Abbe Ferguson's life was saved by a stem cell transplant from a stranger during lockdown
A Scots teenager has been saved from cancer thanks to a stem cell transplant after a match was found during lockdown hundreds of miles away in Europe.
Abbe Ferguson, 13, is in remission after the stem cell donation from a stranger worked. The donor’s cells were harvested at the height of the first Covid-19 wave last spring then flown across the Channel to the Royal Hospital for Children in Glasgow where Abbe had the life saving transplant on 2 June last year. Now Abbe has been chosen to share her remarkable story for the first time to help launch in Scotland a new fundraising campaign.
She’s urging people to Race for Life at Home this spring and carry on the fight against the disease as the nation looks beyond lockdown. She’s inspiring people to run, walk or jog 5K this April for Cancer Research UK to fund life-saving research.
People can visit raceforlife.org to enter Race for Life at Home for £5 then receive a Race pack which includes a medal. Money raised will help scientists find new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer, helping to save more lives.
Abbe, of Kilmarnock, Ayrshire said: “I’m incredibly grateful to feel well again.
“It’s difficult to find the right words to thank my donor. She’s given me back my life.
All we know is that the donor is female, from Europe and she made the donation during the pandemic. I remember feeling very sad when I was told I had cancer. There were times when I felt angry and asked, why me mum? Now I’ve been through that cancer journey then it’s important to me to help others. I’d like to be a cancer nurse working with children when I leave school as I know what it is like to face cancer.”
And Abbe who was supported every step of the way through cancer by her mum Lynn Findlay, 40, dad John Ferguson, 42, and sister Ava, five, knows exactly how vital it is to keep raising funds for life-saving research.
Abbe’s mum Lynn recalls vividly the moment their lives were turned upside down on Friday 13 December 2019 after tests revealed Abbe had acute myeloid leukaemia, a cancer that starts inside the bone marrow, the soft tissue inside bones that helps form blood cells. Abbe had visited the GP after several weeks of being pale, feeling exhausted and suffering from dizzy spells, chest pain as well as nose bleeds. The GP took blood then phoned only hours later advising Abbe and her mum to go straight up to University Hospital Crosshouse in Kilmarnock for more tests.
After an initial overnight hospital where Abbe had a blood transfusion, she was transferred to hospital in Glasgow. Doctors there confirmed she had leukaemia.
Mum Lynn said: “I broke down at that point.
“The doctors at Crosshouse hospital had told me they suspected leukaemia but I’d still been praying it was something else. As a parent I was like, ‘where do I turn, what do I do?’ My beautiful brave daughter had the fight of her life on her hands but she never once complained. She just got on with it and worked hard to get back on her feet.
“Abbe was in hospital for nine months and for the majority of that time was in strict isolation. She missed her friends so much and being in hospital during the first lockdown was frightening. It felt like we were living through a nightmare. I can’t fault the NHS at all though, they were brilliant.”
Abbe started on chemotherapy which made her feel sick and her long hair fell out. Risk of infection meant only close family were able to see her. It was a hammerblow when more tests showed the treatment wasn’t working well enough. In April last year, doctors explained that Abbe’s best chance of survival was a stem cell transplant. It meant searching the stem cell register for a match to Abbe’s tissue type. Just days after Abbe’s 13th birthday, which she marked in hospital with cake and balloons, it was a huge relief when a perfect match was found.
Abbe had conditioning treatment to kill off her bone marrow in preparation for receiving the donor’s healthy cells which would reboot her immune system and hopefully stop leukaemia cells from growing again. The transplant of stem cells which was administered in to Abbe’s bloodstream through a drip went ahead on 2 June.
Lynn said: “It felt like the best thing ever to know they had found a perfect match for Abbe, just total relief.
“The transplant only took about 20 minutes. They had four bags of stem cells in total from the donor. Abbe was given two bags of the stem cells the first day then another bag of the stem cells the next morning. I’m eternally grateful to Abbe’s donor.
“They say it usually takes about two weeks for the transplant to actually work but I think it made a difference almost straight away. The doctors were amazed by how quickly Abbe’s counts went up showing things were going in the right direction.”
But the first five weeks after transplant were tough. Abbe was in pain battling graft versus host disease where the donor cells attacked her body’s own cells. Finally in August last year she was well enough to go home. Balloons and a welcome home banner were put up and Abbe could hug her wee sister Ava for the first time in months and play with the family’s pet Labrador Ollie. Abbe who is a keen dancer is hoping to return to classes after lockdown. She’s also looking forward to starting in second year at Kilmarnock Academy. It was a huge boost in January this year when blood tests which Abbe has every fortnight showed she was in remission. Her mum has wise words for any parent caring for a youngster with a serious illness.
Lynn said: “Shout and scream if you want but make sure you get the support you need.
“Take a day at a time and look after yourself. Abbe and I have always been close but she’s been amazing through this. Cancer has made her grow up quickly. I’m so proud of Abbe and if we can help other families then we’re glad to. We’d like to do everything we can to support research for gentler, more effective treatments for cancer.”
Cancer Research UK is predicting a staggering £300 million drop in income caused by Covid-19 over the next three years which could put future medical breakthroughs at risk.
All 400 mass-participation Race for Life events across the UK were cancelled last year to protect the country’s health during the pandemic. And as the country emerges from lockdown the charity’s much-loved Race for Life events which were scheduled for this spring and early summer have also now been postponed. This includes the Race for Life Irvine 5K and 10K which had been due to take place at Beach Park, Beach Drive on Wednesday 19 June.
Cancer Research UK’s Race for Life, which has been in partnership with Tesco for 20 years, is an inspiring series of 3K, 5K, 10K, Pretty Muddy and Pretty Muddy Kids events which raise millions of pounds every year to help beat cancer by funding crucial research.
A live broadcast on the Cancer Research UK Race for Life Facebook page and Race for Life Instagram pages on Saturday 24 April will include an energiser from a fitness expert as well as inspirational messages of support from people who have been through cancer. Participants are then invited to set off on their own Race for Life. Organisers are also inviting participants to share photos and videos on social media using the hashtag #RaceatHome
Every year around 32,400 people are diagnosed with cancer in Scotland* and one in two people in the UK born after 1960 will get cancer in their lifetime.
But the good news is more people are surviving the disease now than ever before. Cancer survival in the UK has doubled since the early 1970s and Cancer Research UK’s work has been at the heart of that progress.
Lisa Adams, Cancer Research UK’s spokeswoman for Scotland, said: “We’d like to thank Abbe and her family for sharing their story.
“The truth is, Covid-19 has slowed us down. But we will never stop and we are absolutely determined to continue to create better cancer treatments for tomorrow. Even though we have to Race for Life differently this spring, nothing is going to stop us running, walking or jogging to raise money to help beat cancer.
"That’s why we need as many people as possible to sign up to Race for Life at Home this April, to stand united and do something extraordinary to help beat cancer.
“We’re constantly monitoring the Covid-19 situation and are working hard to move our mass participation Race for Life events to the autumn and to make sure they can go ahead safely and with all necessary Covid-19 guidelines in place.”
The Race for Life 5K and 10K which are open to all ages and abilities have been rescheduled for this autumn and are now due to take place at Beach Park, Beach Drive, Irvine on Sunday 17 October.
To enter Race for Life at Home visit raceforlife.org or call 0300 123 0770. Join in and share with #RaceatHome