FATHER-OF-TWO Johnny Pearson's life was saved when a stranger donated stem cells. The pair became friends and raised thousands for charity by running in the London Marathon together. By health reporter Kate Liptrot.

EARLIER this year Johnny Pearson became the first person to run the London Marathon alongside the unrelated stem cell donor who had saved his life.

The 44-year-old was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia in 2010 and often thought of the stranger had been who allowed him to have a bone marrow transplant two years later.

Earlier this year he met 23-year-old donor Sean Hagan for the first time - and weeks after meeting they ran the London marathon to raise money and awareness for the Anthony Nolan Bone Marrow Trust.

The wine trader from Thorpe Underwood was first diagnosed with the aggressive form of cancer in September 2010 when he had been to see the doctor after feeling slightly under the weather and the doctor had done a blood test “just to make sure”.

He was driving home from work when he received a phone call from the doctor to say that something was seriously wrong and he needed to turn around and go to York Hospital.

Johnny started chemotherapy days later and after six months of gruelling chemotherapy was finally in remission and returned home to his wife, Sarah, and young boys, Jack, now 12, and Archie, now ten.

But in July 2011, Johnny received the devastating news that leukaemia had returned. This time, Johnny would need a bone marrow transplant to survive and the race was on to find a matching donor.

“It was the worst possible news and I thought that my life was over," Johnny said, "The last hope was a bone marrow transplant and I remember waiting to hear if there was a matching donor.

"It was a very difficult time for me and my family as we knew that my life was in someone else’s hands. After what seemed like the longest few months of my life, my doctor sat me down and told me that Anthony Nolan had found a donor.

"That gave me so much hope for the future. The transplant took place on February 3, 2012. That’s a date that is never going to leave my mind: it’s the start of a new life."

Just three hours down the road living in Askam-in-Furness was Johnny's stem cell donor .

Sean had joined the Anthony Nolan donor register just months before Johnny was diagnosed, in May 2010, after a national appeal from Cumbrian teenager Alice Pyne. He said: "Saving Johnny’s life is the best thing that I’ve ever done and I think that it’s the best thing that I will ever do."

After the transplant, Johnny wanted to thank Sean for saving his life. Johnny and Sean were allowed to write to each other anonymously, addressing their letters “To my friend”, and they soon developed a friendship.

In his first letter, Johnny wrote, "This is the hardest thing I have ever had to write in a card. Your family and friends will have told you it was a decent and selfless act becoming a stem cell donor. At some point, I’d like to shake your hand, thank you and show you what you have actually done, how you have given me a second chance and what that means to my wife, children and friends. You truly are a good person! Thank you so very much.”

In 2013, Johnny wrote to Sean about running the marathon for Anthony Nolan, “Anthony Nolan is now the official charity for the 2014 London Marathon… so, in a moment of sheer madness, I have signed up to run it. Maybe you could do it with me? No pressure!!”

Johnny accepted the challenge and weeks before the run they met for the first time.

Johnny said: “Meeting Sean was one of the best experiences of my life. Without him, I wouldn’t be here today, my wife wouldn’t have a husband, and my children wouldn’t have a father. How can you possible say thank you enough to someone who gave you your life back? What an incredible person.”

The pair raised more than £15,000 for the charity.

Now Johnny's image is to feature in a photographic exhibition, "After", which features poignant pictures of 18 post-bone marrow transplant patients.

The exhibition and associated book shares the stories of 18 post-transplant patients captured by photographer Stephen Pennells, all of whom have had life-saving stem cell or bone marrow transplants facilitated by Anthony Nolan.

The images represent self-identity, defiance and survival but also mortality. They include pictures of patient Lee Davis-Conchie who sadly died last year, but they are intended to deliver a sense of hope and to display the strength of the human spirit.

Other patients who are featured include Simon Bostic, the first person to have a bone marrow transplant from an unrelated donor, and Alex Hannard who had a transplant when he was just nine years old.

Visit anthonynolan.org.uk to sign up to the register. 

The exhibition is being held at the Menier Gallery in Southwark Street (near London Bridge tube station) from tomorrow until Saturday.

Opening hours are Tuesday to Thursday from 11am to 6 pm, Friday 11am to 8pm and Saturday 11am to 4.30pm.