In May of 2014, I had just returned from a 6-week holiday to Japan and Australia. It had been my retirement present to myself. When I was a teacher I always went for my medical appointments in June to make sure I was healthy enough to go back to work, and that had not changed. I went to see my doctor and did all the necessary tests including blood work.
The results of my blood work showed that my white blood count was very low, so my doctor wanted me to take the tests again in a month. This time, my white blood count was even lower and so I was referred to a haematologist.
“You have leukemia, MDS. It is cancer”. Silence. After a brief discussion with my daughter and me sitting there, the specialist said I should make another appointment after it had sunk in. The specialist recommended a stem cell transplant as the best course of action and kindly went over all the risks and how it is done. And while we were waiting for a transplant…whoa, whoa, whoa! I first had to decide if I wanted it.
With my daughters, I met with a counsellor and a nurse and went over the options. Without the transplant I had maybe five yeas, but we didn’t know for sure. We went home with so many pamphlets and talked and the girls concluded I had no other option. My dad had died of leukemia 20 years ago, and had refused treatment before, so they were dead set on me doing the treatment. So I said okay. None of my family or friends were able to donate their stem cells: wrong blood or just too old, so I aimed for a non-related donor.
A donor was found in November 2015. The transplant went smoothly and then it hit: Graft vs Host disease. By the time it was over I had blisters on my blisters from mouth to below. I was in such bad shape I did not want to eat anything and had to be helped to the bathroom. My hair started to fall out. My friend Stan made me a poster that said THIS IS JUST TEMPORARY and we put it up so I could see it every day. I lost more and more weight. I went from 220 lbs to 100 lbs. But, I walked every day with the help of my family and friends. Six weeks in, my pen pal of over 50 years from Japan came for a 3-day visit. It was all he could afford, but he had to see me.
I got to go home for Christmas, but I still could not eat. My daughter Allison made me a turkey broth instead. Four spoonfuls was all I could take but it was wonderful to be with the whole family again. In January I was permitted to go home. But I could not be alone. It worried me because the only family I have is my daughters. Without my knowledge, Allison had reached out to former students, friends, colleagues and people in my community. As many as 54 people signed up for shifts for 3 months. And they all came with stories and movies and books they would read out loud. They brought food that was on my list of foods I could eat and made me eat them. It was astounding. Never in my life did I think this would happen, and, as I am writing this, my eyes are filling up in memory. I got stronger and stronger.
On the first anniversary of my transplant, I held a party. A first birthday party. We had all foods that might be at a one-year old’s party with an adult twist: hot dogs, carrot sticks, jello (shots), two cakes, juice (mimosas), and for guests, we invited all those who looked after me. It was amazing.
And now 5 years have passed. I am back working and volunteering and am able to see my daughter, Allison, married last March, the last wedding before Covid shut them down. I was blessed with excellent doctors, nurses, staff, family, friends, colleagues. And thank the gods every day that I am cancer free.