When you chat with Coleen and Kevin, you can hear in their voices the love and commitment they feel for each other. Born and bred in Otago, Coleen and Kevin were childhood sweethearts and have been married for almost 49 years.
They have been through some incredibly tough times, especially over the last 11 years as the couple both grapple with ill health.
For Coleen, it all began in 2009 when she was diagnosed with leukaemia – a kind of cancer that affects blood and bone marrow.
Several rounds of chemotherapy followed and Coleen’s leukaemia was put into remission.
But sadly, her battle with blood cancer wasn’t over.
A year later, during a walking holiday in Marlborough Sounds, the couple noticed something was wrong, as Coleen explains:
“It was strange because normally I walk faster than Kevin but I noticed I was lagging behind and was feeling tired and short of breath.”
When she got home, Coleen visited her GP – who sent her straight to Dunedin hospital. A barrage of tests followed and Coleen was given the devastating news – she had lymphoma – another kind of blood cancer this time, one that particularly affected her lymph nodes.
The cancer had caused fluid to build up in her body and over the next few days the medical team removed more than 30 litres from Coleen’s abdomen.
It was the start of a four month stay in hospital.
That’s when Coleen and Kevin first had contact with Leukaemia & Blood Cancer New Zealand (LBC) – a support worker visited her on the ward, as Coleen explains:
“At the start we didn’t realise how important LBC’s support was going to be –they didn’t have anyone local at that time so the lady was travelling down from Christchurch once a month and we would see her when she came to the hospital. It was good to have someone who was so knowledgeable and who could answer all our questions.”
Coleen began another gruelling regime of multiple rounds of chemotherapy and blood transfusions to treat her lymphoma.
In 2016 she had a stem cell transplant where new stem cells were implanted in her bone marrow.
The transplant was a success and Coleen’s bone marrow began producing new, healthy blood cells and her lymphoma was put into remission.
However, the good news was short lived – within 15 months Coleen was back in hospital.
“It was a real roller coaster… after the transplant I was feeling better and we thought the cancer was gone, but then I started to feel unwell again and went back for more tests – that’s when they told us the cancer was back.”
In 2018, thanks to donations from the Otago community and grants from local organisations, LBC was able to expand its services in Otago and employed Deb who took up a position as a Support Services Coordinator based in Dunedin. As Coleen explains:
“Having Deb based here means a lot. Going through something like this puts a big strain on families so it’s good that we can call her for support and because she is a nurse, we know she can answer our questions.”
For Coleen more rounds of chemo were to follow, her lymphoma again responded to treatment and she was again put into remission.
However just two weeks after the doctors gave her the good news, Coleen was delivered another blow.
At the end of last year, she was diagnosed with advanced bowel cancer and underwent surgery to have a section of her bowel removed, as she explains:
“It was a shock but my philosophy is to take each day as it comes – when I first had my lymphoma I was really unwell and the doctors didn’t expect me to live you just do what you can do and carry on as best you can.
Sadly, Coleen’s battle with lymphoma is also not over.
Last month she began to notice welts on her skin – the doctors confirmed they were a kind of tumour associated with lymphoma and meant her cancer had returned for a fourth time – and next week she is due to start her 45th round of chemotherapy.
“LBC’s support though all this has been really important. When I am well enough we attend the support groups – it’s good to meet other people going through similar situations. We’re all in the same boat and I try to help where I can…. I always try to be positive and make people laugh.”