JOHN McNAMEE talks to an inspirational multiple cancer survivor…about her courageous journey…and her mission in helping fellow sufferers
When double leukaemia victim Colleena Presnell was in Sydney’s St Vincent’s hospital in 2003 awaiting her second gruelling bone marrow transplant in two years, only one person in her family thought she would survive the harrowing ordeal.
And that was Colleena herself.
“Everyone else feared that was it for me, that I was never going to pull through, but I never stopped believing….and I’m pretty glad I proved them wrong,” she laughs.
A remarkably resilient Colleena needed that strong self-faith again just four years ago when she fell victim to rampant breast cancer and bravely opted to have a double mastectomy and radical breast re-enhancement.
That deep religious belief and inner strength Colleena used to help her recover from all those potentially fatal bouts of cancer, she now uses to help other people suffering the same plight.
Today she is one of the directors of the Arrow Bone Marrow Foundation and founder of the Gift of Friendship patient support group based at St Vincent’s.
“Sometimes when we walk into the wards and start talking to the patients awaiting bone marrow transplants, they say ‘oh yeah, what would you know’ sort of thing,” Colleena told Go55s.
“But then I tell them what I have been through and how I have come out the other side after all those years, they sit up and take notice and really value my counsel and reassurance,” she said.
Colleena, wife of veteran Sydney racing writer Max Presnell, and for many years a high-flying and much sought-after business communication trainer, was in her early 50s back in 2001 when she was first diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML).
“I’d been with friends skiing in Canada and started to feel unwell and suffering nose bleeds.
“At first I thought it might just be the effects of the altitude but when I got back to Sydney and went for a series of blood tests, the doctors discovered that I had a very aggressive form of Acute Myeloid Leukaemia…it was quite advanced and they told me I was in urgent need of either stem cell treatment or a bone marrow transplant,” she said.
After prolonged testing of her family members, none was found to be a match for her much-needed transplant so Colleena was put on the world-wide bone marrow register.
“Only two people, both men in the US, cropped up who were compatible. One was unavailable at that time but I was lucky that they had the other gentleman, a wonderful man in his 30s called David Eisenbacher, a politician and engineer from Detroit, Michigan who was suitable,” Colleena explains.
After hearing of her desperate need, David consented to go into hospital immediately for the incredibly painful process of extracting his bone marrow through his spinal cord.
As it was collected and placed in a special container, a senior transplant nurse from Sydney’s St Vincent’s was waiting in the operating theatre to bring the life-saving fluid back to Australia.
“I was in the haematological ward at St Vincent’s and they’d removed all my cancerous bone marrow meaning I had no immune system left so I needed that transplant as soon as possible,” she said.
“Luckily the graft-host process in which the body fights to adapt to the new bone marrow and stop the rejection eventually worked and the transplant was successful,” she said.
“Back in those days 15-16 years ago, the transplant operation was much more painful and discomforting than it is today I’m pleased to say.
“In fact one of the specialists at St Vincent’s admitted to me long after my recovery process that patients undergoing the bone marrow transplant were ‘taken to hell and back’,” she said.
Just two years after her initial transplant, Colleena was diagnosed again with AML and had to have another bone marrow transplant. After weeks in and out of hospital, and after undergoing numerous bouts of debilitating chemotherapy, the second transplant was successful and Colleena vowed to use her miraculous recovery as a help and guide to others.
It was back in 2007 that Colleena and her close friend Sydney businesswoman Kerry Moran, started the Gift of Friendship organisation that today is such a great success among the patients in the transplant wards at St Vincent’s and led to them both being elected in 2009 as directors of the Arrow Bone Marrow Foundation. Kerry is no longer a director but joins Colleena on her weekly visits to patients.
The foundation is a charitable group that funds research into the cure for leukaemia and other diseases treatable by bone marrow and stem cell therapy. It also provides support, information and comfort for patients and their families.
Over the past few years the two dedicated women have provided bedside support to both patients and their families and raised thousands of dollars for research. Colleena also admits her own remarkable journey has often proved a great source of comfort and inspiration.
Perth-born Colleena has a lot of the knockabout Aussie no-nonsense about her and according to staff, often has even the seriously-ill patients in fits of laughter.
But there’s a deadly serious side to their ward work as well.
“Sadly, there have been many cases where the patients, often as young as 16 or 17 have not survived for long after the operations. It usually meant they developed other complications as leukaemia often has sudden and deadly side-effects. But of course there are also many, many others Kerry and I have been able to help pull through the long recovery process,” she said.
“All along the line we have received tremendous support from the executives and staff of St Vincent’s and they have given us total access to the wards and facilities,” she said.
But the plucky multiple leukaemia survivor, who has dedicated her life to selflessly helping others, wasn’t out of the woods yet.
Four years ago she discovered a lump near her right breast. An x-ray showed that it was not malign but the doctor warned her that it could develop into cancer. They were right.
She soon discovered another lump and after consulting specialists she was told it was an aggressive type of cancer and they would have to operate to remove the breast and possibly later on the other breast as well.
“I didn’t want to go through this process of having one removed at a time and Max and I had booked for a North Queensland safari in seven weeks time so I said to the wonderful specialist surgeon Warren Hargreaves and his amazing plastic surgeon Elias Moisids, how soon can you take them both off and fit me with new models,” Colleena laughs.
“They were shocked but they agreed to go ahead with the operation and a week later they were ready to go.
“Both my sister from Perth and a Sydney cousin came to stay with me the night before and we all agreed to get up early for my 6.45 am appointment for the operation.
“But we all slept in…Max and I managed to wake up at 6.15 and as we rushed out of the house I said to him, let me drive, I know the best way…and we made it in eight minutes. My sister and cousin didn’t wake up until 8am and by that time Max had returned and told them the operation was already under way,” Colleena laughs at the memory.
Seven weeks after the double mastectomy and breast restoration, a fully-recovered Colleena and Max went off on their much-anticipated safari to the Top End.
Today, mercifully, Colleena is a picture of health, going to the races with Max, playing tennis and golf with friends and swimming regularly all around her busy hospital visitations which still give her a great morale boost.
She and friend Kerry have already arranged several major fund-raisers for the Arrow Foundation, including a weekend in the wine country around Mudgee.
“I’m having to arrange my hospital work a bit better now because with six grandchildren, some who live in Terrigal, it means I’m always on the go….but it’s a lot better than not being able to do anything,” she says.
For more information about leukaemia, its treatment, stem cell therapy, bone marrow transplants, go to the Arrow Bone Marrow Foundation website.
- Each year, thousands of Australians are diagnosed with leukaemia, lymphoma or myeloma, and many more are diagnosed with autoimmune diseases such as MS, blood diseases such as anaemia and other non-malignant illnesses. In many cases, a bone marrow or stem cell transplant offers the best prospect of recovery.
The Arrow Bone Marrow Foundation:
- Funds promising medical research and clinical trials that may lack mainstream funding;
- Supports patients and their careers, both during and after treatment with a range of support services including the Tracey Scone Wig Library, accommodation, emergency funding and travel assistance;
- Provides information and education for patient and encourages nurses to improve their skills and knowledge through nursing scholarships.
- PEACEFUL HAVEN Colleena in the leafy garden of her eastern suburbs home….the six grandkids keep her busy along with her charity work
- WINNERS ARE GRINNERS Colleena and Max Presnell attend the Black Caviar Day at Flemington racecourse last year.