In April of 2007, I was a pretty busy 38 year old guy. I was running Sales and Marketing for a regional Pennsylvania homebuilder, putting in long days and burning the candle pretty hard. I was having some chest pains that I could not figure out and I went to see my Doctor and she could not find anything as well. Her advice – if you get bad chest pains again – go to the emergency room. As luck would have it – on my way home the pain got real bad so I went to the Local ER. They hooked me up to all their heart machines, took blood and I sat there for a while. My wife had just come in the room to see how I was doing. We were in this strange room not knowing what was happening. After about two hours the Doctor came in with a very scared, yet empathetic look. He said – first – I think you had a heart attack, second – your blood work came back and you have Leukemia. My white count had risen to over 80,000. Life stopped on a dime.
My wife and I cried for a while and then I made a decision that whatever was in front of me was going to be dealt with the best of my abilities. An hour later I was on a medical flight for the University of Pennsylvania and they were ready for me to start a battery of tests and start chemo immediately. Luckily, all my heart tests proved that I had no heart attack, but instead the increased white count had created inflammation of my heart and organs. Good news – my heart was ready for the chemo. My final diagnosis was Acute Myeloid Leukemia – which is associated with devastating statistics. (less than 20% survival rate over 2 years)
The next 30 days was hell. The chemo regimen for AML is so intense that you are hospitalized for the duration. The change on my life and my family’s was intense. We went from being a normal family and living life, to figuring out how to survive cancer, raise a family, and live our of a hospital room. Even that word was a new term for me. I have cancer. Emotionally and physically it was such a new world. I am forever grateful that my employer was supportive and responsive, and our friends and family jumped in because life for the next nine months was lived upside down.
I was lucky to get into remission on May 19th and based upon all of my cytogenetics (markers within the cancerous bloodwork) I was not going to need a transplant, just 4 more rounds of monthly consolidated chemo (sounds easier than it is). With consolidation you come into the hospital for a week of chemo, then they send you home to let your numbers go to zero which can lead to fevers and re-hospitalization. At one point I had a pretty bad MRSA infection that swelled my throat to the size of a bullfrog. Regardless – I finished all my chemo by October and I was back to work in November.
When I was in treatment that summer the book that changed my outlook on everything was “Lance Armstrong’s – It is not about the bike”. I read what he had gone through and survived and then to come back and win seven straight Tour de France Titles – I was proud to call myself a survivor. I drafted a bucket list and did everything on the list – Life was to be lived. I looked at life differently having survived and carrying that card. Being able to drive, work, and be with my family meant the world to me. The freedom of survival is difficult to match.
Fast forward to April 2009 and I am now cancer free 2 years. That was the big date my oncologist and I had worked on feeling good that my leukemia was not going to come back. But – life had other plans. The week of my 2 year anniversary – I was feeling sick, coughing. I went to the clinic to get some antibiotics but I kept feeling worse. Finally on Saturday morning, my wife and I went to same ER I had gone to 2 years ago and within and hour – the doctor came in to say that my blood-work looked abnormal and that the Leukemia was back – Mother Fu*#.* The world stopped on a dime again.
I was transferred to Penn later that day by Ambulance and we started running all the tests to confirm that the leukemia blasts were in fact back and we needed to get back into remission so we could prep for a bone marrow transplant. I had to go back through induction chemo again, but this time was much harder than the first. I was pretty sick from day one and my constant cough was getting worse and worse. Half way through my stay – I started coughing up blood and passed out – I remember waking up a couple days later in the MICU. My lung started to bleed and the doctors told my wife I might not make it through the night. Luckily – I pulled through , but 8 days of the ICU and steroids swelled me up 40 pounds. By the time I got back to the floor, I had some serious fluid retainage. I was in for about a month, but the good news was that we had gotten the Leukemia back in remission – again. Whew.
The next big step was getting a donor and prepped for the transplant. We went to the beach for 3 weeks to rest and recover and by the time I left I was riding my bike up and down the island. I felt so good again – it was painful to have to think about going back in for my transplant and going through the process all over again – but we did. Luck was on my side with my donor – I found a perfect unrelated match who was the same age and same blood type. My doctor and I were very happy. The fact that my cancer was in remission for two years, then we got it back in remission again and then found a perfect match – this was going to be a good outcome.
I went in for my transplant on July 26th. The first two days in you get heavy chemo called Cytoxan. Then the following 3 days is full body radiation twice a day (not fun). That week I was pretty sick. Then on July 31st – I got my transplant – they hung up my cells and the transfusion took about an hour. My transplant was a long process for 30 days in isolation and I had some leg issues what prevented me from walking, but I was lucky to get out on the day of my 41st Birthday – what a gift.
I am now 47 days post transplant and cancer free again. I am a two time survivor and a person with a new lease on life. I get a lot of questions from people about how I survived all of this. There are days that the randomness of cancer gets to me when friends of mine don’t make it and I am still standing. The one consistent factor that I feel is powerful in my life and survival is positive visualization and affirmation. I spend a lot of time affirming that I accept perfect health , vitality , abundance, thoughts and love in my life. I work hard at not giving sickness it’s due, but on moving forward – living each day as a masterpiece to be drawn. Cancer maybe something I have deal with for the rest of my life, and since I cannot direct the wind, I am adjusting my sails. I plan on living a full long life to 100, and I am at peace with challenges that have stood in front of me and are yet to come. I am a Survivor.