Graduate told 5,000 miles from home that her 'jetlag' was cancer

A graduate has revealed how she was told her “jetlag” was actually leukaemia that was so aggressive it had invaded 90 per cent of her blood.

Ella Dawson was 5,000 miles from home when she received the news, after jetting to Colombia, South America, for a seven-week backpacking trip of a lifetime.

The 23-year-old had just gained a Fine Art degree at Newcastle University when she set off on the trip in August 2019,

Putting the exhaustion, nausea and dizziness she experienced shortly after arriving down to jetlag, it was only when mysterious bruises sprang up all over her body, that Ella, of Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, saw a doctor in the city of Santa Marta.

Now receiving a complex and innovative treatment called CAR-T, which removes and “reprogrammes” her blood cells to fight cancer, the medic sent her for a series of blood tests – resulting in her leukaemia diagnosis in August 2019.

By then too sick to fly home, she recalled: “By the time I got my diagnosis, I was so unwell that I was expecting a bombshell.

“But it was such a chaotic situation that I almost didn’t have any time to process everything. I was thousands of miles away from home, having to use my phone to translate, while doctors explained what was going to happen.”

She added: “Even now, I still struggle with the idea that I have cancer. It almost feels like there’s a stigma around it, especially when you’re young and, on all of the leaflets I was given, everybody looked so unwell and depressed.



“It’s not been easy, but I’ve been determined to make the most of the good times and strive for moments of normality when I can. It’s what’s got me through.”

Looking back, Ella believes her cancer symptoms first began to show in around April 2019, when she returned home for the Easter holidays and felt run down and fatigued.

“I was usually quite fit and would go to the gym four times a week, but I found myself struggling to keep up,” she said.

Busy studying, she put her symptoms down to final year stress.

In addition, since she was young, Ella has had an underactive thyroid, which can also cause tiredness, muscle aches and weakness, according to the NHS.

“I thought my tiredness was just a combination of the two,” she said.

Once her degree show was over in June and she moved back to Huddersfield, she was soon distracted by thoughts of the seven-week trip around Colombia she had planned with a friend.



In the weeks leading up to her departure in August, she became increasingly worn down and kept catching bugs and colds – on one particularly memorable occasion, feeling so dizzy after just 30 minutes of horseriding that she almost passed out.

She said: “I saw the doctor to be on the safe side and she took my blood pressure.

“Everything looked normal, so I was told it was likely just the heat making me feel faint. The doctor said to come back a week later if I felt worse, but I’d be in Colombia by then, so I couldn’t.



“The day I left for my trip, I looked and felt absolutely knackered, but I just kept telling myself that once I got there and relaxed, I’d be fine.”

Instead, touching down in Bogota – the Colombian capital – Ella felt so exhausted that she spent the first three days of her trip in bed.

She continued: “I could barely walk, let alone get out to explore. I spoke to the staff at the hostel where I was staying at and they reassured me that, because Bogota has a high altitude, a lot of people struggle to acclimatise when they first arrive.

“That, plus the jetlag, made perfect sense, so I didn’t worry too much.”

After around a week, Ella began to rally and was able to make her way around the country as planned.

But things changed drastically during a six-hour trek through the jungle.

She said: “Usually I’d be bounding ahead, but I was having to stop and sit down every five minutes. My body couldn’t cope. It was too late to turn back, so I had to keep going. By the end, I felt so dizzy and nauseous.”

Over the following week, Ella’s condition dramatically declined.



She added: “I couldn’t even walk to the shop or stand up for long enough to make myself dinner. I was in pain all the time.

“My bones were aching and I was covered in so many bruises that I looked like I’d been hit by a bus.”

Worried, Ella decided to visit a doctor, who told her that she probably had a low platelet count and ran some blood tests – sending the results back to her GP in the UK for a second opinion, which took four days to obtain.

By that point, she felt so unwell  she had decided to go home and was on the verge of booking a flight when she received a phone call from the Colombian doctor, urging her not to travel.

“I had no idea what was going on. I was told, ‘Don’t get on a plane – come straight to hospital,’” she said. “The hostel manager was fantastic and sorted out a car to take me there and helped me ensure all my insurance was in order.”

Arriving at her nearest casualty, Ella was admitted to intensive care, where further tests were run, before she was transferred to a larger, more specialist hospital the following day.

There, communicating using broken Spanish and a translation app on her phone, she was told that she had leukaemia – a form of cancer affecting the bone marrow and blood cells.



Medics also explained that her blood platelet levels were dangerously low, making flying home too risky.

“They said if they couldn’t get my platelet count up – and soon – I’d have to start chemotherapy in Colombia,” she added.

By that point, Ella’s mum Jane and dad Kevin had been told her diagnosis by her doctor in the UK and were flying over to be by her side.

“They arrived about a day-and-a-half after I’d been given the news,” she said. “It made me realise how much I’d missed them.”

Over the next week, Ella had seven blood transfusions and five bags of donor platelets pumped through her body.

Thankfully, the treatment stabilised her enough to fly home.

“There had been talk of using a medical plane, but we didn’t need one in the end,” she said. “I was put in first class, so I could lie down, but I was so exhausted that I slept the whole way.”

Once back in the UK, Ella went to Huddersfield Royal Infirmary for a biopsy, before being transferred to the larger St James’ University Hospital in Leeds, where it was confirmed she had acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL), which is characterised by an overproduction of immature white blood cells, known as blast cells.

According to the charity Leukaemia Care, who have been tirelessly supporting Ella throughout her journey, ALL accounts for less than one per cent cases of cancer in the UK.



“I wasn’t given a stage, but I later found out that, at the time of my diagnosis, 90 per cent of my blood had been invaded by cancer cells,” she added.

In September 2019, Ella began chemotherapy, which left her immune system so compromised that she had to stay in hospital in isolation.

She continued: “When I started chemo, I was given a six-month treatment plan, which helped me to get my head around things.

“But around a month in, after the first round, it was clear it wasn’t working, so doctors said they needed to change to a different type.”

She continued: “That was very difficult – the chopping and changing. As doctors wanted to respond to what was happening immediately in front of them, we could only plan a month or so ahead, which made it hard to wrap my mind around.”

In November, Ella started her adapted treatment regime, which involved having four different types of chemotherapy every day for five days.



She added: “That was one of the worst times so far. My whole body was in excruciating pain. I’d get splitting headaches, blurred vision and lost all my hair.”

In December, after a month in hospital, she was discharged  – being told shortly afterwards that she was in morphological remission, which happens when the number of blast cells found in the bone marrow is less than five per cent.

Next, she was due to have a stem cell transplant – the preparation for which involved having two rounds of a treatment that meant immunotherapy drugs were constantly infused into her body through a portable pump.

“I had to take it everywhere with me. I even went clubbing with it a few times,” she said.

Then, tragically, two days before her stem cell transplant date in 2020, pre-operative tests showed that Ella had relapsed.



“I didn’t believe them at first as I felt absolutely fine,” she said. “Doctors then decided to refer me for CAR-T treatment, but as it involved harvesting my blood cells and sending them away to be reprogrammed to fight the cancer, the coronavirus created some delays in getting them back.

“While I waited, doctors struggled to keep the cancer at bay. It was developing really fast.”

She added: “Tests found cancer cells in my spinal fluid, so I had to have two lumbar punctures a week to drain it, which was awful, but it did clear it. I also had five days’ worth of radiotherapy on my right eye as a precaution after it became inflamed.”

Finally, in June, Ella began CAR-T treatment at Manchester’s Christie Hospital and is now awaiting tests to see how successful it has been – with her consultants remaining hopeful that it has eradicated all traces of cancer from her body.

Currently recovering at home with her family, Ella, who is slowly building her strength with daily walks and yoga, is keen to shine a light on Leukaemia Care’s Spot Leukaemia campaign to raise awareness of the six most common signs of the disease – fatigue, shortness of breath, fever and night sweats, bruising or bleeding, bone and joint pain and repeated infections.

She said: “I am the perfect example of somebody who never believed this would happen to me.

“It’s important to listen to your body and learn when to push yourself and when to rest.

“I also want anybody reading this who might be going through what I did to know that, while it sometimes feels impossible to stay positive, by keeping moving and finding the bright side where you can, you can get through.”

She added:  “Staying positive has very much been aided by the excellent care I’ve received from the teams at St James Hospital in Leeds and The Christie in Manchester, so I want to thank them, too.”

Ella is working closely with the charity Leukaemia Care’s ‘Spot Leukaemia’ campaign to raise awareness of leukaemia.

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