Lymphoma survivor encourages blood donation


In August 2005, 54-year-old Lionel Greenberg was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) is a group of blood cancers that include any kind of lymphoma except Hodgkin's lymphomas. Lymphomas are types of cancer derived from lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell.  Presently, there are about 30 different subtypes of non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

“Easter break, 2005, I went on holiday to the Drakensberg with my significant other, Joanne, and Kevin, my youngest son. During my trip, l climbed one of the area’s mountains and felt as fit as a fiddle, operating like a fine-tuned car.” This is not surprising considering Lionel’s admission that since his 18th birthday, many miles of road have passed under his feet, and he has successfully completed both the Comrades and Two Oceans Marathons a number of times.

However, by July 2005, Lionel was suffering with Lateral Epicondylitis, commonly known as Tennis Elbow. The severity of the pain and swelling caused by the condition required him pay a visit to the Netcare Linksfield Clinic in Johannesburg. Tennis Elbow is caused by either an abrupt or subtle injury of the muscle and tendon area around the outside of the elbow.

Abdominal pains

The attending doctor looked at Lionel’s low white blood cell count and asked if he had visited a malaria area recently. Lionel assured him that he hadn’t and the doctor comforted him by informing him there was no need to be concerned.

 He was prescribed some antibiotics and asked to come in for a follow up check-up in roughly a month’s time. “In all honestly, I didn’t stick to my appointment. The pain and swelling had been greatly reduced by the antibiotics so I didn’t perceive the need for the routine check.” admits Lionel

A bit over a month after Lionel’s initial visit to Linksfield Clinic’s casualty ward, he was rudely awakened by agonising pain in his abdominal area. In an effort to downplay his condition, Lionel forged forward and stubbornly went to work as normal. “The day seemed to stretch and the pain persisted,” revealed Lionel. After a long day at work, Lionel paid a visit to a friend who was also a doctor.

“My friend figured that I was probably suffering from hiatus hernia.” Thereafter, Lionel returned home and self-medicated. “The pain continued to mount and by midnight I was drinking whisky in an effort to numb the pain. In the early hours of the morning the pain became so increasing unbearable that I had no choice but to wake up Joanne, who rushed me to the hospital.

Unfortunately, Lionel was not covered by medical aid, as a consequence was not admitted and instead was put on a drip for about an hour or so. At the crack of dawn, Lionel and his wife departed from the hospital.

They were referred to a surgeon, who performed blood tests and a gastroscopy in an effort to discover what was causing the abdominal pains. The blood test results revealed that Lionel’s white blood cell count was still quite low.

The concerned treating doctor suspected Lionel might have Lymphoma and instructed him to undergo an ultrasound. When the results of his ultrasound came back, Dr de Beer confirmed that a Pathologist should immediately perform a bone marrow biopsy on Lionel.

Deteriorating health

Lionel was then referred to an oncologist, who performed the bone marrow biopsy, from here Lionel was referred to an oncologist.  Lionel was informed that he had Myelofibrosis that is instead of producing stem cells, Lionel’s bone marrow was producing scar tissue. A bone marrow transplant seemed to be Lionel’s only chance of survival.

Read: Bone marrow transplant recipients prone to suicide

During my teenage years and early 20’s, I worked as a volunteer for SANBS. Even though I was acquainted with the process and knew the significance of donating blood, not once could I have foreseen that I would be in need of a blood transfusion. “I remember thinking that I don’t want to die,” recalls the father of two.

A blood run was conducted at Greenberg home, where friends and family were encouraged to donate blood and at the same time get tested to find a bone marrow match. Friends and family arrived at the Greenberg household in their numbers.

“My family was the source of my strength. My lovely wife, Joanne, my dearest sister Delia, my son Kevin and Roy, my best friend of 36 years were my pillars throughout the ordeal. They stood by me, helped me through this journey and saw me through the cancer. They reminded me that the most important thing in illness is never to lose courage.”

Unbearable pain

Things seemed to be have taken a turn for the worse, Lionel’s health was deteriorating. His spleen had doubled in size and his liver was inflamed. “The pain was unbearable.”  Doctors placed him on morphine in an effort to comfort his anguish.  

Read: How morphine increases pain for some

Lionel’s procedure was scheduled for January 2006 but when he started suffering with nose bleeds, he couldn’t endure what he was going through any longer and requested that his procedure be brought forward. Lionel was due to begin chemotherapy on 5 November 2005 and the transplant was scheduled for 5 December.

Uncertain of the treatment procedure and having read through the pathology report, Lionel, who was as a result now aware of his Lymphoma, asked his treating oncologist why he was being treated for Myelofibrosis instead of undergoing treatment for Lymphoma.

It turned out that the oncologist was unaware of Lionel’s illness. An addendum to the pathology report had been included indicating that Lionel did not have Myelofibrosis, but had in fact been diagnosed with Lymphoma as his primary disease.

“l was ordered by the treating doctor to undergo another bone marrow biopsy. The results of the bone marrow confirmed that I had Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma and not Myelofibrosis”. Lionel began chemotherapy for three-days a month for six-months.  

Beating the odds

Days, months and years passed. Lionel completed chemotherapy and life resumed.  In 2010, he set out to conquer Kilimanjaro. He journeyed to Tanzania and successfully climbed Mount Killamajaro, Africa’s highest mountain.

In January 2013, Lionel relapsed. He was diagnosed with Lymphoma. The cancer that had been in remission for several years came back. Once again Lionel underwent aggressive chemotherapy treatment followed by a stem-cell transplant in July. “After my stem cell transplant I received about 6 units of blood”.

The treatment took its toll on his body. He picked up a terrible in infection that saw him in the ICU for ten days. “Lionel's body was so frail that he had to learn how to walk again and used a walker with oxygen for several weeks. Despite his close shave with death, Lionel still managed to continue his studies.

Evidently, Lionel beat the odds, a genuine inspiration. He remains truly humble and filled with zeal. He is still continuing his law studies, through Unisa.

“My illness was a learning curve because it made me see life exactly as it is. You have to tell yourself that you will make it. He encourages people to step into their nearest SANBS Donor Centre and donate blood generously because you can never predict when you or your loved ones might need it.”

Read more:
Why you should donate blood
Character counts when it comes to organ, blood donations

Gay men may now also donate blood in SA


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