Anne Bentley thought meeting the stem cell donor who saved her life was the perfect Christmas gift, until he told her more good news.
Anne waited two years to thank dental student Sean Haycock for helping her to beat leukaemia for the second time.
When they finally got to hug in 2019, Sean revealed he was about to donate more cells to cure another woman with blood cancer, just as he had saved Anne.
Anne, 65, said: “Sean gave me the ultimate gift, he saved my life. He’s my hero. I was so excited to meet him for the first time. It made Christmas so special.
“I couldn’t believe it when he told me he was going to donate again. I felt very emotional, because I knew how much it would mean to that person. I hope all three of us can meet up one day.”
Sean said: “I was nervous about meeting Anne but when she walked in, it felt like I had known her for years.”
Anne was first diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukaemia in 2002. She dismissed her symptoms – night sweats, fatigue and pain in her side – as the menopause, until a blood test revealed she had high levels of defective white blood cells.
She had to take chemotherapy tablets and attend check-ups every three months, and the cancer went into remission. But 15 years later a blood test revealed that Anne, who has a daughter Lynsey, had developed a different kind of leukaemia.
The seamstress, from Shipley in West Yorkshire, said: “They told me it was very rare to have two types of leukaemia. I’d been looking a bit pale and feeling tired. I went to pieces. It felt so unfair.”
This time, Anne could not manage the disease with drugs. She needed a stem cell transplant but none of her family matched her rare blood tissue group.
Her only hope was to find a stranger on the donor register. Luckily Sean, 22, was a match and Anne said: “It was such a relief.”
Anne spent three months having chemotherapy to blast the cancer and prepare her body for a transplant, wiping out her own immune system so it would not try to fight Sean’s transplanted cells.
Anne said: “I was so weak I couldn’t get up to have a shower. I began to wonder if my body was going to get better but my family and friends kept me going.”
Blood cancer charity Anthony Nolan arranged for Sean, who studied in New-castle, to travel to the Royal Hallamshire Hospital in Sheffield to donate his cells.
Strict protocols to protect the donor and recipient’s identities meant Anne could only write to Sean after 100 days to thank him but could not include any information that might identify her.
The pair became penpals and Sean said: “Those letters made it hit home what I had done. It convinced a lot of my friends to join the stem cell register.”
After two years the pair were allowed to meet and Anne and her family travelled to Sean’s home in County Durham, where his parents laid on a festive spread.
By Christmas 2019 Sean was having injections to make his bone marrow release more stem cells into his blood, so they could be easily harvested for the second transplant. It is exceptionally rare for a donor to give cells to two people.
Sean does not know who the recipient is but was told they survived the 100 days post-transplant. He said: “I had only been back on the register 40 days when I got a call saying I was a match for someone else. I didn’t hesitate, I was happy to help.”