‘The smallest virus could have killed me’: Palace fan Geoff Hill shares leukaemia story
Crystal Palace supporter Geoff Hill did not know he had leukaemia when visiting Selhurst Park in 2017. Here, in his own words, he tells the story from a unique home match and through a four-year battle.
You can support Geoff and the charity Cure Leukaemia by donating to the ‘Palace to Paris’ challenge here.
The day my life changed forever began relatively normally. I say ‘relatively’ because I went for a routine blood test on my way to the office. The following series of events led to a diagnosis which cost me my health, the job I loved and my ability to make plans for the future. I am still dreaming of a way out.
It was 2017 and I was the editor of ITV News, in charge of our daily TV programmes and online content. It seems like a lifetime ago now but it was an extraordinarily busy news year, with terror attacks in Manchester and Borough Market, the snap General Election and the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower. We were constantly breaking in to ITV’s schedule with major news events. I survived on adrenalin, until I started to feel unwell in late August.
It’s hard to describe what was actually wrong; I just felt run down. I assumed it was some kind of virus. I had symptoms which I have since learned are potential signs of blood cancer; tiredness, a severe lack of energy, night sweats and difficulty in shrugging off infections.
My health was deteriorating at an alarming rate. In just three weeks I went from my usual gym routine to being violently ill after a warm up. My heart would start racing after walking up a flight of stairs. I found it harder to go for the shortest of walks, and even started waiting for later trains to avoid crossing the bridge to a different platform.
Statistically, a GP may come across one or two adults a year who have leukaemia. Encouraged by my incredibly supportive family I went to see mine. He said he couldn’t find anything wrong with me but given the symptoms booked me in for a blood test the following week. Neither of us knew it at the time, but his decision saved my life.
I had no idea that my red and white blood counts had collapsed, or that my immune system was completely compromised. I had no idea that the smallest infection or virus could have killed me. I had no idea that I was practically a dead man walking.
So I carried on as normal. If there is a list of 10 things someone in my position should avoid at all costs, I promise you I did the lot. Drinks out, dinner out, crowded trains, a football match, the theatre, late dinner and a family lunch: I had a fantastic weekend. But I had no idea that everything risked an infection which I had no chance of fighting.
The football match was Roy Hodgson’s first game in charge of Palace, at home to Southampton. I was a guest in the Directors’ Box and, as a lifelong Eagles fan, I was really excited despite our terrible start to the season.
I brought my Saints supporting friend James Mates, the ITV News Europe Editor. He’s good company and I was sure he wouldn’t gloat too much if we lost… which of course we eventually did.
I was feeling tired and sluggish but I put on a brave face, which was much easier surrounded by club heroes and legends. I chatted to the Chairman Steve Parish, and our legendary former captain Geoff Thomas, who I’d met before through work.
Geoff is a leukaemia survivor who has raised millions for charities funding blood cancer research. He was recounting tales about how he cycled the punishing Tour de France route to raise money for Cure Leukaemia. I couldn’t have possibly imagined that he’d be calling the following week to discuss visiting me in hospital. When I got home that night I cooked myself a small meal and poured a glass of wine. I couldn’t finish either.
On Monday morning I woke up feeling breathless and in a pool of sweat. I walked to the GP for the blood test and then caught a train to work. I had to sit down and catch my breath at least three times every 10 minutes. Somehow I managed to drag myself to ITV News HQ where I chaired the round of daily editorial meetings.
A few hours later, I received the call. It was the haematology department at Lewisham Hospital. I’ll never forget how that conversation ended.
“Your immune system is completely compromised. You need to get to A&E within an hour.”
I started to panic. Minutes later my GP called.
“Geoff, did you receive a call from the hospital?”
“Yes, I’m on my way in. They mentioned white blood cells. What’s going on?”
“This is very serious. You have to be prepared for the fact that you might have leukaemia.”
I was stunned and speechless, and slumped in to my seat. My PA Nathalie burst into tears. We sat in silence waiting for the cab. I hadn’t even left my office and my mind was taking me to the darkest possible places.
On the way to the hospital I called my partner Natalie and my mother, who met me there. We were fast tracked to a general medical ward where more blood tests were carried out. That night I asked the senior registrar if he thought leukaemia was the most likely diagnosis. He just nodded sympathetically, and insisted I didn’t Google it “for my own sake.”
From that moment I was never in doubt: this was really happening. It occurred to me I’d already heard three words we never wish to hear about ourselves, words we associate with other people: cancer, leukaemia, chemotherapy.
That night I lay in bed in an isolation unit. Visitors were required to wear gloves and masks, my work suit hung from the door and a unit of blood from a generous stranger coursed through my veins. I was frightened, and as I tried to process the day’s events, all I wanted was to be told something could be done for me.
A few days after a painful biopsy the doctor came to deliver the results. She was flanked by three colleagues and there was a funereal tone as she began to talk. She asked if I wanted anyone with me, which naturally made me think I was about to be told I was going to die. I was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia.
I asked the doctor if I was going to survive. She told me there was an intense and lengthy treatment plan, which is clearly not a yes. But nor was it a no, and that positive attitude was one I decided to adopt immediately as I knew there was a long, hard road ahead.
But I was an emotional wreck. Every thought and every conversation reduced me to tears. I kept thinking about my life, my family and friends, my job, travelling, the gym, going out to dinner, going for a coffee – everything I considered normal was under serious threat. My life was being ripped away, and I had no idea when it would come back, if at all.
I was transferred to King’s College Hospital for treatment and over the next six months – two of which were spent in hospital. I had countless rounds of chemotherapy, culminating in a stem cell transplant in February the following year. Throughout the entire time – and ever since – the consultants, doctors and nurses have been utterly amazing: compassionate, considerate and reassuring, whatever time of day or night.
After two years of recovery, infections, stem cell top ups, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, a month in hospital fighting sepsis – and even a brief return to work – I reached a point last September where I was ready to return to my job full time.
But then my world fell apart again.
My consultant told me I had relapsed in the bone marrow, which was extremely serious, and that I was running out of treatment options. Later that day I took the devastating decision to stand down from my job.
I was back to square one. I was told that if I am going to pull through, there would be months of treatment and hard work ahead. The first round of chemo achieved nothing. I had more chemo before Christmas and again earlier this year. Since my diagnosis I have had almost 100 rounds of intravenous and intrathecal chemotherapy, 24 fractions of radiotherapy, more than 6,000 pills and countless invasive procedures. It has left me exhausted and totally lacking in energy.
🇬🇧 PALACE TO PARIS 🇫🇷— Cure Leukaemia (@CureLeukaemia) May 18, 2021
Good luck to @CPFC fans Lee Roberts & Jordan Smith who, two weeks today, begin their virtual running challenge of 460km in 30 days, starting at Selhurst Park, for Geoff Hill who’s battling leukaemia 👉 https://t.co/JOEoXBOO0w#TuesdayMotivation #CPFC pic.twitter.com/ehOfD91eaM
My consultant made me aware of a clinical trial which suited someone in my position. It’s called CAR-T cell therapy and involves the harvesting of T-cells - part of the immune system - and modifying them to fight the disease before putting them back in the patient. It’s delivering increasingly successful results and viewed by many as the template for fighting a number of cancers in the future.
I was put forward for the trial at a London hospital but narrowly missed out on medical grounds. I remain hopeful that I will get on when another slot becomes available.
Cure Leukaemia is one organisation dedicated to finding a cure to this dreadful disease. It also supports the clinical trials by funding specialist nurses across the UK.
My brother-in-law Lee Roberts, along with his brother-in-law Jordan Smith, have been inspired to raise as much money as they can for Cure Leukaemia in their ‘Palace to Paris’ challenge: running the equivalent distance from Selhurst Park to Paris by covering 460km throughout June. I do hope my story will inspire you to donate to the cause.
There have also been moments to enjoy during this terrible journey; I have seen my eldest daughter turn 18, Natalie and I were married and I spent many glorious months with my two youngest children, who sadly live in Australia.
I remain hopeful, but also realistic, about pulling through and returning to some kind of normality. I have been blessed with the most amazing family and friends who have rallied around me in a way I have found humbling and overwhelming. I would not be here today if it wasn’t for them. Their strength and support has kept me positive, and together we are as determined as ever to find that way out.
If you can, please show your support for Cure Leukaemia and donate to the ‘Palace to Paris’ effort by clicking here.