“Was I OK with dying? Would I still be there for my dog? Can I still smoke?” — all these thoughts entered my mind when my oncologist told me that I had leukemia.
I went to South Africa to volunteer at an elephant sanctuary at the end of 2015. I was up close with rescued elephants, often touching their rough skin and feeding them apples, mostly marveling and loving them! I was collecting research data in the field for the head scientist and having the time of my life. This was a bucket list activity that I was determined to do before I died. Serendipitous.
After my return, I got recruited to a new company based in Florida. I worked in a similar position for 16 years at a great company near Chicago. I loved my work, but the new job offered a nice hike in pay.
I had a month off between jobs. During this time, I began to experience debilitating headaches daily. The pain blasted the base of my skull in the back of my head, then progressed to the crown and forehead before dumping itself onto my eyes. I squinted through the confusion.
The headaches subsided, but my throat started to tighten and become sore. I sounded funny. I could feel my neck swelling underneath my jawline. My lower back had a dull pain. I chalked it up to anxiety or a budding cold.
After a visit to my primary care physician, she directed me to “immediately go to the emergency room,” thinking that my throat was closing, and I would not be able to breathe.
In the ER, the attending physician checked everything and then slowed his rapid delivery before sharing, “Your complete blood counts test results show that your white blood cell count is off the charts.”
I was admitted to the hospital, and a bone marrow biopsy was scheduled for the following day “to rule out cancer.” My family and I were sure that the high white blood cell count was a short-term abnormality in reaction to a possible infection. We chalked up the symptoms to “a bug.”
Receiving a Diagnosis
The next morning, Dr. Adi Gidron, a jovial, and brilliant hematologist/oncologist from Northwestern University in Chicago, visited me bedside with the results of the biopsy.
“Tell me everything,” he instructed.
I was suspicious of this question. My breath quickened. I hurried through the symptoms I was experiencing as I expected there was some news to follow.
He then gently delivered the diagnosis: I had acute myeloid leukemia (AML).
The tears came before I could even register what was said. Then I thought of many things simultaneously, some even contradictory, and many in the wrong order:
My brother, Chris, immediately made plans to come from Tampa to see me in Chicago, and other family members followed. My job kept me on, albeit they expected me to work during treatment, and to ask the doctor to speed up treatment. Big red flag.
Once my brain settled, I didn’t have to summon strength; hope was miraculously just given to me! But the journey as a recovery addict cancer patient was just beginning.
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