Johnny Pearson will become the first person to run the London Marathon alongside the bone marrow donor who saved his life next month. Catherine Scott talks to him and his donor, Sean Hagan.
Training for the London Marathon is gruelling for most people, but when you have spent three years battling an aggressive form of cancer the challenge become even more impressive.
And what makes Johnny Pearson’s marathon effort even more remarkable is the fact that he will be running it with the man who saved his life.
Johnny, 44, an independent wine merchant from Thorpe Underwood, North Yorks, and bone marrow donor Sean Hagan are believed to be the first recipient and bone marrow donor to run the London Marathon together. They are doing it to raise money and awareness for the Anthony Nolan Bone Marrow Trust.
The pair only met for the first time a few weeks ago, although they had been exchanging letters since August, six months after Johnny received live-saving stem cells from Sean, 23, from Cumbria.
“It was very emotional to meet Sean,” says dad of two Johnny. “It is hard to put into words how I felt meeting the man who saved my life, who until that moment had been a stranger.”
For Sean it made the reality of his donation tangible.
“I met Johnny, his wife Sarah and their two boys and it made me realise that by donating my bone marrow I had managed to keep a family together. Cancer affects so many more people than just the person with cancer.”
Johnny was diagnosed with Acute Myloid Leukaemia in September 2010.
“I had been feeling under the weather for a while. I just felt so tired all the time..” Eventually he went to his doctor who took some blood to test.
“I was driving back from a work later that day when I got a call in the car from the doctor who said it was serious. They had found leukaemia in my blood and I had to go to see the consultant in York to confirm the diagnosis.” The consultant confirmed Johnny had Acute Myloid Leukaemia and needed to start treatment straight away.
“You just don’t believe it,” says Johnny. “You are sure they have made a mistake. But they hadn’t.”
They gave him the weekend to prepare and to tell his family, wife Sarah and sons Archie and Jack.
“Archie and Jack were only eight and seven at the time. We told them that dad was sick and he needed to get fixed. They were brilliant, and have been throughout as has my wife Sarah.”
‘Getting fixed’ meant Johnny undergoing six months of intensive chemotherapy in hospital during which time he was allowed home for just 15 days, “It was very hard. A lot of the time I wasn’t able to see people, even the boys because my immune system was so low.”
But after six months of gruelling treatment and side effects from the chemo, the Pearsons were told the news they had been hoping for: Johnny was in remission.
“I thought that was it. I started to get back to normal and by the middle of May I was ready to go back to work.”
But a gardening accident led to him losing the sight in his left eye, delaying his plans to return to work by a month.
After a month back at work and just as Johnny thought life was getting back to normal he was told the news he dreaded. A routine check up revealed the cancer had returned.
“I was devastated. It was almost worse than the original diagnosis as I knew what I was going to have to go through. Also it was last chance saloon. They had to find a bone marrow donor.
“I remember waiting to hear if there was a matching donor. It was a very difficult time for me and my family as we knew that my life was in someone else’s hands.”
To make matters worse the first round of chemo didn’t work, the leukaemia was too strong.
“It is physically and mentally very difficult to go through six weeks of chemotherapy and for it not to work.”
But then the Pearsons received some good news: Anthony Nolan had found a donor who was a match for Johnny..
“They had found someone who had never met me but who was willing to save my life.”
That stranger was Sean Hagan. Sean, who was just 21 at the time, had joined the Anthony Nolan register just months before Johnny was diagnosed, in May 2010, after a national appeal from Cumbrian teenager Alice Pyne.
“I worked for her grandad and he asked us all to join the register. I wasn’t a match for Alice, sadly, but then I heard I was a match for someone else. I was scared at first, but really pleased at the same time. But I kept thinking whatever I am going to go through is nothing like what the recipient is going through.
“I hate needles and people think it is going to hurt, but they are wrong. It is just like giving blood, only it takes a bit longer. ”
Sean donated his stem cells to Johnny in February 2012.
“Saving Johnny’s life is the best thing that I’ve ever done and I think that it’s the best thing that I will ever do.” Before receiving Sean’s stem cells Johnny had to be in remission from cancer and so his body was bombarded with chemotherapy which made him extremely ill, even developing pneumonia. But by February 2012 his body was ready for the transplant, although he was warned there was a 50:50 chance of it working.
But it did work and when Johnny felt well enough the first thing he wanted to do was thank to person who saved his life.
“You are allowed to write to your donor even thought you aren’t allowed to know who they are. I just felt I wanted to thank him for doing such an amazing thing.”
Receiving Johnny’s letter was vitally important to Sean as well.
“All I knew was that I had donated to a male adult but that was it. I used to wonder what they were like and if it had worked. So to get the letter from Johnny was amazing. Not only did I know straight away that the transplant had worked, but I also discovered that he was a married man with a family and that made me feel really good about what I had done. I don’t know how I would have coped if it hadn’t worked.”
Johnny had already decided to run the London Marathon as his way of thanking Anthony Nolan for the part the charity played in helping to save his life. But then when he was allowed to write to Sean he suggested the idea of them running the Marathon together,
“Anthony Nolan is the charity partner of this year’s London Marathon and so it just all seemed to fit together. I thought it would be a great way of getting more publicity for the charity if we could run it together. Although as Sean is only 23 I fear I might struggle to keep up with him.”
“I couldn’t really say ‘no’ could I?” laughs Sean, “If it gets more people to sign up to the donor register and saving lives like Johnny’s then it is worth it.”
• To sponsor Johnny visit www.justgiving.com/johnnypearson. For more on becoming a donor visit www.anthonynolan.org