Rad-air also held a country night.
Lauren went on to thank the Gilmore family who have also been a great support. Zoe Gilmore was diagnosed in August 2017 with a Craniopharyngioma, a rare form of brain tumour. She has since completed proton therapy treatment in Jacksonville, America.
A number of fundraising events were held for both Zoe and Lauren. Among them is a raffle for two signed rugby shirts. Tickets are available at The Party Zone, Greenvale Street, Ballymena or from any member of the Gilmore or Neilly family. The draw will take place on December 15.
Lauren concluded by urging people who feel unwell to trust their instincts and insist on a blood test.
“I was lucky to have my mum with me that day, if it wasn't for her I would have been too nervous to ask and who knows what would have happened, ” Lauren said.