John Illsley tells how he was saved from chronic leukaemia

John Illsley tells how he was saved from chronic leukaemia

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John Illsley with his guitar and big smile on his face.

I really was in Dire Straits… but now I’ve beaten the cancer I hid for 15 years. John Illsley tells for the first time how he was saved from chronic leukaemia
– Dire Straits bassist kept his leukaemia a secret for 15 years
– John Illsley, 64, had first round of chemotherapy in 2002
– Neither his close family nor band mate Mark Knopfler knew
– Thanks to stem cell donation from his sister, he is now cancer free

When John took to the stage of the Shepherd’s Bush Empire for a charity gig in 2002, the founding member of Dire Straits belted out bass and backing vocals on classic hits Money For Nothing and Romeo And Juliet. But unknown to the audience and his bandmate, singer Mark Knopfler, just days before John had undergone his first round of chemotherapy for leukaemia, a condition he has now had and kept secret for 15 years.

Today, John – tall, tanned and with a mane of greying hair – is sitting in his studio in Hampshire strumming a guitar. Yet it’s a near-miracle his latest album, called Testing The Water, was ever recorded.

Keeping secrets: John Illsley, bassist in Dire Straits, kept his leukaemia a secret for 15 years, and has now finally been given the all-clear this year

The tune he’s playing, Railway Tracks, was composed in hospital in January 2011 where he endured an agonising wait to find out whether a stem cell transplant – which used to be called a bone marrow transplant – had worked.

He and his family knew this was his last chance of survival. It is only now that John finally feels ready to share his ordeal in order to thank his sister Pat, who donated her stem cells, and to raise awareness for Anthony Nolan, the UK’s blood cancer charity and bone marrow register.

‘I know how lucky I have been in finding a tissue match within my family,’ says John. ‘There are thousands of others who rely on the kindness of strangers for this life-saving treatment.’

After Dire Straits broke up in 1995 – the band had sold an astonishing 120 million albums and spent 1,100 weeks in the album charts – John embarked on ‘a quiet life’ in the New Forest with partner Stephanie. He painted and helped care for his two youngest children, Harry, then aged three, and Deedee, who was just seven months old.

Long struggle: John underwent his first round of chemotherapy in 2002, just before reuniting with Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits, pictured in their heyday, but did not even tell them he was ill.

But in 1999, the year of his 50th birthday and his wedding to Stephanie, things changed dramatically. ‘I’d had a reasonably hectic life, so I decided it was about time to check that everything was OK,’ he says. He booked a health MOT with a private doctor. ‘When the results came back I was congratulated – I had the blood pressure of a teenager, a low pulse rate and low cholesterol. But the doctor also wondered whether I had been ill recently as my white blood cell count was high.’

It was suggested that John have further tests. A week later he was at University College Hospital in London having a bone marrow biopsy, a procedure where a small amount of fluid is collected from the bone using a syringe.

The results showed that John had a condition called chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL), which is diagnosed in almost 3,000 people every year in the UK, accounting for three per cent of all cancers.

In CLL, the bone marrow makes too many white blood cells called lymphocytes, which do not work properly. Over time, they build up in the body and may cause large, swollen lymph nodes, and fill the bone marrow, reducing the number of normal blood cells made, leading to a host of severe problems.

‘I remember sitting in the doctor’s office with my wife and being told that I had cancer,’ says John. ‘I asked for the bottom line and bluntly the doctor said I probably had ten years left. I have to say that brought me up quite short.

‘I appreciate that you can’t scatter fairy dust, but I felt there had to be some options.’ After reading an article about the late Professor Terry Hamblin, a consultant at the Royal Bournemouth Hospital, John asked to be referred to him. Prof Hamblin was one of the first to appreciate the role of stem cell transplants in the 1980s and subsequently changed the way in which leukaemia was managed. Prof Hamblin initially suggested that because of the slow nature of John’s condition, he would live to an old age.

The disease is often slow-growing, and since it tends to affect older people more often, many will not require any treatment and it is just a case of watching and waiting until symptoms develop. ‘But then my blood count started to go awry,’ says John. In July 2002, he was put on chemotherapy, and days later he joined Knopfler and the rest of the band at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire to recapture some Dire Straits classics.

Even Knopfler, who remains a close friend, did not know about his condition at that point. ‘Stephanie and I wanted to keep it quiet unless we absolutely had to tell people,’ says John, who was determined not to be defined by his condition. But he was having chemotherapy. Surely people noticed?

‘Well, I got a bit thin, but I just said I had cut down on the beer. I didn’t lose my hair, so I didn’t look as though I had cancer,’ he recalls with characteristic understatement.
‘I had a round of chemotherapy every month for three months, and only felt ill for two or three days each month.’

Indeed, he devoted the subsequent years to his family (he has two older children from a previous marriage), painting, and producing two more albums – one solo and one in collaboration with another musician.

But in 2008 – six years after the chemotherapy – John started to feel very tired. ‘Of course I knew what it was. That’s when I told my close friends. Mark was shocked and couldn’t believe I’d had it but he was totally supportive and respected my decision to keep it low-key.

‘I was referred to Professor John Gribben at The London Clinic. He was wonderful but I was starting to feel very weak. I was exhausted the whole time and couldn’t even climb stairs. It was clear things were going haywire.’

Family first: John found out that his sister Pat was a perfect match to become a stem cell donor.

John was told he could have a further round of the chemotherapy, but that it would probably only stave off the illness for another year or so. Then his only option for a cure would be a stem cell transplant, in which strong chemotherapy drugs are used to kill off the patient’s own bone marrow before it is replaced with stem cells taken from a donor’s blood and marrow.

Despite initially keeping his cancer from them, John now came clean to the rest of his family – sister Pat and two brothers. ‘I didn’t want to worry more people than I had to until absolutely necessary,’ reiterates John.

‘I wrote and explained my condition. Then I had a lot of apologising to do for not telling them sooner, but I also asked that they be tested to see whether they were a match for the stem cell transplant – the only thing that would save my life.’ Naturally, they instantly acquiesced – tissue testing is now possible by simply providing a saliva sample. ‘It was my dear sister Pat who was a perfect match,’ says John. Pat, now in her late 60s, lives in Cornwall with her husband Roger, 75. She came to The London Clinic, where John was being treated, for the extraction.

This is done in advance, and the cells are frozen until they are needed.  The most common method requires just four hours and a couple of needles in the arms, as the cells are extracted from circulating blood in a procedure known as peripheral blood stem cell donation.

Blood is then returned to the body via the other arm and stem cells are stored in liquid nitrogen until they are needed. Prof Gribben says: ‘The donor has four days of injections that increase stem cell production within the bone marrow and makes them spill over into the blood so that we can collect them.’

For those not lucky enough to have relatives who are a tissue match – and it’s only a one in four chance – he strongly advocates investigating the donor register. John glosses over how miserable this time must have been for him. ‘I’m not one to wallow in self-pity.

‘Of course I sometimes got “poor me” syndrome because you feel very vulnerable. Everything was an effort. ‘I suffered from pains in my arms as a result of the second round of chemotherapy and couldn’t tour because they hurt so much.’ In January 2011, as he became ever weaker, John was admitted to The London Clinic for the latest form of stem cell treatment – a mini-transplant. ‘This started to be developed in the early 2000s and is now used as much as possible,’ says Prof Gribben.

‘We use less chemo and don’t kill off all the recipient’s bone marrow. If we get new cells in without being destroyed by the host body, they seem to take over naturally, and suitable patients have a 50 per cent chance of being cured at that stage.’ John recalls: ‘All my hair fell out this time. Suddenly I looked a lot older.

’ The transplant is simply an intravenous infusion – the cells circulate around the body and come to rest in the bone marrow where they start to reproduce. It took two painfully slow weeks to know whether the operation had worked. ‘Prof Gribben walked in one day and congratulated me. I was apparently 98 per cent female. Great! I was as bald as a coot and mostly woman.’

Prof Gribben explains: ‘His blood cells were now all from his sister. We use the term “chimeric” to refer to the fact that patients are genetically from two sources.’ That meant it had worked, and he could go home. And last month John was given the news that there is no trace of cancer remaining. So his new album release feels like particularly apt timing, since much of it was composed in hospital. Out of the gruelling illness and treatment has come new life for both John and his music.

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