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  • Writer's pictureLove Ballymena

New figures show people in Northern Ireland don't know the signs of leukaemia

Leukaemia under the microscope

Leading UK leukaemia charities launch memorable new campaign to get people ‘asking why’ about the symptoms of leukaemia for Blood Cancer Awareness Month in September.


People in Northern Ireland are being urged to take notice of the symptoms of leukaemia, as new research published today shows that of those who responded to the survey in this region, no one was able to identify ALL four of most widely reported symptoms - fatigue, bruising, unusual bleeding and repeated infections.



Leukaemia is a form of blood cancer that affects people of all ages and 27 people receive a leukaemia diagnosis every day in the UK – that’s just under 10,000 every year. Overall survival for leukaemia stands at just over 50% - making it one of the most deadly forms of cancer.


Early diagnosis could saves lives, yet the recent public survey by leukaemia charities Leukaemia Care and Leukaemia UK, found that 53% of respondents from Northern Ireland could not recognise ANY amongst the four most widely reported symptoms of the disease, which kills nearly 5,000 people a year in the UK, and which is often diagnosed too late.



The two charities are collaborating on an important campaign, #SpotLeukaemia, to raise awareness of the symptoms ahead of Blood Cancer Awareness Month. Blood cancer is the fifth most common cancer and third deadliest.


In a new film released today Leukaemia Care and Leukaemia UK have called on 5-year-old children to try to make the symptoms of leukaemia memorable. The advert sees youngsters asking a range of questions to encourage people to ask ‘why’ am I feeling this way - channel your inner 5-year-old and question your symptoms which could be leukaemia.


People who are concerned about any of these symptoms - fatigue, bruising, unusual bleeding and repeated infections – are being strongly urged by the charities to contact their GP and request a blood test. More information is available on the Spot Leukaemia website at www.spotleukaemia.org.uk.



The advert focuses on the four most widely reported symptoms. Other symptoms of leukaemia include fever or night sweats, bone or joint pain and swollen lymph nodes.


The charities are now calling on people to start ‘asking why’ about leukaemia and its symptoms, share the video with friends and family, and visit the Spot Leukaemia website for more help and advice.



Awareness of the symptoms of leukaemia is low in Northern Ireland


Only 20% of respondents across Northern Ireland recognised infections as one of the most common symptoms of leukaemia, only 27% said unusual bruising is a most common symptom and just 20% said unusual bleeding is a most common symptom.



Only 29% of respondents in Northern Ireland were able to recognise fatigue as a most common symptom – which is often the most likely symptom to be identified by those later diagnosed with leukaemia.


Chris Williams shares his experience...


Chris was 24 when he realised something wasn’t right. He didn’t know of any leukaemia symptoms and never thought he would have cancer.


He had an infection he couldn’t shake off and was increasingly tired – not the regular tired feeling but a real fatigue that was constant, where he couldn’t get his energy levels back no matter how much sleep he got. Chris put what he now knows to be the symptoms of leukaemia down to feeling stressed at the time.


Chris then experienced his sinuses come up and during a visit to the dentist was told they had never seen anything like it. Chris tried antibiotics that didn’t work for him.



When Chris awoke the next morning he noticed a blood rash over his legs and feet and felt his spleen was swollen as with every step or breath he could feel it pressing at the side of his stomach. Chris took himself to hospital, explained how he had been feeling and whilst there was sick. He had blood tests and within just half an hour of the results was given his diagnosis of acute lymphocytic leukaemia (ALL).


Chris was shocked with this news and couldn’t get his head around it. Chris says he even denied his diagnosis for a week afterwards before the looming prospect of treatment appeared. He says he convinced himself he had either COVID-19 or a chest infection – there was no possibility he could have leukaemia.


Chris told his family, and it was when he saw their reactions it all began to feel real, he had cancer.

Chris spent three months in isolation in hospital, receiving chemotherapy but he didn’t go into remission. His treatment was changed to immunotherapy which also didn’t work. The remaining treatment options for Chris were either a stem cell transplant or possibly CAR-T therapy. It was decided that the stem cell transplant would be a better route.


Chris underwent a stem cell transplant in November 2021, but relapsed. The conversation returned to the option of CAR-T so Chris decided to go for this.


Chris didn’t want to be back in hospital for a long period of time, but it was his last option. He describes how scared he was at this time and of the fear of returning to intensive care, which again meant being away from his family.


The CAR-T therapy is not yet available in Northern Ireland, so Chris was sent from Belfast to Manchester for treatment. The process involves taking Chris’ T-cells, modifying them, and putting them back in to kill the cancer cells.



Since Chris had his CAR-T therapy, he has experienced limited side effects, and all is going well.

Chris’ symptoms of leukaemia were non-clearing infection and fatigue.


Are you currently experiencing similar symptoms to Chris? Request a blood test from your GP.


The most common symptoms of leukaemia are fatigue, bleeding and bruising, repeated infections, fever or night sweats, bone or joint pain and shortness of breath. If you have any of these symptoms, contact your GP and ask for a blood test. To find out more visit the Spot Leukaemia page.


Awareness amongst different age groups

Nationally of those surveyed, 16% of those over the age of 55 believed leukaemia is a childhood disease (most common in ages 0-15 years), this figure was higher in Northern Ireland at 22%. In reality cases rise sharply after the age of 55 and 38% of all new cases occur in the over 75s.



Zack Pemberton-Whiteley, Chief Executive of Leukaemia Care, said:


"To hear that less than half a percent of those surveyed in the UK are able to identify the four most common symptoms of leukaemia is extremely worrying. Early diagnosis of leukaemia can improve survival. With just under 10,000 people being diagnosed every year with leukaemia, this shows just how important it is to continue to raise awareness of the signs and symptoms and how much work needs to be done.


"We know that our new Spot Leukaemia video may make some people laugh but in order to raise awareness of this serious subject we needed to channel our inner five-year-old and ask ‘why’. It's crucial that if you think you have fatigue, bruising or bleeding or repeated infections you contact your GP and ask for a blood test. It's that straightforward and we will keep pushing people to ask why and get what could be a crucial diagnosis."



Fiona Hazell, Chief Executive of Leukaemia UK, said:


“It’s concerning to learn that so few UK adults can correctly identify the four most common symptoms of leukaemia, or even any symptoms at all. Each day in the UK 27 people are diagnosed with leukaemia, and despite decades of progress, only half of leukaemia patients will live longer than five years after diagnosis. Spotting the signs of leukaemia and asking for that all-important blood test can make a meaningful difference in treating this disease.


“That’s why it’s even more concerning to learn that most people would not visit their GP if experiencing one or more of the four most common symptoms. We would encourage anyone who is concerned about leukaemia to make an appointment to request a blood test as soon as possible.”


When asked why they would not contact their GP if experiencing any unusual symptoms, 26% of UK adults who said they would not do this selected “don’t want to put additional pressure on the NHS” as their main reason, from a given list. Long waiting times were also listed as an off-putting factor, with 23% of UK adults who said they would not visit a medical professional, citing this as their main reason, from a given list, for not getting in touch.



Leukaemia is a form of blood cancer which affects people of all ages but is most common in the over 65s. Other symptoms of leukaemia can include fever or night sweats, bone or joint pain and swollen lymph nodes.


For more information visit the Spot Leukaemia website at www.spotleukaemia.org.uk .

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