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Highland survivor Riley Maclennan (7) chosen to launch World Cancer Day in Scotland as stem cell transplant success celebrated

By Gregor White

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Proud dad Kevin Maclennan with Riley.
Proud dad Kevin Maclennan with Riley.

Courageous Riley Maclennan (7) was saved from cancer thanks to a stem cell transplant last year.

The seven-year-old from Inverness received the transplant of cells taken from a new baby’s umbilical cordon September 23 last year after the disease came back for a second time.

He endured chemotherapy and weeks in isolation hundreds of miles away from home at hospital in Glasgow.

Now in remission, Riley and his proud parents Kevin Maclennan (55) and Moira Black (45) are sharing their remarkable family story to inspire others to play a part in the fight against cancer.

They’re urging people to raise money for life-saving research by making a donation and wearing a Cancer Research UK Unity Band on Friday, February 4 – which as well as World Cancer Day also marks the charity’s 20th anniversary.

The band is available online and in Cancer Research UK shops in three different colours – pink, navy and blue. It can be worn in memory of a loved one, to celebrate people who’ve overcome cancer or in support of those going through treatment.

Mr Maclennan said: “There’s a new mum out there who has saved our little boy’s life.

“We’ve been given the greatest gift of all from a stranger. The stem cells from the umbilical cord looked just like a small bag of blood but they had amazing power. Riley’s blood counts are great now and there are no signs of leukaemia cells. That means the world to us. Riley has an ability to bounce back and we’re so proud of him.”

Riley was just two when on December 1, 2016 he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, a cancer of the white blood cells.

He started on 28 days of intensive chemotherapy followed by regular chemotherapy over the next four years.

It was a relief in October 2020 as the family were finally told that he was in remission and he was able to ring the end of treatment bell at a ceremony at home in Inverness.

But last spring Riley became unwell again.

Riley Maclennan while he was in hospital receivingv treatment.
Riley Maclennan while he was in hospital receivingv treatment.

It was a hammer blow when on May 15, Riley was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, a type of blood cancer that is very rare in children.

Some people with the condition go on to develop acute myeloid leukaemia and in Riley’s case the risk of this was very high unless doctors moved quickly with treatment.

Mr Maclennan said: “We were told that Riley was the only child in Scotland who they’d seen this happen to after leukaemia treatment.

“They could find only one similar case in America and there were cases of two children who had been treated in London. After everything that Riley had been through we were devastated. Riley had grown up facing cancer and just as we finally thought we’d put that chapter of our lives behind us we were right back in it.”

The family were advised that Riley’s best chance of recovery was a stem cell transplant, using stem cells from umbilical cord blood. After giving birth, some mothers choose to donate cord blood for transplant. Many people around the world have donated their baby’s umbilical cords which are stored safely. The donor’s healthy cells would reboot Riley’s immune system and hopefully stop cancer cells from growing again.

Riley had intense chemotherapy in an isolation room over 14 days before he was ready for the transplant at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow. It was administered into Riley’s bloodstream through a syringe.

Mr Maclennan said: “There were so many hard parts of Riley’s treatment but the transplant in September was the chance of a new start.

“It was a gradual recovery in hospital but by November we received the best results possible when tests showed that Riley’s blood was 100 per cent donor so the transplant had worked. He’s loving being out of hospital. We’re home with Riley and can look forward to celebrating his eighth birthday in March. We owe all the staff at the Royal Hospital for Children in Glasgow a massive thank you.

“We’ve been through a lot as a family but now if we can help others we will. That’s why we want everyone across Scotland to get one of Cancer Research UK’s Unity Bands. Wearing one is such a simple way to show solidarity with people affected by cancer, while also raising vital funds.”

Riley launches World Cancer Day in Scotland.
Riley launches World Cancer Day in Scotland.

Every year around 33,200 people are diagnosed with cancer in Scotland. Cancer Research UK has funded pioneering research in to understanding different types of childhood leukaemia which has improved the way children are treated today, meaning more survive.

Marked on February 4, World Cancer Day is an international initiative, uniting people across the globe to take action against the disease. For Cancer Research UK the awareness day takes on extra significance this year, as it celebrates its 20th birthday. While the charity was formed in 2002, its history dates back to the founding of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in 1902. Its work has been at the heart of some of the biggest developments in cancer, from radiotherapy to some of the most used cancer drugs around the world today.

Now the cutting-edge research it funds has helped lead to more people than ever in the UK surviving their cancer for 10 years or more.

Lisa Adams, Cancer Research UK spokeswoman in Scotland, said: “As we mark our anniversary this World Cancer Day, we want to say a heartfelt thank you to Riley’s family for their incredible commitment to the cause.

“Thanks to our supporters, we’ve achieved so much. Every day we see the benefits of research we’ve previously funded being realised, helping people live longer and healthier lives. One in two of us will get cancer in our lifetime, and so we will never stop striving to create better treatments for tomorrow. That’s why we hope everyone will wear a Unity Band with pride – knowing they are helping to save and improve lives for generations to come. We've come so far. And we will go much further. Together we will beat cancer.”

Cancer Research UK spent nearly £30 million last year in Scotland on some of the UK’s leading scientific and clinical research.

Unity Bands are available in Cancer Research UK shops and online for a suggested donation of £2.

Related article: 'Don't give me gifts, help me raise funds for poorly children'

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