How my leukaemia diagnosis affected life as a dentist

Dr Ricky Duggal speaks to Gaby Bissett about his leukaemia diagnosis, and what it has taught him both professionally and personally.

Please can you tell us a bit about your diagnosis last summer?

Last summer, in early August, I attended a joyous family wedding, filled with celebrations and drinking. Despite the happiness, I began experiencing physical discomfort, attributing it to the demanding nature of being a dentist.

I brushed off persistent back and joint pain, fatigue, and night sweats as mere signs of being rundown. However, as days passed, the symptoms intensified, including weakness at the gym and persistent headaches.

Concerned about the sudden and severe headaches, I consulted a general practitioner on 10 August. The GP, alarmed by the possibility of a brain bleed, urgently advised a visit to the A&E department.

Despite initial scepticism about the severity of symptoms, the narrator complied and was quickly examined at the hospital.

The medical team conducted thorough tests, including blood tests, a CT scan and a lumbar puncture. With a provisional diagnosis of viral meningitis, they detected an elevated white blood cell count, raising concerns.

A different doctor later revealed that the count was 22, higher than the normal range, and some cells appeared different. As a dentist, you are accustomed to delivering challenging news and the way he was explaining it did ring alarm bells.

I was admitted overnight for further tests and underwent extensive blood work. The next day, a consultant suggested a bone marrow biopsy, hinting at a potential blood cancer. Subsequently, a doctor revealed a provisional diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL). I needed urgent treatment as it was very aggressive and that’s when my four-week hospital stay began.

What were your initial feelings when you were told you would be in hospital for four weeks?

It came as a sudden shock – it was such a nice summer’s day, I remember it so clearly. I was wearing shorts, a T-shirt, and I had my water bottle. You walk into hospital and you’re told you can’t leave for weeks – it’s a big shock.

I hate being cooped up in one place. I’m a very get up and go person. I go to the gym, play football and work four or five days a week. It felt like a kick in the face.

My wife was with me and had lots of rational questions, such as the next steps and what procedures will be involved. But my first questions was: ‘How long am I going to be off work for?’

My thoughts then switched to, ‘I’m going to push through it and everything will be fine’. My mind has always been like that – I think I can emotionally switch off and focus on getting through it.

How has it impacted you professionally and personally?

Professionally, it was very difficult being told that I wasn’t really going to be able to work. And as it transpires I was off work for several months, not several weeks, so a lot longer than I expected.

I love working clinically, seeing patients face to face and treating them. I felt like I was getting to a really good place clinically, so I’ve suffered a bit with that. But fortunately, buying into the dental practice that I own has really, really helped me at the same time, because it’s allowed me to get more involved with the business and administrative side of things.

I can work on several things from home as well at the same time, which has also kept me very busy. Without that, I would have felt a bit in limbo.

Once I get back to being fully healthy again, I have a job to go back to and that’s what I can work towards. I am currently in remission and this was achieved after the first four-week intense cycle of chemotherapy. However all blood cancers carry a high risk of relapse so there are a few more cycles of chemotherapy to go in order to reduce this risk as much as possible.

On a personal level, I’ve learned to really appreciate the small things in life, such as time and relationships with your loved ones. They’re there for you, no matter what happens, and this support networks means you learn to value these things a lot more. That’s what truly makes us happy.

Sometimes we look for the superficial things in life, which make us happy in the short-term with a dopamine rush. But it’s that time with your family and loved ones which really matters.

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