Finding Strength in Family
An acute promyelocytic leukemia survivor reflects on fear, courage and the future.
BY Michelle Burleigh
PUBLISHED January 08, 2019
ASK MY FIANCÉ, MARVIN, how he got through the days when there was a possibility that I wouldn’t survive cancer and he’ll say it was a careful combination of faith, positivity, being involved in my care and the love of our sweet girls. “Getting away from the hospital to spend time with Isabelle and Victoria was a lifeline for me,” he says. “They helped me recharge and be strong for Michelle.”
I also found strength in our girls, who were five years old at the time. But for me, it came in the form of fierce determination as I focused on how much they needed me and on the things we had planned to do, like go on a Disney cruise. When I found out how close I had come to dying, I was terrified, but I knew I wasn’t done here yet.
I was nine days away from my 37th birthday when I was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL), a subtype of acute myelogenous leukemia, and one of the rarest forms of the disease.
I hadn’t been feeling well for three weeks. I was having headaches, bruising easily, developing cold sores that wouldn’t heal and I was so tired. In retrospect, I should have known that something was wrong, but as a busy mom and career woman, I didn’t have time to be sick. So I kept going. It was a very heavy menstrual period that sent me to the emergency room.
I knew I was in trouble when the doctor asked how old my kids were. “It’s never easy to tell anyone this,” she said. “You have leukemia.” My first thought was, I’m going to die.
The Juravinski Hospital in Hamilton, Ont., is where I met Dr. Brian Leber, the man who would save my life. He said that APL was the most curable form of leukemia and the prognosis was a 90 per cent full recovery, but I had to make it through the first 10 days of treatment. He also said that had I not gone to the hospital when I did, I would likely have had an internal bleed that would have killed me within 24 hours.
I spent 22 days in hospital, and in mid-January 2018, I finished the first phase of treatment. By the end of the month, I was in remission and the cancer was undetectable. I am now working on maintaining remission.
I have learned a lot through all of this, but one thing is for sure: When I am on my actual deathbed, I know that what will matter most is the time Marvin and I spent together, living life, having fun, appreciating our family and watching our kids grow. That’s what I want to remember on my dying day.
MICHELLE BURLEIGH lives in Georgetown, Ontario, with her fiancé, Marvin, and two beautiful daughters. Since being diagnosed with APL, her life purpose is now. She shares her experiences through her blog, So You’ve Got Acute Blood Cancer…Join The Club!