True to her ‘Type A’ personality, when Fiona Beck was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukaemia, she chose to deal with it as another job to do.
Growing up in different towns in the South Island before moving to Rotorua and going to university in Hamilton, Fiona is used to a life on the go. Her career has taken her even further afield. For the past 17 years, Fiona has regularly commuted between Bermuda and New Zealand.
It was early 2016 when Fiona got an itchy rash on her legs. Arriving home in Wellington from Bermuda, she visited her local GP for a cream to soothe the irritation. She ordered routine blood tests as part of a general health check. Two days later, Fiona was in hospital.
Fiona clearly recalls her consultant telling her that he was going to give her the best kind of worse news.
“He said I had leukaemia, but one that now has one of the highest ‘cure’ rates. One that previously was always fatal.”
Her treatment for acute promyelocytic leukaemia (APL) started immediately with a relatively new treatment protocol based on ATRA and daily intravenous rounds of Arsenic Trioxide.
“I handled the treatments well, overall. I had to contend with migraine headaches and then started to develop an irregular heart rhythm. And unbelievably dry skin – I was like a crocodile,” says Fiona.
Her partner of 33 years Dean helped break the news of her illness to family, friends and colleagues. By doing so, he allowed Fiona to focus on herself.
“Friends and family all care and want information. But it is hard for the patient to be the communicator-in-chief when you are trying to get through things in the early stages.”
Despite being 15,000 km away from Bermuda, Fiona continued her work for the America’s Cup. Being up at Wellington hospital for around six hours every day, she made good use of the Wi-Fi in the day clinic while receiving her treatment.
“I had a great team over there working with me, and I could remotely work, using video calls, emails and follow up in person when I went back to Bermuda, which I did in one of my three week breaks.
“The America’s Cup gave me something to focus on, a great goal and made me feel normal and connected,” she says.
After her treatment ended, Fiona returned to Bermuda to work closely on the 2017 America’s Cup event. The New Zealand America’s Cup team win was a personal highlight for her. She rates it as highly as the day she finished her treatment.
Fiona is grateful for the support she received from LBC’s Wellington Support Services Coordinator Sally Black.
“From providing information in the early stages to the support groups and sessions, like the Blood Cancer Patient Forum, it’s all been so helpful. Sharing your thoughts in meetings helps you cope and look out for one another.”
One of the most important lessons for Fiona was the knowledge that she was not alone.
“Cancer doesn’t care about age, status or wealth. It is the ultimate equaliser. But with great support and the right medical treatment people survive and go back to living their life, albeit changed by their experience.
“I am not really sure I understood what it meant to live each day until I had to face up to a life-threatening illness.”
In September 2017, Fiona took on the Great Wall of China Challenge adventure and raised funds for LBC.
“It ticked all the boxes – the Chinese were the first to use one of the drugs I’d had to treat APL, I needed a fitness goal for 2017, and it was for the best cause – my favourite charity LBC.
“It was fun, hard work, great friendships were created, and lots of money was raised.”