Arna Buckley always loved being a twin – although she never dreamed having an identical sister could save her life. When the Bay of Plenty mother was dealt a double blow – being diagnosed with both leukaemia and lymphoma, and given just weeks to live – her only hope was a bone marrow transplant from a twin. Fortunately, Arna (40) happened to have one of those.
At first, doctors tried to treat the two types of blood cancer with rounds of chemotherapy, but when that failed, they knew a bone marrow transplant was her only hope. Her whole family was tested in an effort to find a donor, but only her twin sister, Luana Tupou, was the perfect match.
Arna will never forget the night she woke with excruciating pain in her arms, after weeks of night sweats, and found a large swelling on her jaw – bigger than the size of a golf ball. “The pain was worse than labour,” Arna recalls with a shudder.
Luana had been staying with her sister when she received a text saying, “Are you awake?” in the middle of the night. She rushed into Arna’s room and found her sister in so much pain that the family decided to take her to the hospital.
Doctors discovered that the lump on Arna’s jaw had grown to 32cm and she was diagnosed with two different types of cancer. She was given two choices – chemotherapy or die within a matter of weeks. Arna, who has two daughters aged 20 and five, chose to have chemo and also radiation therapy, but it soon became clear her only real hope lay with her sister.
Luana says she didn’t think twice about donating her life-saving bone marrow. “I gave up smoking and drinking as soon as I found out I was the donor because I didn’t want to risk tainting the cells,” she says. “I would have done anything just to have her in my life.”
Within hours of the lifesaving operation, Arna had perked up and 10 days later she was discharged from hospital – much to the amazement of her doctors.
Now, two years later, she has been told she is 99% cured. The twins’ bond is so strong that during Arna’s cancer treatment, Hamilton-based Luana took a job as an orderly at Waikato Hospital while her sister was in their care.
“I was able to spend my breaks with her, stay the night with her, use her shower, eat the meals she didn’t want to eat. I was being well-fed by the district health board!” she says. The sisters also had fun fooling the nurses by pretending to be each other.
“If I was lying on the bed when Arna was in the shower, the nurses would come in and try and treat me!” laughs Luana. “And if they saw Arna on the wards they’d say, ‘What are you doing out of bed?’” It’s a game they’ve enjoyed playing since childhood. Luana once kissed Arna’s boyfriend, just to see if he could tell the difference – and he couldn’t. Even their nana couldn’t tell them apart.
Their bond also extends to an almost telepathic connection – both women instinctively know if something is wrong in the other sister’s life.
"We've always loved being twins," say Luana. “But we’ve found this situation has brought us even closer,” adds Arna. She has undergone major lifestyle changes in an effort to stay cancer-free, switching to a healthier diet and taking a job as a chef working in a less stressful kitchen in Papamoa. Her faith in God has also strengthened.
“When I got home after my bone marrow transplant, I’ll never forget the look on my daughter’s face when I said, ‘Mummy’s not sick any more.’
“I never went back to hospital after that and I never want to spend another day in there.” Arna and Luana shaved their heads in March last year as part of the Leukaemia & Blood Cancer New Zealand’s Shave for a Cure campaign. Arna’s pleased that her hair has grown back since having chemo – even if it is tinged with a few greys.
As for Luana, she has the same risk of developing the disease as winning Lotto. But having her sister to turn 40 with in November was the best present she could hope for.
“I’m so blessed to have had a twin sister,” says Arna. “I couldn’t imagine celebrating without her,” says Luana. “I wouldn’t have anything to celebrate.”