Tomorrow marks 4 years to the day I was diagnosed with Leukemia. I suppose it didn’t arrive that day, but I was blissfully ignorant of it until 4:00 February 6th, when a doctor from Simmons Cancer Institute told me over the phone that my blood work, done that morning, indicated that I had Leukemia and I should go straight to the hospital. They already had a bed reserved for me.
For obvious reasons, I have been reflecting on that day, and actually, even more so on the days leading up to that day. Before I get into what I can learn from my experience, I want to share a few miracles that led up to February 6th, making it possible for me to survive Leukemia and not be taken by it. Some of you might not realize what a close call it was. When I spoke to the oncologist after arriving at the hospital around 5:00 (one hour after they informed me of this diagnosis), he told me that at the rate my white blood cells were reproducing combined with the fact I had no immune system, no platelets and no red blood cells, if I hadn’t come in that day, I would most likely not have lived to see next week.
So, let’s rewind a couple of weeks. I was in California visiting my family. My mom and sister and I went on a hike. I literally had to stop every 20 feet or so and catch my breath. My heart was pounding out of my chest. I figured I was just out of shape (because the Leukemia hadn’t presented itself yet but still had some weird symptoms, I had been diagnosed with Rheumatoid arthritis) from slacking on my workouts. In actuality, I had no red blood cells, which stores your oxygen. Of course, I would not be shown up by my mom and sister so I pushed through and made it to the top. It’s a miracle I didn’t have a heart attack!
Also a miracle: I flew on an airplane with no immune system and didn’t contract even one virus, any of which could have killed me!
While I was in California, I got an email from a friend who I hadn’t seen for several months. She asked about getting together sometime and instead of it being weeks or months before we could coordinate our schedules as sometimes happens, we made a date to meet on Wednesday of the upcoming week. By the time I met with her, I was so discouraged about my symptoms ( I think I knew in my heart I did not just have Rheumatoid Arthritis) that I decided to just ignore it for awhile and pick it back up. I was tired of trying to figure it out. But, when I met with my friend, I told her about all the little red dots on my body and bruises on my forearms, just from resting them on the armrest on the plane ride home. I whined a lot about having to eat differently because I had Rheumatoid Arthritis. She said that her son had a blood infection when he was small and it had similar symptoms to mine. By the end of the day, thanks to Web MD, I was convinced that I had it. I was back in the game of trying to figure out what was going on with my body. I would have ignored it had I not met with her and her son hadn’t had something similar. I remember her telling me that I should see a hematologist. I didn’t know until later, as I went to my Oncologist, that they go hand in hand. And, Leukemia is a blood cancer. Miracle #3.
The next day was Thursday and I was scheduled to clean a house. It was getting harder and harder to function because every movement caused my heart to race. I distinctly remember contemplating if my client would notice if I didn’t vacuum the upstairs that week because I was pretty sure carrying the vacuum up from the basement might do me in. I realized that this was ridiculous since I was a fairly in-shape 45-year-old! I called to make an appointment to see my doctor. I made it clear that I didn’t want to see a nurse practitioner, only my real doctor, because I suspected something was seriously wrong with me. She told me he could not see me for a week. I said that was fine, but after telling her my symptoms, she said, “Hold on a minute. Let me see if you can get you in earlier because of your heart issues.” I was on hold so long that I eventually hung up. She called me back and told me he would see me the next morning, Friday, February 6th. Miracle #4.
I remember that day like it was yesterday and forever ago at the same time. I remember going to a Real Estate training, leaving early and telling the instructor I would be back after my appointment. I didn’t go back to Real Estate for 8 months. I remember sitting in the waiting room with my husband (who I made go with me to bully the doctor into listening to me better). I remember him demanding a complete blood count, and my doctor be befuddled about what might be going on with me. As a side note, I’m no doctor, but if someone told me they had red dots and bruises on their body (no platelets) their heart was pounding out of their chest when they bent over to pick something up (no red blood cells) and had other chronic symptoms that never seemed to get better (no immune system) I would tell you to get a CBC stat to make sure they didn’t have Leukemia. Anyway…I digress. Needless to say, we don’t go to that doctor anymore.
When I got home, I was tired and discouraged. Not really worried, just done. Done with trying to diagnose myself and feeling like no one else could. I slept for 3 hours. I woke about 3:00, did a couple chores around the house and got “the call” at 4:00. I sat at my kitchen table in shock as they told me the news. I didn’t freak out or anything. In fact, I didn’t even call my husband. I called a doctor friend of mine to find out if he knew any good Oncologists because I had just been told I had Leukemia. He said he didn’t and I remember saying, “Hmmm, maybe I should call Blake.” He concurred. Blake came flying in as I was packing to go to the hospital. What exactly does one pack for an open ended trip to the hospital? While I packed my husband called the doctor back to get better information. Apparently I wasn’t able to communicate effectively in my current state. We called a friend to come pick up Bennett and Emma had already left for a friend’s house for a sleepover. As we got in the car I wondered out loud how long I would be in the hospital. My husband said, “Thirty days”. That’s when it started to get real. It ended up being 35 due to the fact that I got a secondary infection that almost killed me, but that’s a story for another time.
Pretty sure that all of that story wasn’t necessary to recount in order to make my point today, but bear with me because I really need to talk about it. It helps me be grateful for where I am and where I am not.
When I go through all these precursors to cancer D-Day, I am not only thankful that we caught it in time and for all the miracles leading up to it, but I am acutely aware that I took for granted life as I knew it before Leukemia. On any given day I can certainly find something to worry and complain about, and boy, do I! But after cancer came, I would reflect on my health prior to that and how often I not only didn’t appreciate it, but whined about it (I am so tired, so sore, so fat….)! For a lot of us, we don’t know what we’ve got til’ it’s gone. We complain about our kids not being focused enough on school, until they are caught with drugs or alcohol. We just don’t think we can make it through one more day of work with those people, until we get fired and can’t find another job. We hate on our bodies when we are young and don’t realize how good we looked until we are old and 20 lbs heavier. We battle feeling taking advantage of and unappreciated by our children until they move out and we feel lonely and long for someone to take care of and cook for.
You get the idea. It is extremely hard to live in the moment and savor it. My friend always asks me, when I am complaining or panicking about my life circumstances, “”Is everything OK right now? Then everything is OK.” In other words, today is all we have, and tomorrow could be drastically different. If we knew what was coming would we have a different attitude? Maybe. Hopefully. But even though God cares about all our problems, there are always people who have it worse, and today or tomorrow “those people” might be you. So, just for today, try to focus on what is at hand. I really wish I would have tried better to enjoy my last few days before cancer hijacked my life. Have you ever had that type of regret?
Today, when I find myself worrying or complaining about people or situations in my life, I think “at least I don’t have Leukemia. I can shower by myself and go to the grocery store and eat fresh fruit. I don’t need a walker or a shower chair and all my food doesn’t taste like metal. I don’t have to stay in the hospital 6 days at a time, I get to do my own cleaning, and I don’t have to give myself a daily shot in the stomach.” Try inserting some of your own words in there: At least my kids aren’t on drugs, at least I don’t have diabetes, at least he’s not drinking today, at least I have a job, legs that work, eyes that see, ears that hear, a car to drive, a house to heat, food to cook, and the list goes on. Maybe that’s a good prayer that will keep us all a bit more grateful and sound less bratty: At least I have/don’t have______________.Thank you, God. Amen”
Today, I am just grateful to be here