A Jersey mother is making an urgent plea to islanders to help save her childhood sweetheart's life by registering as stem cell donors, after a what appeared to be a rash turned out to be a rare and aggressive form of blood cancer.
Osvalda Ferreira is teaming up with blood cancer charity, Anthony Nolan, and appealing for islanders to register as stem cell donors because no DNA match can be found for her husband, Tony, who has Sézary Syndrome.
The couple, who met when they were 14 years old and have lived in Jersey for over a decade, have gone from neighbours in their native Madeira, to childhood sweethearts, husband and wife, to parents of their daughter – now they are hoping to find a suitable donor to save Tony’s life so that they can grow old together.
Tony had been having skin problems for over five years, starting with a patch of irritation on his lower back. He was going to the GP continuously asking for help and advice, but a biopsy only returned a diagnosis of dermatitis and eczema.
Pictured: Osvalda and her childhood sweetheart Tony, who has been diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of blood cancer (Osvalda Ferreira).
As the problem showed no signs of improvement, Tony was eventually referred to a specialist and then to a haematologist who performed two biopsies, one of his skin and one of his glands, which indicated that he had abnormal cells.
The couple were then referred to Guy’s Hospital in London and it was confirmed that Tony had Sézary syndrome, which is a form of cutaneous T-cell lymphoma.
“When doctors told us Tony had a rare form of cancer, I was shocked. It’s not something you expect, and it’s really hard to pull yourself together all you can do is hope – a word I use a lot... My daughter Ana recently asked me the hardest question I have had to answer. She asked me ‘will dad die?’. I had to tell her that I didn’t know but we have to keep up hope, and pray for the best. That’s a really hard conversation to have," Osvalda recalled.
“I’ve known Tony most of my life. Life for us is each other – we’ve been together longer than half of our lives, and we want to grow old together," she added.
But there could be hope yet if a donor can be found. Despite there being a one in four chance of his siblings being a suitable match, Tony’s family in Madeira are only half a match and therefore are more risky to use as donors.
Pictured: Childhood sweethearts, Tony and Osvalda, who are urging islanders to register as stem cell donors simply by submitting a mouth swab to Anthony Nolan.
Osvalda explained: “The transplant itself already has some risks for Tony. They said that if they don’t find a full match then they will use them [Tony’s siblings], but it increases the risks. What I wanted to do was do whatever I could not to have that risk increased on top of the one that’s there already.”
Osvalda found out about the Jersey Friends of Anthony Nolan, a charity which creates a register to match potential stem cell donors to blood cancer and blood disorder patients, and has been working with them to launch her urgent appeal to save her husband’s life.
“I am very pleased to find Jersey Friends of Anthony Nolan, because everything started from there. I talked to Doreen [Reed, a volunteer for the charity] and from the first moment she opened the doors and said, ‘I’m here to help, we’ll do everything we can to help.' I couldn’t do it without Doreen and with everyone involved with Antony Nolan,” she told Express.
So far, no one on the charity’s worldwide register has proved to be compatible for Tony, but with the charity’s help, Osvalda is organising two stem cell donor registration days in order to find a potential match.
WATCH: Anthony Nolan's how-to-guide to becoming a stem cell donor and potential life safer (Youtube/Anthony Nolan).
Osvalda herself is going to be registering and is very excited to be doing so. She said: “I don’t feel it’s a brave thing. If I knew about it before, I would have done it before… I didn’t know any of these things which I now know since Tony was diagnosed. It really touches your heart.”
Commenting on the registration events, Osvalda said that she is hopeful they will help more people than just Tony. She said: “It would mean a lot to me [to see people registering] because it would mean there was more chance for Tony, but also for other people, for other families.
“I think that we have to not wait for someone to be diagnosed with blood cancer to make people aware that they can do something. Hopefully this will encourage people to do it – why leave until tomorrow what you can do today?”
The family and the charity are particularly encouraging members of the Portuguese and other Mediterranean communities to come forward as it’s more likely they will be a match for Tony, but also there is a need for more diverse DNA on the Anthony Nolan register.
Pictured: Tony Ferreira, a gardener, husband and father, who has been diagnosed with Sézary syndrome, hopes that the Anthony Nolan register could save his life.
The two events will take place on 21 and 22 July at the Welcome Centre at St Thomas’s Church. You can register if you’re aged 16-30 and are in general good health. If you can’t make it to the events, but still want to get involved, you can also register online here.
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