Fundraiser Spotlight: Charlotte Collins
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To kick off our Fundraiser Spotlight series we asked Charlotte Collins about her experiences of fundraising for Myeloma UK. You can find her fundraiser here. Read on to see what she had to say!
Tell us a bit about your story; what is your background, and how did you end up fundraising for Myeloma UK?
I was an actor and radio journalist, and in the summer of 2009 I was performing in an energetic open-air tour of The Taming of the Shrew. I had a bad back, it kept getting worse, and a few months after the tour finished, I ended up in hospital. I had something called a solitary plasmacytoma (cancer) in one of my thoracic vertebrae; it collapsed, and I had to have emergency surgery. Back then I was tested for multiple myeloma, but the disease seemed to be localised, so I hoped that after surgery and radiotherapy it wouldn’t come back. Unfortunately it did progress to myeloma, and was found again in other bones in 2014.
I can’t speak highly enough of the doctors and all the haemato-oncology team at St George’s Hospital in Tooting, London. I had the first round of chemotherapy there followed by a stem cell transplant in 2015. I’ve since moved to Cambridge, and when the cancer came back last autumn my treatment was moved here, to Addenbrooke’s Hospital. They’ve also been great, and this is where I’m having my second stem cell transplant. I hope this will give me another good period of remission.
For those who might not be aware of multiple myeloma, what is this and how has it affected your life since you were diagnosed?
Multiple myeloma is a cancer of the plasma cells in the bone marrow. It’s actually the second most common blood cancer, accounting for 15% of all such cancers, yet people are generally less aware of it than of leukaemia or lymphoma. It’s often missed in the early stages; it’s not unusual for people only to be diagnosed when a bone is already compromised and breaks for no obvious reason. Other early symptoms are things like fatigue and low blood counts.
I had to stop the work I was doing in 2010, as for about a year I couldn’t walk far or sit up at a desk for long. But it was this that spurred me to move into literary translation, and that changed my life. I love it: so, in a way, cancer helped me work out what I was really meant to do.
Unfortunately there’s still no cure for myeloma. It’s a very individual disease, meaning that it behaves very differently in different people, and a treatment that works for one person won’t necessarily work for another. Doctors and researchers are trying to understand it better; the more they learn, the more likely we are to find good, targeted treatments and perhaps, ultimately, a cure.
Huge progress has already been made, thanks in no small part to Myeloma UK. Just fifteen years ago, the average life expectancy was 3-5 years. Now, with the new immunotherapies, it’s more like 8+. Some people get lucky and are able to live with it for much longer.
And what about Myeloma UK – how has the work they do affected your experience with multiple myeloma?
They offer support and advice to patients, work hard as our advocates, and raise awareness of the disease. They also work closely with organisations that research and trial innovative drugs, and they negotiate with the health service and drug companies to make new treatments affordable and available to NHS patients.
Myeloma is a relapsing-remitting disease, meaning that after a period of remission it eventually comes back. Because patients become resistant to the drugs, particular combinations – “lines” of treatment – are usually only available to them once. The more new, effective drugs patients are able to access, the more lines – and the more chances – they have. When we’re in remission, most of us have a pretty good quality of life.
How have you stayed motivated during the Covid-19 lockdown period?
I’m a freelancer, translating novels and plays from the German, and these past few months I’ve actually been very busy! I’m used to working from home and being on my own, so that aspect of things hasn’t been too bad. My neighbours have been really supportive, and I’m lucky enough to have a small garden here, which has been a great solace. As have my beloved cats! I haven’t been allowed to hug anyone since March, but the cats are very affectionate, and it makes a huge difference just being able to cuddle them. I won’t be allowed to get too close to them for three months after the transplant, though. That’s going to be hard…
Have you ever used a role model for your actions? If so, who, and why did you pick that person?
If you mean fundraising: the writer and journalist John Underwood. He was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive lymphoma at the age of 25, and had a donor stem cell transplant in 2015. I read about him just a few months after I’d had my previous transplant (using my own cells). I did a couple of sponsored walks, and was pleased to raise over £10,000 split between Myeloma UK and DKMS, a charity that recruits people aged 17-55 as potential stem cell donors.
But I wasn’t on Twitter. With his brave, spirited, entertaining live-tweeting of his case, John raised an extraordinary £60,000 for a different stem cell registration charity, Anthony Nolan. He hugely increased awareness of the register and the need for potential donors, and was instrumental in getting thousands of people to join it. Sadly, he suffered serious setbacks during his recovery, and died in 2018.
What are some of the best pieces of advice you’ve received and why do you consider them so valuable?
Be kind. I’ve come to believe that there’s probably nothing more important. It’s at the root of pretty much everything that’s good in the world, and the absence of kindness and empathy is the root of much that is evil.
If there was one skill you could teach everyone else what would it be and why?
To speak another language. (I’m not a teacher, though!) It’s a wonderful thing to be able to communicate with people in their own language, and being able to immerse yourself in another culture is a gift. Simply speaking a language other than your own opens you up to new possibilities; it’s a reaching out across borders, a broadening of the mind. It helps you explore and come to terms with the unfamiliar. And because all languages are constructed differently, they make us think differently when we speak them. Even our voices change! Speaking and working with languages has hugely enriched my life – I’ve made friends, travelled to, lived and worked in places that I would never have found if I hadn’t spoken the language or been prepared to learn. And it’s fun! It makes me sad that fewer and fewer people are studying languages these days, at school and then at university. It’s a real plus in the job market, too – the UK seriously lacks linguists.
Of all the books you have ever read, which ones stand out as the ones you would recommend, and why?
This is a very difficult question to ask of someone who works with books for a living! There are so many… I usually recommend books to specific people based on what I think they’ll enjoy, and what I’ve read recently, so I find it hard to generalise. Right now, I’ll recommend David Nicholls’ Sweet Sorrow, because it’s lovely and funny and life-affirming, and I found it very comforting to read during lockdown. Other than that, I’ll be cheeky and recommend two books I love that I was also privileged to translate: Robert Seethaler’s beautiful, touching novella A Whole Life, set in the Austrian Alps, and the epic Georgian/Soviet family saga The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili.
Finally, tell us about something you’re excited for right now
My sister and her boyfriend are getting married in September. I won’t be able to go, as I’ll still be rebuilding my immune system and will have to keep shielding, but I’m very excited for them. I’m also looking forward to finding out which of my colleagues wins the International Booker Prize this year. It’s awarded equally to the author and translator of a book translated into but not originally written in English, and the announcement is on 26th August.
And, like so many others, I’m cautiously excited about the Oxford COVID vaccine. We desperately need one. I hope it works.
A huge thanks to Charlotte for giving such an open and interesting insight into her life, to find out more visit her fund-raising page here, and you can find her twitter here. Donate to a great cause!
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