For four years, Hannah Spencer bravely battled life-threatening cancer. Now she has been given the all-clear, as Wendy Roberts discovered.
HER life has been anything but normal for the past four years – with a merry-go-round of gruelling cancer treatments including chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant.
But now she has celebrated her victory over her leukaemia like any other happy 20-year-old, by enjoying a cocktail and night on the town with friends.
“It was wonderful to go out and celebrate,” said Hannah, of Duffield. “I had the biggest smile on my face. To be honest, the news came as a real surprise.
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“Mum and I were so happy when we left the hospital. We decided to go out for tea and then my friends invited me to have some drinks with them. It was so much fun.”
Hannah was told she had zero leukaemia cells in her system only three days before her 20th birthday.
She went to Nottingham’s City Hospital to receive her results.
“The appointment was a routine one,” said Hannah, of Hall Farm Road. “So I didn’t expect to be told the amazing news.
“At first my consultant asked me if I’d had a good summer, then he just came out with it. He looked at my notes and said that zero traces of leukaemia had been detected in my most recent blood tests. I remember his words. He said ‘you’ve hit zero’.
“I was so shocked and surprised. I was so happy.”
Hannah has been fighting cancer for the last four years. The former Ecclesbourne pupil was diagnosed just days after her 16th birthday.
Hannah’s mum, Sarah Spencer, 48, has also been celebrating since the news.
“It is fantastic – I’m lost for words,” she said. “We feel like all the stress and worry has gone.
“The last four years have been very difficult. Hannah has been through so much and we’ve had to watch her fight. In my heart, I think I always knew she’d get better but that doesn’t take away how hard everything has been.
“My mum always said that Hannah would win the fight and she’s right. She had faith in Hannah. We all hoped she’d be all right.
“The alternative was too hard to think about. When you’re faced with cancer, you have to think that you’re going to win the battle.”
Hannah starts a two-year college course at Broomfield Hall next week, in animal care. But despite the all-clear, she knows she will find full-time education tiring.
“I’ve been offered some help at college so I can cope on the course,” explains Hannah. “I will get some support during the day and I’m really grateful.
“I will be picked up and taken home by taxi and someone will be available to help me take notes if I’m getting tired.
“I’m still trying to get my brain in action after all the chemo and radiotherapy. All I’ve wanted to do during the treatment is sleep.
“I’ve felt so tired and ill. It has been a really hard time. But I want to start learning again. Going to college is really important to me.”
Hannah has received a huge amount of support from her friends and family. Mother and father Sarah and Nigel have done all they can.
Hannah’s brothers, Joe-Joe, 13, and 18-year-old Dan have also done their bit.
“My friends never stopped caring either,” said Hannah. “They didn’t forget about me when their lives got exciting and they left to go to university.
“I also want to say thanks to all the doctors at the hospitals. I spent time at Nottingham’s Queen’s Medical Centre and Nottingham City Hospital.
“Everyone was so kind to me. The support groups were amazing. And all the cancer charities that fixed up treats for me and other cancer patients need a special mention. These charities made our lives a tiny bit happier when we were feeling very sick.”
Hannah was told she needed a bone marrow transplant and a suitable match was found – from an anonymous donor.
She said: “We know the donor’s a woman and she was 28 when she donated her bone marrow. We also know she lives in the UK.
“It’s really strange to think that I’m not the person I was. Everything that used to be me has been taken away and replaced by someone else’s bone marrow. I will always be grateful to this lady.”
Doctors diagnosed Hannah with a rare form of leukaemia, called chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML), which affects only 20 children in the UK each year.
Hannah’s leukaemia developed slowly and got worse over time. In chronic leukaemia, the cells are almost fully developed but are not completely normal. In CML, the abnormal cells develop from the myeloid blood stem cells.
In Hannah’s case, the rogue chromosome lies dormant but it can strike at any time. Treatment targets the gene and attempts to literally “switch it off”.
Hannah lost her hair during treatment and stopped going out on her own.
During her battle, she then took the brave decision to have some of her eggs collected and frozen in case the invasive treatment ruined her chances of becoming a mum in later life.
“It was hoped that the bone marrow transplant would clear the cancer pretty quickly and I’d be cured,” said Hannah. “But things didn’t quite go to plan.
“After the first transplant, traces of cancer were still found in me. Every time I went to the hospital for my blood results, it was never a zero.”
Last year, in an attempt to obliterate the last few cancer cells, Hannah had another top-up transplant of bone marrow. And in January she had even more. The same donor was used.
“The last 20 months were hard,” said mum Sarah. “We were always hoping to get all the all-clear from doctors but the blood results never revealed the magic zero result.
“And before that, Hannah was really unwell again. The top-up transplants really knocked her about. She was absolutely shattered.
“The last time we went to hospital Hannah was told that her blood results were 0.002%.”
For the last four years, Hannah has hardly left her home, apart from going to hospital.
“All my friends were doing things and their lives were carrying on. I felt like my life had stopped and that’s because I had cancer.”
Before her all-clear, Hannah had been learning to drive. She wanted to pass her test in time to take herself to college – but she is not quite there yet.
She still needs a few more lessons but she is hoping to take her test before the end of the year.
“I’ve got a car,” she smiled. “My parents have bought me one. It’s on the drive but I can’t drive it on my own yet. I had a lesson this week and my uncle, who is teaching me to drive, says I’m not too far from putting in for my test.
“I can’t wait to pass. Some of my friends are driving and I want to too.”
Family and friends could hardly wait to pass on their best wishes to Hannah, inundating her with calls and texts.
Sarah says she has been persuaded to throw a celebratory party to mark the milestone in the Spencer house.
“I don’t know if we’ll have a party or not,” said Sarah.
“But we’ve been having a lovely time since we received the good news.
“We went out for dinner with Hannah which was lovely and, at the weekend, Nigel and I went to Haddon Hall. It was the most lovely day. For the first time in years, I didn’t worry about Hannah at all.
“We went off on our own and had a really lovely day. We even treated ourselves to a cream tea. It was so wonderful.
“It seemed strange not having to worry about Hannah.
“For the last four years, all we’ve done is be worried about her illness and treatment and recovery.”
Sarah says it is wonderful to have Hannah back.
“She’s got colour in her cheeks and she’s smiling,” said Sarah. “It’s so great. I’m smiling too. When we got the news, it took a while for it to sink in. I remember thinking ‘is this real?’
“I was in such shock. I rang Nigel and then we called Dan, who was at the Leeds Festival. He didn’t pick the phone up at first. When he saw all the missed calls, he got straight back to us.
“Hannah told him and he was pleased. Everyone has been so happy about the news. Hannah has had so many messages. She’s been bombarded.”
During her treatment, Hannah has been unable to go abroad. She watched her friends enjoy holidays in Israel, China and America, and she had to stay at home. But now she plans to make up for lost time.
“I want to go to America and my mum and dad have promised to take me. We’re all going and I can’t wait. We’re going to visit my mum’s pen friend and it’s so exciting.
“I might even be able to have a girlie holiday too. My friends are always making plans and I hope I’ll be able to do these kind of things now.
“I just want to get back to normal and look forward to doing what I want. I’ve missed out on so much.
It’s been really unfair. Now I’m going to enjoy just being normal and healthy.”