Staying Strong

If someone told Jennie Wigginton a year ago she’d plan on running a half-marathon she would have laughed. Not because she was hoping to get pregnant again with a second child or because she was working long hours with Melbourne’s homeless as a social worker, but because she was suffering painful headaches, which lasted for hours. Jennie was wiped out.

“The headaches went on for about two weeks before I went to the doctor,” says Jennie. “After an initial blood test, I went straight to the emergency room because my blood platelet count was almost 2,000.” According to Jennie’s Doctor, the usual count should be between 200 and 450.

“This meant that I was at high risk of blood clots, stroke or heart attack. I was put on aspirin immediately and referred to a specialist hematologist,” she says.

In the following days Jennie had an ultrasound of her spleen, a CT scan of her brain and a painful bone marrow biopsy. It was the biopsy that revealed early signs of scarring on her bone marrow tissue. The diagnosis? Myeloproliferative Neoplasms (MPN): A cancer/disease of the blood cells, where immature blood cells in the bone marrow don’t mature or become healthy.

Not only is this a rare condition, but it usually affects people aged over 60-years-old. At the time of diagnosis in 2015, Jennie was just 34.

She recalls the car trip home from hospital that day, with her husband Russell and three-year-old son Austin. “I felt as though suddenly my life had changed forever. After my initial concerns about the prognosis, I began asking myself questions like, ‘Would I live to see my son grow up? and ‘Could I have another baby?’”

Jennie’s Doctor explained later that the only current cure for MPN is stem cell therapy. This would mean a heavy dose of chemotherapy and radiation to kill off the bad cells before replacing them with donor cells. Jennie would need to undergo the donor replacement only if her symptoms get worse and so she started looking for a donor to be prepared.

Jennie discovered that her sister isn’t a compatible match, and so if or when she may need the final treatment, her other agreeing family members will need to be tested and she will need to find a donor. To make matters worse, Jennie’s blood platelet levels were so abnormally high, she was told to stop exercising.

“At the time of diagnosis, I was new to running and wanted to keep improving on my 5K time,” she says. “Running was giving me an opportunity to clear my mind and have some time out from being a busy, working mum. It was also a chance to catch up with friends. So, when I had to stop, I was frustrated and hated it.”

Jennie started a chemotherapy treatment combined with daily aspirin to help her platelet count return to a normal number. Then, in November 2015 she moved to Interferon, a medication she needs to self-inject three times a week.

Although the side-effects were initially devastating, including severe fatigue and flu-like symptoms, this medication is much safer if Jennie and Russell continue to try for another baby.

“Not much is known about pregnancy and MPN because so few people of child-bearing age have the condition,” she says. “We were trying to conceive for about five months before the headaches started.”

With fortnightly blood tests and regular visits to her consultant at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, Jennie stays abreast of her situation with global research about implications with pregnancy. However she’s aware that having another baby carries the chance of clotting, haemorrhaging or the placenta coming away from the womb.

“We’re already blessed with Austin and have to take our time to consider if the risks of trying for another baby are worth it,” she says. “Out of everything, this has been the most difficult thing to accept”.

But, for now, Jennie is remaining positive and staying fit. With her symptoms under control, she’s gradually increased her training to include four runs and three High Intensity Interval Training sessions a week. Her goal? The Geelong Half-marathon on Sunday 3rd April 2016. Her motivation? Raising money for MPN research.

“Being young with this illness doesn’t mean life is over,” she says. “I want to run the half-marathon while I’m in a better state of fitness and wellbeing,” she says. And, as long as Jennie’s recovery is normal and her blood platelet is okay, doctors are happy for her to do so. “You can’t let yourself become the illness or let it take control of you,” she says.

Jennie has tough days, but she says they’re the most important days to put on her runners and get out there. “No one ever finishes a run and thinks: ‘I wish I hadn’t done that!” “Who knows, maybe one day I’ll make a full marathon.”

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