VIDEO: Trainee midwife whose house burnt down as her cancer returned launched video campaign to find stem cell donors and is now having a transplant

·8-min read

A remarkable trainee midwife who refused to be beaten when her house burnt down on the week that her cancer returned went on to launch a social media campaign to find stem cell donors and is having a lifesaving transplant today.

Facing adversity with admirable humour, when Emily Barker, 30, was diagnosed with the blood cancer Hodgkin’s lymphoma in June 2019, she called it Bill and, together with her carer fiancé Keil Flaherty, 30, and their twins Mia and Willow, six, dubbed her chemotherapy ‘Kill Bill.’

Then, when a glass left on a garden deckchair magnified the sun’s rays and set fire to their house in the same week that the cancer she hoped she had beaten returned, instead of wallowing in self-pity, she felt grateful that no one was hurt.

Told, furthermore, that she needed a stem cell transplant in August 2021, but there was no suitable donor on the register, rather than crumbling, she mounted a social media campaign attracting 8,000 followers – many of whom joined the Anthony Nolan stem cell register – and she found a match.

Emily, a midwifery student, of Crofton, west Yorkshire, who is having her transplant today at St James’s University Hospital in Leeds, said: “I have to admit that 2020 was my worst year ever, as my cancer had returned and I lost my home.

“The fire was devastating. It even meant postponing my cancer treatment by four months, as I had no fixed address to isolate in.”

Emily can’t wait to marry her partner Keil in March 2022 (Collect/PA Real Life).
Emily can’t wait to marry her partner Keil in March 2022 (Collect/PA Real Life).

She added: “But I refused to give up, was found emergency accommodation with the help of my MP, Yvette Cooper, and now I’m cancer free and receiving my stem cells today.

“I can’t believe I found a donor. But the best part is knowing that by gaining so many followers to my campaign – many of them going on to join the donor register – I’ve also helped others to find matches.”

Emily first realised there was something wrong in early 2019 when she started feeling a severe pain in her left shoulder whenever she drank alcohol.

She said: “I thought I just needed to cut back on drinking, but the pain was so bad that soon I couldn’t even have one glass of wine without it throbbing.

“So, after some Googling, I discovered it could be a sign that something more serious was wrong with me. It could even be a sign of cancer.

“At first, doctors attributed the pain to my weight – I am 5ft 8in and weigh 16st 4lb – but when I also experienced itchy feet, night sweats and became breathless on walks, I went to A&E.”

Emily is excitedly planning for the future with her family after finding a stem cell donor in September 2021 (Collect/PA Real Life).
Emily is excitedly planning for the future with her family after finding a stem cell donor in September 2021 (Collect/PA Real Life).

After an initial X-ray at her local hospital showed her left lung to be completely white, indicating a mass, Emily was transferred to Pinderfields General Hospital in nearby Wakefield, where she had a CT scan and further tests.

And in June 2019, just days before her twin girls’ birthday, she was told she had grade four Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

“When they sent me to Pinderfields General Hospital for further tests and a CT scan after my X-ray, I knew it was cancer.”

Emily was diagnosed with cancer in June 2019 (Collect/PA Real Life).
Emily was diagnosed with cancer in June 2019 (Collect/PA Real Life).

She added: “It was just before my twins’ birthday in June 2019 when they formally diagnosed me with Hodgkin’s.

“But the doctor was amazing and said we’d caught it in time.”

Starting 12 gruelling sessions of chemotherapy, Emily was overjoyed when doctors announced in January 2020 that she was in remission.

Emily was overwhelmed when she was officially in remission in January 2020 (Collect/PA Real Life).
Emily was overwhelmed when she was officially in remission in January 2020 (Collect/PA Real Life).

“My 12 sessions of chemotherapy were two weeks apart,” she said.

“It was tough, but Keil and my girls were amazing. We named my cancer Bill and called my chemotherapy ‘Kill Bill!’

“In January 2020 I was in remission and started radiotherapy. We were so relieved.”

She added: “Despite being in the middle of a pandemic, I had survived and now I could enjoy being with my family again.”

Planning for the future, Emily and Keil excitedly booked their wedding for April 2021.

“Keil proposed to me during my chemotherapy,” said Emily.

Emily was had 12 sessions of chemotherapy every two weeks(Collect/PA Real Life).
Emily was had 12 sessions of chemotherapy every two weeks(Collect/PA Real Life).

She added: “We wanted all our friends and family there and a big wedding. So, we booked it for April 2021, in the hope that Covid regulations would be over.”

But Emily was heartbroken when, in March 2020, doctors revealed her cancer had returned – only that this time it was more aggressive.

Then, just seven days later, a devastating fire destroyed their family home and all their possessions – leaving them homeless and forced to sofa surf with relatives for four months.

Emily had chemotherapy until January 2020, when doctors revealed she was in remission (Collect/PA Real Life).
Emily had chemotherapy until January 2020, when doctors revealed she was in remission (Collect/PA Real Life).

“In January 2020 a scan revealed what looked like scar tissue on my lungs,” she said.

“But, over eight months, it started to grow and by the time it reached eight centimetres I had a biopsy and discovered in March 2020 that it was cancer.

“I was heartbroken, but seven days later, a fire engulfed our house leaving our family homeless.”

Emily refused to give up when medics revealed her cancer had returned in March 2020 (Collect/PA Real Life).
Emily refused to give up when medics revealed her cancer had returned in March 2020 (Collect/PA Real Life).

She added: “A glass left on a deckchair in the garden had become like a magnifying glass and caused the door and house to catch alight.

“We were all watching Frozen 2, we smelt smoke and thought people were having a BBQ.

“We didn’t know until Keil went to check he hadn’t left the hob on and saw that the door was on fire. He shouted for us all to get out.”

Emily was devastated when in the same week medics revealed her cancer had returned the family home burnt down (Collect/PA Real Life).
Emily was devastated when in the same week medics revealed her cancer had returned the family home burnt down (Collect/PA Real Life).

She added: “Luckily, none of us were harmed, But we lost everything. It was our family home where the twins took their first steps.

“I just remember crying on the lawn as I watched my house burn down.”

Luckily, in June, with the help of their MP, the family were rehoused and in that month she was able to resume treatment.

Emily knew something was wrong when she started getting throbbing pain after drinking alcohol (Collect/PA Real Life).
Emily knew something was wrong when she started getting throbbing pain after drinking alcohol (Collect/PA Real Life).

“We had to wait four months to be rehoused,” she said.

“My treatment had to be postponed while we looked for a permanent address. It was incredibly stressful.”

Back in treatment in June 2020, Emily had a difficult 13 months ahead of her – before finally being told she was in remission in August 2021.

Emily and her family were homeless for four months after a fire destroyed their home (Collect/PA Real Life).
Emily and her family were homeless for four months after a fire destroyed their home (Collect/PA Real Life).

She said: “The cancer was more aggressive this time. We postponed our wedding and I started immunotherapy right away, but it stopped working in April 2021 and the doctor advised me to make the most of my time with my family.

“Then doctors were stunned when a different immunotherapy treatment called pembrolizumab started working and, in August 2021, I went into remission.”

Despite the good news, Emily was not yet out of danger, as her medical team felt she needed a blood stem cell transfusion or her cancer was at high risk of returning – but no match could be found on the database, making her outlook bleak.

Emily’s home caught fire in the same week she discovered her cancer had returned in March 2020 (Collect/PA Real Life).
Emily’s home caught fire in the same week she discovered her cancer had returned in March 2020 (Collect/PA Real Life).

“Doctors told me that my cancer would return quickly,” she said.

“I needed a blood stem cell donor right away, but I didn’t have a match on the database. After everything I’d been through I couldn’t give up now.

“I had to do all I could to stay with my family.”

Refusing to be defeated, Emily started her incredibly successful video campaign to attract stem cell donors.

And, in September this year, just a week before turning 30, she discovered she had a match.

“I started making videos on TikTok to get people to sign up to donate stem cells,” she said.

Emily refused to give up when medics revealed her cancer had returned in March 2020 (Collect/PA Real Life).
Emily refused to give up when medics revealed her cancer had returned in March 2020 (Collect/PA Real Life).

She added: “I attracted nearly 8,000 followers and I think they’ve all signed up. It felt good as I wasn’t just doing it for myself, I was doing it for everyone who needed a donor.

“But as I prepared to turn 30 in September, not knowing what the future would hold, I was shocked when I was contacted to say a match had been found.

“I have no idea if the donor came from my social media campaign, but I like to hope so.”

Starting her transfusion today, Emily is now excitedly looking to the future with her family and plans to marry the love of her life in March 2022 in front of 65 friends and family in a modern country barn in Staffordshire.

“I can’t wait to marry Keil,” she said.

“It’s been a long road, but to know that after the transfusion we can carry on with life as normal is amazing.”

Emily was determined to stay strong for her twin girls, Willow and Mia (Collect/PA Real Life).
Emily was determined to stay strong for her twin girls, Willow and Mia (Collect/PA Real Life).

And Emily hopes that, having galvanised such amazing support from her campaign, that donors will continue to join the Anthony Nolan register and save more lives.

“I can’t stress how important it is to sign up to donate,” she said.

“Donation has saved my life and, after a bleak 2020, my future now looks bright.”

For more information about stem cell donation go to www.anthonynolan.org/JoinForEmily

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