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Because of Susan, we've saved so many lives

2nd Sep 2020 - Sylvia Gaunt

It's been 60 years since my parents started this charity. We've grown to become thousands of families, and achieved so much along the way. But it all started with my little sister, Susan.

Sylvia Gaunt, whose parents founded Blood Cancer UK in 1960


When they tell me Blood Cancer UK has invested £500 million in blood cancer research and that this research has saved countless lives, I feel extremely proud.

They say great oak trees grow from small acorns. Well, when it comes to the oak tree that is Blood Cancer UK’s body of work of the last 60 years, my family was that acorn.

It all started because of my little sister Susan.

Susan got leukaemia when she was just six years old. Back in 1960, treatments were in their infancy and so there was no hope for her. All my family could do was to try to make her last few weeks as full of as many happy times as possible.

Susan loved picnics, so we went on lots of picnics. And Susan had always wanted a dog, so the local pub organised a whip-round to pay for a dog. It used to sleep in the bed with her, and one day we came in to see she’d painted its claws with nail-varnish!

When Susan died, it left a hole in our family that we could never fill.

But one thing we wanted to do was raise money in her memory, to do our bit towards finding a cure that would mean other families wouldn’t have to go through the same thing.

We became a fundraising family

We started off making and selling two-bob hankies. Then we expanded to shaking collecting tins, holding jumble sales and selling Christmas cards. Anything we could think of, really! It was all done from our dining room table, and it was my job to count and bank the money as it came in.

In the beginning, we only expected to raise a few pounds. If you’d told us the charity we were starting in Teeside would end up a branch of a national charity raising £500 million, we would have laughed. But Mum, Dad and I just kept on fundraising and then we were joined by other families who had gone through the same kind of things we had, until suddenly we were raising millions of pounds a year to beat blood cancer.

We’ve had big celebrities helping to raise awareness and funds, from Hattie Jacques to Morecambe and Wise, and Sir Ian Botham OBE and the Calendar Girls. But as many famous faces as we’ve been lucky to be supported by, the thing that’s really fuelled our charity is the determination of ordinary people who want to change the world for people with blood cancer.

And 60 years later, it’s amazing what we’ve achieved. Back in 1960, just one in 10 children survived Susan’s type of leukaemia. Thanks to research, today that figure is eight out of 10.

But I don't want to get stuck on the past

But as great as that achievement is, let’s not spend our 60th anniversary patting ourselves on the back and blowing our own trumpet.

Because there’s still a job of work to be done. Because there are still too many people dying of blood cancer.

So while I’m proud of the past, I’m more focused on the future. And I’m determined that the next generation will be the one that finishes the job Mum and Dad started – finding a cure for blood cancer.

Every time I read about a new research breakthrough, it gives me a lift. Because it means we’re one step closer.

Of course, the coronavirus is a huge challenge to our fundraising efforts, and the sad fact is that we’ll spend less money on research this year because of all the events that have been cancelled. But as big a setback as it is, it hasn’t shaken my belief that one day – and one day not so far away – we’re going to beat blood cancer.

Because as tough as times are right now, we’ve got the resilience to withstand these difficulties, and it was last year’s Christmas carols concert at the Royal Albert Hall really brought home to me just how special we are.

Sylvia speaking on stage at the Royal Albert Hall


I was asked to say a few words on stage, and I remember looking around at the interval and choking up at the thought that all these people were here because of something Mum and Dad had started.

I started worrying that I wouldn’t be able to get my words out, that it would be too emotional. And it’s a pretty big deal having to get up stage in front of a packed Royal Albert Hall!

But when it came to my turn to speak, I felt absolutely fine. I felt at home because as I looked out into a sea of faces, I realised they were the faces of people who all shared a common goal. It felt like we were all part of one big family.

Everyone supporting this charity is part of one family

I can’t emphasise enough how precious this sense of family is for our charity, and my one word of advice for everyone involved with it is that we must treasure it as we move forward into the future.

Because it’s that sense of family that gives me absolute faith that we will find a cure for blood cancer.

And we’ll do it in Susan’s memory, and in memory of all the other people we’ve lost to this horrible disease.

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