In 2007, I was your typical working mother. I was married and mother to two teenagers. I was a Nurse Clinician in a pediatric infectious disease clinic and involved in nursing education and research.
My world changed the day I whacked my elbow on a table at work. This is how leukemia snuck into my life – coincidently, totally unexpectedly, lurking in the background until you have an annual physical, need surgery or, in my case, whack your elbow. I had an abnormal amount of bruising over my lower arm and a few days later went to a medical clinic. Routine bloodwork was abnormal and at a follow-up clinic the next morning, I asked the nurse about the results. She gave me a copy which showed I was significantly anemic and worse – I had blasts in my blood which I knew only occurred with leukemia.
I had my first appointment with a hematologist four days later. He explained his thoughts and started me on a trial of an oral medication. After six weeks of treatment and no improvement in my blood work, I had my first of many bone marrow aspirations. The results indicated that I had chronic myelomonocytic leukemia (CMML), a less common blood cancer that usually presented in men over the age of 65. It begged the question: as a 51-year-old female how I had pulled this short straw?
I was referred to a blood cancer clinic and expected to be told that a watch-and-wait approach would be taken, given that it was a chronic leukemia. However, that notion was quickly shattered. CMML often changes to acute myeloid leukemia. I was advised by the bone marrow transplant team that my husband and I needed to decide which road we were going to take regarding my treatment. My choice was to go for stem cell transplantation, with all its possible side effects, or pass on it and start marking off the days on the calendar that I had left to live. My children were my incentive so there was no choice other than a transplant, giving me a chance of survival and a future.
When you commit to a stem cell transplant, you’re in it for the long haul. Although most people come through it cured of their leukemia, as always there is a price to be paid. I had many post-transplant health issues and hospital stays. I have an acquired immunodeficiency that requires monthly infusions. As a result, I was never able to return to a job I loved. I dealt with mental health issues adjusting to my new reality and my incredibly supportive family and friends were dragged along for the ride.
So how did I turn the corner?
Three years post transplant I was blessed to meet my donor. This man had put his life on hold to go through the process of donating bone marrow to a woman in a different country. I promised him I would pay his gift forward by way of professional education and patient support/advocacy.
Since then, I have volunteered in several roles including with LLSC as part of their First Connection program. One of the greatest things you can offer someone is understanding their anxieties and concerns and acknowledging that their feelings are legitimate. Talking to others who have experienced the same challenges and how to manage them can also remove the loneliness. This is how people move on.
Life continues with all the usual plus unusual (chronic health) issues, but it does continue. In our house a favourite statement is “Mum’s still on the right side of the grass!” Still available for hugs, laughter and goofy “Mom-isms”!
And isn’t that what life’s all about?