Surviving cancer – a personal account from South Africa to Israel
By Robbie Eddles
I am now 20 years old.
My journey with cancer was an eleven-year intermittent battle, due to two relapses. It began in 2008, when I was almost 7- years-old and I was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL), a type of cancer of the blood and bone marrow that affects white blood cells. It appeared as a lump on the left side of my groin. At first, the lump was small, and our doctor examined me, but didn’t appear too worried as she just advised my parents to keep an eye on it. However, the growth grew larger, and our doctor referred us to a paediatrician.
A biopsy was performed, and the results were shocking; I had Leukaemia. I started treatment, chemotherapy and after a very long and difficult battle, I was finally in remission and then I completed two years of maintenance treatment. I was cured, there was no trace of cancer in my bone marrow.
Or so we all thought…
Five years later, in January 2014, at the age of 13, I had an unrelated MRI scan, which showed unexpected signs of leukemia. Another biopsy was performed, which confirmed that my leukemia had returned and that I had relapsed. We were all distraught and devastated at the news and I was shattered that I had to go through the stringent regime of chemotherapy again. It was during this relapse that my oncologist told me I would need a bone marrow transplant. High dose chemotherapy started, and I had to endure all the side effects as a teenager, which included high risks of infection, isolation, nausea and vomiting, changes in smell and taste, mucositis, hair loss and fatigue. At the end of it, I was thankfully in remission once again. A worldwide search for a bone marrow donor started but no donor match was found. I had reached remission, I was clear of cancer, perhaps a transplant wasn’t necessary.
Or so we all thought… again…
Another 5 years passed, and at the end of January 2019, when I was 17 years old, I got extremely sick. I felt extraordinarily tired and was very pale. My mom took me for blood tests. The blood results indicated that I was anaemic, with very low red and white blood cells. I was immediately hospitalised for further investigation to determine the diagnosis. I had been in remission for 5 years, so no one suspected a relapse. I had been on a school trip to India, and I had also swum in the Tugela River, the largest river in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal Province. We thought that perhaps I had caught a bug from the river.
Shockingly, it turned out to be a second relapse with the same Leukaemia. Chemotherapy options had now run out and my oncologist had to start the process of looking for a bone marrow donor.
No match was found!
Next destination – Israel.
A treatment called CAR-T therapy was offered in Israel and my doctor consulted with the Israeli oncology team and they accepted me as a patient. Two weeks later my Mom and I travelled to Israel as I had to urgently start the treatment. I experienced severe side effects, but they managed to get me back into remission. Remission meant I could have a haplo transplant (from a family member that is not a perfect match). This is a relatively new treatment, which has only been available in South Africa since 2014. My eldest sister was my closest familial match.
After months of recovery, some minor Graft vs. Host disease in December of 2019 and two years post-transplant, I am back to full health and strength. I am no longer in fear of having a relapse.
I consider myself as extremely fortunate because I had access to the CAR-T treatment. My South African doctors, the fantastic Israeli doctors, my transplant doctor, my oncologist, and my sister saved my life.
To my parents, family, and friends, thank you for giving me strength, courage, and wisdom to face cancer. Thank you for all the sacrifices you made, for never giving up on me. I love you with all my heart and I am grateful l am yours.
I went to this amazing city-like medical centre, Sheba Medical Centre in Tel Hashomer outside of Tel Aviv. The staff – the doctors, nurses and the social worker – were incredible. They were very kind, friendly and hospitable. I also managed to go out and see the beautiful and historical cities and places, such as Jaffa, Tel-Aviv, Caesarea, and Jerusalem. I am so thankful to the staff, for all that they did for me and to the doctors for clearing my bone marrow of Leukemia, which allowed me to have a transplant.
I will always have fond memories of Israel and it will always hold a special place within my heart.
About the writer:
Having experienced much of his young life receiving treatment for cancer, Robbie Eddles is today 20 years-old, living with his family in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal Province, South Africa and is currently preparing for his final matriculation examination.
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