A YOUNG Hampshire woman who fought the same cancer twice as a teenager has returned to the hospital she says saved her life - as a high-flying researcher trying to beat the disease.

Catherine Pointer first battled leukaemia when she was 14 years old and again three years later when her cancer returned, forcing her to undergo a full bone marrow transplant that she feared might kill her.

Now 12 years later - and facing her third cancer battle after being diagnosed with a form of skin cancer - the 26-year-old, who is backing this year’s Stand Up To Cancer campaign, says she is determined to devote her career to finding better treatments and, she hopes, ultimately a cure for the disease.

With GCSEs, A-Levels and a Biomedical degree under her belt despite how ill she was, Catherine is on the cusp of becoming a doctor as she completes her PhD at the Cancer Research UK Southampton Centre, working among an elite group of scientists and clinicians focussed on improving treatments and survival rates for head and neck cancer patients.

Away from the labs, she’s having ongoing treatment while also making final preparations to tie the knot with fiancé Ash, a Sandhurst army captain, in a fairy-tale wedding next year.


Among the guests will be her much-loved consultant, who has since retired from her job in Southampton and moved abroad.

Catherine’s also living with the lifelong effects of her leukaemia battles and the fact she will struggle to have children of her own, leading the couple to make a heartfelt plea to their family and friends not to bring gifts but to help them fund IVF treatment instead.

She said: “Being back in Southampton but now as a cancer researcher rather than a cancer patient feels like the exact right place for me to be, like it’s gone full circle.

"Once, when my parents dropped me off at the hospital, they said how they hated being back at the place where I was ill. But I don’t see Southampton General as the place where I was ill – it’s the place that made me better.

“I’m no longer the sick young girl on a ward, now I walk around with a Cancer Research UK lanyard around my neck knowing that what we do every day is going to help people with cancer in generations to come.”

Catherine was on a family summer holiday when she became very unwell and lost a significant amount of blood. Within two weeks she had lost a dramatic amount of weight and could barely stand without passing out.

When they returned home urgent blood tests were carried out and Catherine, from Fareham, was admitted to Queen Alexander Hospital in Portsmouth before being transferred to Southampton where it was confirmed she had leukaemia and needed to begin six months of intensive chemotherapy treatment.

She said: “There were a few scary moments with infections but overall I coped pretty well. As rubbish as I felt, there was always someone on the ward who was worse off than me.

“Even before I became ill I liked the idea of being a scientist but without doubt, my own experience convinced me.

“I may have been young when I was diagnosed but I still had so many questions – I remember my consultant taking me into the labs and showing me my cells and bone marrow to try and help me understand what was wrong with me and how they were trying to make me better.”

Catherine went into remission after four cycles of treatment. Despite missing all of Year 10, she returned to Henry Cort Community College for Year 11 and left with 9 GCSEs.


She was just underway with her A-levels when her cancer returned.

She said: “I remember waking up feeling a bit off, stumbling and weak I collapsed in the bathroom and smashed my head on the basin.

“My parents and sister were home and picked me up and took me straight to hospital.

“I was in denial right up until the moment they told me it was leukaemia again. This time I would have to go for a bone marrow transplant. I was terrified.”

After eight weeks on the transplant register, while having further chemo, a match was found for Catherine and she was transferred to Bristol for the procedure.

She said: “They warned me this was going to be the worst yet but I didn’t take it seriously as I had coped so well with treatment in the past. But I was scared – I knew that if it failed I was accepting the fact I would die very young.”

In an isolation ward, Catherine underwent total body irradiation as they killed off her own bone marrow before carrying out the transplant on November 28 2009

“I remember lying on my hospital bed and telling my mum I just couldn’t do it anymore. I was exhausted but couldn’t sleep, it took everything I had just to open my eyes. I could feel everything shutting down inside me. I looked in the mirror and didn’t recognise the person I saw.”

“My mum reminded me I had been through the worst of the treatment, the transplant was only 48 hours away so I just to hold on and I’d soon start to recover”. To the amazement of doctors, Catherine made it home in time for Christmas with her family.

She said: “Being back at home, sleeping in my own bed and eating my mum's roast dinners made me stronger every day.”

Despite missing a full year at Havant College she returned to complete her A-levels in Biology, Maths and Psychology and went on to do a biomedical degree at Sussex University.


She said: “Cancer had already dominated my life so much. But it came to be the thing that interested me most and the only thing I wanted to choose as a career. I did work experience at Southampton and really liked what they are doing there – it feels like it is really going to make a difference.

“I started my PhD in cancer research wanting answers about what had happened to me. Now I’ve developed a mild skin cancer as a direct result of the treatment I had, it’s about self-preservation. I don’t want the next 14-year-old girl to go through what I’ve had. All I want is to grow old with my soon-to-be husband and be able to raise a family. I now know I can’t stop myself getting cancer again, but by working at CRUK Southampton I can make sure I’ll be ready for it next time. That’ll help a lot of other people along the way too.”

“I want to see the day that people going through cancer can come through the other side and be able to live, not just survive with a lifetime of side effects from the treatment they had. People shouldn’t have to choose survival at the expense of being able to live – there has to be a better outcome than that.”