Everyone around me was dying — then my body started shutting down

'After the funeral, I had all these missed calls from my family...'

Everyone around me was dying — then my body started shutting down
Sonia Beldom thought she was grieving but she was actually dangerously ill (Picture: Sonia Beldom)
Sonia Beldom thought she was grieving but she was actually dangerously ill (Picture: Sonia Beldom)

In September 2022, Sonia Beldom, received a phone call from a close friend Michael Pointon. ‘I’m dying,’ he said.

Confused, Sonia, 60, had thought he meant he was dying for a sandwich or a bite to eat.

He said: ‘No, I’m dying. I’ve got pancreatic cancer.’ Three weeks later he dear friend had died.

Tragically, Michael was the first of four of Sonia’s loved ones to die in a span of just three months.

On October 17, 2022, the day before his wedding, Sonia’s good friend David Adler passed away suddenly after contracting Covid. His husband-to-be Peter Leigh was unable to cope with the grief of losing his fiancé and took his own life four days later on October 21.

Sonia, a public speaking coach, from Barnet, tells Metro.co.uk: ‘David and Peter were excited to get married – I was going to be their main witness.

Sonia thought the grief of losing four loved ones was causing her to have panic attacks
Sonia thought the grief of losing four loved ones was causing her to have panic attacks (Picture: Sonia Beldom)

‘Everyone was phoning me saying “Where do we send flowers?”. I had to say: “You’re not sending wedding flowers. I’m afraid you’re having to send funeral flowers. David’s died”. It was horrendous.

‘Then they asked: “How’s his partner?”. I said: “I’m afraid he’s gone as well”. It was so traumatic.’

The couple had a double funeral in Ramsgate on November 26, but at the end of the service, Sonia noticed she had countless missed calls.

‘I had all these calls from my family and I thought it was very weird. I got back on the phone and found out my father had died suddenly from a brain aneurysm. He’d come in from shopping and had collapsed and died on the spot.’

Sonia drove home from her friends’ funeral with a carload of people, knowing her father, Charles Beldom, was dead. She says that for the next five months, her grief was ‘horrible’.

In January, her grief was so palpable it sent her into meltdown. ‘I couldn’t really cope with it, I was just like a zombie. I was all gone. All strung out.

‘Each death happened so quickly and close together, so I felt like I was angry at everyone who died because they hadn’t given me time to grieve for the last person. Then my dad died and I thought: “Thanks, Dad. For Christ’s sake, you of all people were supposed to look after me”.’

Sonia with David Adler (centre) and Peter Leigh (right) who were due to be married on 18th October 2022
Sonia with David Adler (centre) and Peter Leigh (right) who were due to be married on 18th October 2022 (Picture: Sonia Beldom)

After all this loss, it was only natural that Sonia thought the physical symptoms that began to arise were a response to her emotional trauma. But that reality was even more devastating – her grief was masking a very dangerous disease. Sonia had leukaemia.

During a visit to the Tate Modern in January, Sonia’s favourite gallery, in an effort to cheer herself up, she found herself feeling like her body was ‘shutting down’.

‘I was walking up a slope and I felt like someone had nailed my feet to the floor. I couldn’t move. I thought this must be a panic attack,’ Sonia says.

‘Then I get the train home and the same thing happened again. I had to get up two sets of stairs and I couldn’t make it.’

Then, in early March, Sonia was public speaking at an event in Lake Windermere and found she couldn’t catch her breath.

‘I thought this is the grief making me short of breath and making me anxious -maybe I’m having another panic attack,’ she adds.

It was after this episode that Sonia decided to get herself checked out. She went to hospital where a blood test revealed she had an abnormal white blood cell count and had blood clots in her lungs.

‘I had pulmonary embolisms that had been going through my heart,’ says Sonia. ‘The “panic attacks” were likely heart attacks – I could have died.

‘They treated me for my blood clots but then at the end of April they found I had a serious infection,’ Sonia explains.

Sonia with her father Charles who passed away on the day of her friend's funeral
Sonia with her father Charles who passed away on the day of her friend’s funeral (Picture: Sonia Beldom)

She left hospital but after suffering yet more symptoms, including bruises on her back, Sonia returned for further tests. Her bone marrow was tested, and a week later, Sonia was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukaemia (APML).

Sonia received her leukaemia diagnosis on June 14, 2023. She had just told her husband, Tony, to return to work while she waited in hospital.

‘When the doctor said leukaemia I felt like my heart had gone into my feet. I couldn’t hear anything, I couldn’t speak,’ she says.

‘When they explained to me the actual type of leukaemia, I thought: ‘They’re looking really worried about this’.

‘I don’t feel terrible, but they absolutely terrified. They told me I could die any minute.’

What are the signs and symptoms of acute myeloid leukaemia?

  • skin looking pale or ‘washed out’
  • tiredness
  • breathlessness
  • losing weight without trying
  • frequent infections
  • having a high temperature, and feeling hot or shivery (fever)
  • night sweats
  • unusual and frequent bleeding, such as bleeding gums or nosebleeds
  • easily bruised skin
  • flat red or purple spots on the skin
  • bone and joint pain
  • a feeling of fullness or discomfort in your tummy
  • swollen glands in your neck, armpit or groin that may be sore when you touch them

Source: NHS

Only around 180 people are diagnosed with APML in the UK each year. The blood cancer is a rare subtype of acute myeloid leukaemia (AML). Both AML and APML develop in white blood cells and can progress very quickly.

Symptoms include fatigue, bruising, bleeding and repeated infections. Survival rates for AML are one of the lowest for all cancers with only 13.6% of people surviving beyond five years.

Both blood cancers can only be diagnosed by blood tests and bone marrow biopsies.  

But Sonia fought against the odds. ‘I started the chemotherapy, very intense chemotherapy. That was pretty awful, to be honest, but better than the alternative,’ Sonia admits.

Sonia with her husband Tony who supported her throughout her cancer treatment
Sonia with her husband Tony who supported her throughout her cancer treatment (Picture: Sonia Beldom)

Unable to face updating each of her family members on the phone each day about her health, Sonia started her blog, Chemo Chameleon – which got 2,000 hits in the first three weeks – to share updates on her cancer journey in a lighthearted and funny way.

‘I’ve always been an optimist and decided to chronicle the “adventure” with leukaemia by writing a blog to raise awareness and keep my friends and family informed by amusing them, rather than scaring them to death,’ Sonia explains.

To date she’s undergone four rounds of chemo, with one more to go – but Sonia has been told she’s cancer free.

Explaining what it felt like to receive the good news, Sonia said:

‘I was with Tony, and my and sister, Tamara, and we both looked at each other and looked away because we knew we were going to burst into tears. I wanted to kiss the doctor. I got up and hugged him,’ Sonia says.

‘It was a feeling of elation and thinking I’ve got my life back.

‘I thought back to two years prior when my life was wonderful and lovely and happy and nobody had died – I went back to that moment where I felt okay again.

‘I really feel like I also now have a mission as a coach to help people through the trauma of leukaemia, and to be able to see things in a new way.’

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