At age 21, in the fall of 2002, it seemed I was in the prime of life and had everything going for me – living on my own, lots of great friends and family, loving University life, a fairly active and healthy lifestyle, plus a girlfriend I’d been with for a year. That was, until I suddenly started to feel exhausted all the time, with a slow-growing pain in my left side. I chalked it up to late nights and too many intramural sports… until I started sleeping through my alarm and being late for work several times while in the midst of an important work term toward my degree.
This went on for a few weeks and finally came to a head while visiting my parents one weekend. I had a rare nosebleed on Sunday, December 1st, 2002… went to bed with it still flowing and shoved tissue up my nose to avoid ruining clothes or bed sheets. Much to my surprise and added exhaustion, my nose was still bleeding when I woke up the next morning. In a daze, I turned down my father’s offer for a drive into the city and stared blankly at the TV until I figured out I might need some medical help. I drove myself to emergency and was seen by a doctor who proceeded to cauterize my nose to stop it from bleeding, and for some reason that was confusing to me, he ordered a round of bloodwork. Knowing I’d already lost a fair amount of blood, watching them draw more made me succumb to my exhaustion, and I fell asleep as I waited to consult with another doctor before I left. I awoke over 30 minutes later, dazed, and under the assumption that I had been forgotten about. When I went to the nurse’s station to check out, I was asked to go back to my room and that a doctor would be in to see me any minute.
Sure enough, a few minutes later, a somber-faced doctor approached my waiting room, closed the door, and sat me down. He proceeded to tell me that there was something “funny” with my bloodwork, and that they were sure it pointed to leukemia. He tried to point out that it was at least the “good kind” of leukemia, but the word “cancer” echoed in my head as I had some strange out-of-body type experience where it seemed like I was listening to a doctor telling some poor guy about a devastating diagnosis.
I had time to go home and pack for a hospital stay as they wanted me to be admitted into the hospital ASAP for the official diagnosis and to discuss treatment options. After an uncomfortable-to-say-the-least bone marrow biopsy, it was confirmed – I had acute lymphocytic leukemia, and my options were a bone marrow transplant, or to begin an aggressive course of chemo called the Linker Protocol. While family was being tested for bone marrow matches, the pain in my left side heavily worsened. As I talked to my then girlfriend on the phone the second night I was in the hospital, I began to sweat and writhe a bit in pain as my side hurt immensely. After what felt like someone had kicked me as hard as they could in the side, I felt instant relief… before writhing in pain again and going into shock. Doctors and nurses piled into my room, completely unaware of what could be wrong, as toxic pieces of my ruptured spleen coursed through my body.
Things were so bad that, unbeknownst to me, my father got “the call” as a nurse called home to seemingly give he and my Mom the chance to make it in time to see me since I might not make it through the surgery I was about to undergo. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t make it through the surgery either… and after the leukemia diagnosis and experiencing worse pain than I ever thought possible, I grabbed the anesthetic mask from the technician beside me, completely convinced that I wouldn’t wake up. At age 21, in the prime of life with just about everything going for me – I had willfully accepted what I thought was a certain death.
Fast forward over eight years and here I am. After nine months of intense I.V. chemo, facing near-death emergencies two or three more times in the process, and enduring oral chemo for three more years after that… I once again have it all. I’m still very much a young man, with a university degree and job that he enjoys, who lives with his beautiful wife in a warm and loving home. I’ve still got lots of great friends, with many of those friendships being strengthened through my experience, and some incredibly caring family. Also, just last year, I finally followed through on a lifelong dream of performing stand-up comedy. Outside of the chemo, laughter was the medicine that helped me most through all of the emotional downs that went along with treatment. Case in point, I remember just getting out of a week’s stay in ICU, recovering from my emergency splenectomy and having already started treatment… barely able to talk from being weak and my throat being sore when my feeding tube was taken out. I had learned earlier in the day of the joyous news that I was done with needles just after 1:00pm, and was so happy to be able to “enjoy” the rest of the day free from my enormous fear of getting poked. To add to that joy, a good friend dropped by for a surprise visit, and as he stood there, taking it all in and trying to see how I was doing by the faces of my family, I struggled with short breaths to say, “I thought… the doctor said… there wouldn’t be… anymore pricks today.” My good buddy smiled and shook his head and I heard my family laugh for the first time since the whole ordeal had begun over a week beforehand. After my first lifelong dream became a reality earlier last year, I decided I would pursue my second-most-desired dream, and have been enjoying performing stand-up to lots of laughs ever since!
Speaking of that first dream that came true early last year… I had always wanted a family of my own, and considered myself a family man from a very young age. The chemo protocol I was on wasn’t supposed to leave me with much of a chance to have a child of my own, especially after my spleen ruptured while I was exploring the option to freeze sperm, to leave at least a few options open. On October 26, 2010, my wife gave birth to our first child – an absolutely adorable little girl who is as healthy as can be and a greater joy than I ever thought possible.
A truly phenomenal collection of doctors, nurses, family, and friends saw me through the most difficult years of my life, where I not only learned to survive, but to thrive. I owe my life to these wonderful people, but I especially owe it to those who have raised awareness and funds for cancer and cancer research (leukemia, of course, in particular), as they’ve used the enormous amounts of money donated over the years for continuously researching the best and newest treatments , which I undoubtedly benefited from. Most of all, I owe my life to those in the past who have lost theirs, and in doing so, helped make future leukemia treatments more successful, to the tune of a survival rate now over 80%. These are the heroes we need to look to, who have given their lives to a disease which many of us featured here have survived, and now pledge the time from our new leases on life to help eradicate completely.