‘It’s like having the rug pulled from under you.’ Last April, Amber Visser first told us her story. One month previously, the Psychology and Philosophy student had received news that had turned her life upside down: she was suffering from acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. According to her doctor, she had a 75 percent chance of survival, if they managed to find a suitable donor.

Many people would have freaked out at the news. Not so Amber. Her smile and optimism became her main weapons. “It’s impossible to prove, but I think it helped. Of course I experienced some very tough moments, but I always tried to stay positive.”

Pinky toe


In mid-May she received the first piece of good news. Her younger brother, Quintius, was found to be a suitable donor. “This was a huge relief, but also quite a psychological burden, because I knew the treatment would be hard on him, too.” But before she was even ready to receive her brother’s new stem cells, her cancer cells had to be eliminated by means of chemotherapy. “The problem is not getting rid of cancer. The problem is keeping it away.”

Yet the doctors soon managed to do just that. After two chemotherapy cycles, the malignant cells appeared to be largely gone. “Except you can never be sure. They can measure a lot, but they can’t measure everything. There may literally be two cancer cells left in your pinky toe. The hardest thing was dealing with that uncertainty.”

15 percent

In addition to seeking her family’s support, Amber often spoke to fellow patients through WhatsApp. “It was great, but also emotionally draining. We were all going through the same thing, so we quickly became friends. So if one of them suffered a setback or had just been told that the disease had returned, I felt all those emotions myself. And yes, some of my friends did not live to tell the tale.”

By October, her body was ready for the transplant. While she had always had a very positive attitude, she now also experienced fear. “They kept telling me that this treatment would be the most painful one. I knew I was going to have a bad time of it. Fifteen percent of people undergoing this treatment die due to the surgery or its consequences. People aged thirty or older don’t even undergo this form of treatment since their chances of survival are too low. As my doctor put it to my Mum: ‘It’s as though we are killing your daughter to give her a new lease of life.’”

Grocery shopping


However, despite all the horror stories, Amber got through the transplantation just fine. “I was able to leave the hospital on my two feet, rather than in a wheelchair. I was mentally making all sorts of plans because things were going so well.” But two weeks later, her body did pull the emergency brake. “I wasn’t doing well at all, so I had to be re-admitted to hospital to start from scratch, so to speak.”

By now, she has been home for almost a month, and her health is improving little by little. The wheelchair is still in the corridor, just in case she needs it, but she seldom does. “At first I was unable to do anything. I would climb the stairs once and suffer sore muscles for several days afterwards. But now I’m able to walk short distances outside and sometimes I’ll join my mother when she goes grocery shopping.”

Week of truth

Following the relapse, the doctors gave her a clear warning: don’t expect your recovery to be a straight line. “Things go in waves, with ups and downs. Which is confusing to the people around me. They are thinking, well, Amber has left the hospital and has completed her therapy, so now she’s all better. If only I were. The real battle has only just begun.”

Next week will be her week of truth, in which she will be told whether her body has truly accepted her brother’s cells and whether she is now entirely ‘clean’. “It’s looking good, but you never know. And even if the results are good now, the disease may return at any time. I’m trying not to think of that.”

Two birthdays

For this reason, she is already making plans for her post-rehabilitation life. She has scheduled her first meeting with her study adviser and is spending a significant percentage of her leisure time volunteering with KWF (the Dutch Cancer Society). “I try to do as much for them as I can. It’s an easy thing to do from the sofa. For instance, the Spar supermarket at the campus now has a bin in which people can leave their empty bottles. The bottle deposit will be donated to KWF.”

She can’t wait to resume her two degrees, but it is hard to tell at the moment when she will be able to do so. Until that time, she will cherish the fact that she is able to sit on her parents’ sofa. “I’m so lucky to be able to do all this again. I’ve seen others who weren’t so lucky. For this reason, I regard the twelfth of October, the day on which I received my transplant, as my new birthday. Not many people get to celebrate two birthdays. So, you see, there is an upside to all of this.”