Recovering From Leukemia: From Old and Slow to Young and Fit in an Instant


Who could have known that leukemia would transform me from the slow, old guy to the young, fit one?

I am the father of six children. Four of those are boys, and three of those were teenagers at the same time.

Soccer turned out to be the sport of choice for my sons and their friends. They played in a couple leagues, but the majority of their play was pickup games in our neighborhood or at the local park. I loved playing with them.

In the beginning, my kids and their friends were twelve or thirteen, and I was a superstar. We had to be careful to put a couple of the best players on the other team to keep things fair.

Then time passed.

Both my kids and their friends got older, faster and stronger. I just got older.

Slowly I moved backwards on the field. From playing striker and center halfback, I was moved first to the outside, then back to fullback, until I was finally consigned to goalie ... unless a really good goalie was on our team, in which case I returned to fullback. I went from always being one of the captains to being one of the last picked. I always got in because you can't tell Dad that he can't play just because he's in his 40s, has a potbelly, and is the slowest person on the field.

The other change was the direction encouragement went. In the beginning I gave encouragement and always led my team. "Play closer to the sideline so we can pass to you." "Great shot, Caleb." "Good play, Noah."

All those shouts of praise and guidance turned around as both I and the kids aged.

"Hey, that was a great stop, Dad." "Good try, Dad. Even the pros make that kind of mistake."

As I approached 50, it was getting bad. If enough kids turned out to fill two teams, the teenagers, some now graduated from high school, would kindly make a spot for me to play. I knew, though, that I was usually a detriment now, playing only because of the kindness of kids who had learned the game from me a decade earlier.

Then I was diagnosed with leukemia.

The doctor who diagnosed me marveled at my age.

"You're so young! Fit, too."When I got to the hospital for chemo, the doctor found me on the exercise bike I had discovered in a hallway near my room.

"You don't look like a leukemia patient," he told me.

Both doctors and nurses told me to walk as much as possible. The chemo ward even had a map that compare the number of laps around the ward with the distance to local tourist attractions. I was obsessed with walking fifty miles during my four to five week stay. Because of a slow blood count recovery, I stayed 35 days and I reached 50 miles on my last day there, most of it walked pulling an IV pole.

I figured out early it was best to walk at 5:30 a.m. The lights would be turned on in the hallway, but the halls would still be empty. My goal was two miles walking followed by whatever I could tolerate on the exercise bike. I walked as fast as I could, and the nurses would joke about my pace, threatening to ticket me for speeding.

I loved it. Who would have thought that leukemia would transform me from the old, slow guy to the young, fit guy in an instant?

Most leukemia patients are men and most are over age 60. Though I ran across the occasional 20- or 30-year-old during my 10 months of treatment, almost every leukemia patient I met was older than me, sometimes much older.

Once again, I found myself being the one to encourage the others. It was like being on a team again.

"You're doing great, Mike! Keep it up!" "Wow, you sure did a lot of laps today, Ms. Parker!"

Who could have imagined that leukemia would restore my confidence and make me feel fit again?

One last funny story: My return to sports after leukemia was a softball game. At that point, I had been through multiple chemos and I had lost more than forty pounds. I could barely manage a slow jog. I had no idea if my arms remembered how to hit a ball with a bat.

Surprisingly, on my first swing, I hit a line drive between short and third. I was so excited I took off for first base, forgetting my condition. I leaned forward and pumped my legs, but my lower body couldn't even come close to keeping up with my upper body. I sprawled in the grass, frightening everyone watching ... except the left fielder. He casually threw the ball to first base, putting me out.

He got razzed for that and both teams gave me first base. Well, they gave first base to a pinch runner. It would be a couple months before anyone let me run the bases again.

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