2020 was a year where all our lives changed overnight, due to the covid-19 pandemic. For Karen Buck-Archenoul though, this wasn't the end of it and her life was further impacted by a diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia: a diagnosis she received during lockdown.
Karen has been remarkably and inspiringly open about her story in the hope of helping others and shining a light on the reality of a cancer diagnosis.
“I had a sore throat for a while and was given a prescription for antibiotics, but they didn’t seem to help so my GP asked me to go into the surgery,” she said.
Pictured: Since being diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. Karen has had nine rounds of chemo and a stem cell transplant.
Karen continued: “I had a slight temperature, and my heart rate was very high so I was given an ECG and had some blood taken for tests. I remember that was 14:00 on a Friday, I was called at 18:00 the same day and asked to go up to the hospital to discuss the results.
“My husband, Martyn, works at the hospital so I asked if he would go with me. We were sat down and given the diagnosis and it was absolutely horrific. I have to say the delivery of the news was very matter of fact and not very sensitive for the life-changing scenario that it was.”
Karen was admitted to hospital and then taken to Southampton the following morning by Medivac.
“I was in complete shock, I had told my children that I was popping up to the hospital for blood test results and they didn’t see me again for eight weeks,” said Karen.
“Because of covid restrictions my husband was only allowed to bring me some clothes and essentials but couldn’t stay with me or come to Southampton.
“I will always remember when the Medivac team arrived at the hospital, they had a wheelchair and I insisted that I would walk to the ambulance and then out to the plane at the airport. Usually, Medivac’s are for patients who are unconscious or so sick they are unable to walk so it was unusual for them that I refused the wheelchair.”
Pictured: Karen has shared her experiences and treatment openly on social media.
After her initial chemotherapy treatment in Southampton, Karen had to return there on and off for a further five rounds of treatments over the following six months.
“I was allowed home for one week in between each round of chemo, but the covid isolation requirements in Guernsey meant that I had to stay home for each of those trips back, which was understandable but frustrating,” said Karen.
Karen finished her chemotherapy treatment in November 2020 so was home in time for Christmas with her family which she describes as being “incredibly special”.
She had been prescribed chemotherapy medication, however, was impacted by the States’ White List, which lists the medicines and medical appliances that the States of Guernsey has approved for funding with public money.
“My doctors prescribed a new medication, which had been proving successful with other patients, but it was not on The White List so the States refused to pay for it; I was absolutely gutted,” explained Karen.
Pictured: Karen was back in Guernsey in time for Christmas with her husband of 17 years and their children in 2020.
Karen continued: “I was then prescribed the second-best option, but this was also not on the White List so I wasn’t able to have that medication either and had to be given a prescription for one of the cheaper options that was on the list.”
Karen’s leukemia returned in July 2021.
“I was being monitored every three months to check whether the cancer had returned and, unfortunately, it did,” she said.
“I had four more rounds of chemotherapy and it was then determined that I needed a stem cell transplant.”
A stroke of good fortune found Karen’s younger brother, Pete, as a successful match for the transplant.
“When I was initially diagnosed in 2020, Pete had been tested to see if he was a match; it’s something that is standard in case a transplant ends up being needed,” said Karen.
“He was a 10/10 perfect match, which is rare as there is only a 25% chance that a sibling will be a match.”
Pictured: Karen posted this photo with her husband Martyn with the caption "Happy anniversary darling! Sorry we can't spend it together, instead I am in So'ton having a bone marrow biopsy".
Karen said that she has always been close with her brother.
“We have always had a great relationship and a lot of that is from growing up playing sport together,” she said.
“It was really special for both of us that he was a match because it meant that he could do something to help and I was obviously so happy that he was a match and that I wouldn’t have to go through the process of hoping to find a positive match with a stranger.
“He had to go to Southampton to make his donation, which is done much in the same way as giving blood, except the stem cells are removed from the blood and then the blood is returned back to the donor’s body through an IV.
“Pete coming over to make the donation was extra special because it was right before Christmas 2021 and he was the only visitor I had been able to have because of the ongoing covid restrictions.”
Pictured: Karen and her brother, Pete, who donated stem cells for her treatment.
Karen had the transplant the following day, which she describes as being “like receiving a blood transfusion’. She had to spend Christmas in isolation in hospital.
By this point, Karen had started regularly updating her Facebook with her experience. Her posts were refreshingly honest and sprinkled with humour, bringing some levity to her battle.
“When I was first diagnosed and going through the first treatments in 2020, I didn’t post anything about what I was going through,” she said.
“I had only told family and some close friends but with the Guernsey grapevine being what it is, it wasn’t long before many more people knew that I was sick. I didn’t mind that because it was important to me that people knew so that they could help support my family.
“I didn’t post to social media because I was in a state of shock throughout the entire thing; it was all a blur. Everything happened so quickly from being told the diagnosis, being flown to Southampton and being poked and prodded. I also had a bad reaction to the chemotherapy and part of my lung collapsed.
“I had a lot of complications and infections so was continually on antibiotics and had all the side effects that go with that.”
Pictured: Karen spent Christmas 2021 on her own in hospital following her stem cell transplant.
Karen kept a diary throughout her 2020 treatments, which she said was “therapeutic” for her.
Karen said she was partly inspired to share her story thanks to the late Gary Burgess, whose cancer battle she had followed on Twitter.
“I decided to share my story on Facebook when the cancer returned in 2021 because I still wasn’t allowed visitors. I wanted people to know what was going on. I wanted it to be fun but I also wanted it to be informative,” she said.
“It really helped me to see the comments on my posts and I was inundated with private messages too which really kept my spirits up. Isolating was really horrific, which some people who’ve had to isolate due to covid might be able to relate to a bit, and those comments and messages really helped get me through.”
Pictured: Karen received care packages from friends and family during her hospital stays.
Karen said that some comments from her colleagues were “more sarcastic” than comments from friends and family.
“I have worked in civilian roles at the police station for nearly 24 years and the camaraderie in that environment is amazing. I honestly love my job and it is difficult that I’m currently unable to work,” she said.
Karen said that her life after her transplant has been “a world away” from the life she was able to return to after her 2020 chemotherapy treatment.
“After the chemotherapy I could pretty much return to my normal life. I started playing volleyball again which was amazing because I love it so much and have a real passion for the sport,” she said.
“I played in a team with women who I have played with for decades and who all mean so much to me; it was great to be back with the girls and we won the league.
“It hasn’t been possible for me to return to those kinds of things since the transplant because I basically have the immune system of a baby. I am incredibly susceptible to infection, and I can’t even drink water out the tap because of the bacteria, I must either have boiled and cooled water or one specific brand of bottled water.”
Pictured: Karen must stay completely covered in the sun to avoid medical complications following her stem cell transplant.
Karen can’t go out in the sunshine without being completely covered up and isn’t allowed to be in crowds.
“I am allowed to go to supermarkets but have been told to social distance and I wear a mask. Although covid restrictions made most of my experiences more difficult in respect of isolation and visitors, one positive aspect is that I’m not the only person walking around in a mask or distancing in shops, so I don’t feel like I stand out,” she said.
“Any infection would be really nasty for me so I can’t go out for meals in case there is bacteria were the food is prepared or stored and there are certain foods I can’t eat like soft cheeses.
“I can only eat fruit if it can be peeled. I’ve been craving strawberries but I am not allowed them as they can’t be peeled. It’s had a big impact on even the little things that I wouldn’t have ever thought about and it’s been a big adjustment."
Pictured: Karen has played sport all her life and returned to volleyball before her cancer returned.
Karen said that her experience has affected her mentally as well as physically.
“The first year of my diagnosis I suffered very badly with anxiety and panic attacks. I would feel fine then a wave would come over me where everything was too much. I’m not sure whether it was caused by the shock and realisation of it all, but I was seen by a psychologist while I was in Southampton and was given some coping strategies,” she said.
“When I have panic attacks now my son will help me and go through the breathing with me, which I feel incredibly guilty about but it shows how sensitive and thoughtful he is.”
Karen said she has been very open with her children, Ciaran (17) and Hollie (13).
“When I was diagnosed, Hollie was moving from primary to secondary school and Ciaran was meant to be sitting his GCSEs so it was already a very important time for them,” she said.
Pictured: Karen said she wanted her social media posts to be "open and informative" about her cancer.
Karen continued: “My children have been absolutely amazing through everything, but they have had to grow up quickly in a short period of time. My husband effectively became a single parent overnight and had all the responsibilities of running the house in addition to his full-time job. The children stepped up with helping. Every time I came home from Southampton I found they had matured more and more each time.
“Martyn and I both felt that it was important to be open with them about everything because they needed to know and at ages where they could understand. They are both very down to Earth and clued up about things and I can’t fully express how incredible they have both been through everything.”
Karen said that her experiences have changed her outlook on life.
“It is probably a cliché to say it, but everything I’ve been through really has made me want to do the things I had been putting off and to not take things for granted,” she said.
“It has brought us all closer as a family so I try to see the positive in that and I try to live every day the best I can.”
Pictured: Karen said her outlook on life has been changed following her cancer diagnosis.
Karen said she will continue to share her experiences.
“One in two people will receive a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime so it’s important that we talk about it openly and try to take away some of the unknown,” she said.
“Diagnoses are different for everyone, treatment is different for everyone, it’s easy to say “so and so has cancer” but we don’t always fully appreciate what that means. I hope that by sharing my story it might help to take away some of the fear surrounding cancer.
“I have had people say that they have both laughed and cried at my posts and I think that shows that openness is a good thing. I have shared the brutality of some of the things I have gone through and if people can see that, and be informed of it, but can also still relate to some humour in my story, then I think that will have an impact.”
Pictured: Stem cells donated by Karen's brother were transplanted to Karen in December 2021.
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