Surviving Acute Myeloid Leukemia Has Finally Sunk In


Being able to live independently and enjoy life’s beauty summon feelings of gratitude and euphoria more often now.

Illustration of a woman with long blonde hair with sunglasses.

Undergoing a bone marrow transplant (BMT) is not a quick process. The pre-treatment, transplant, post-treatment and recovery take a long time. Although I rang the BMT unit bell when I left the hospital, I did not celebrate; there were still chances I could contract more graft-versus-host disease symptoms (when the body attacks the donor’s immune system cells). I was still taking Astagraf XL (tacrolimus) to propagate my immune system. I could still get news that the acute myeloid leukemia came back.

I experienced weakness, nausea, chemo-brain, uncomfortable physical changes, bad taste buds and more for a good six-plus months.

I didn’t ever feel like I was “done.” I was told that I was doing very well by the oncologists at my monthly visits. I didn’t jump for joy after these appointments; I wasn’t yet convinced that I was entirely healed. I just put one step in front of the other.

I spent a good year recuperating at my brother and sister-in-law’s house. By my first cancer anniversary, I started to feel strong enough to move on. My mind was occupied with finding a job, an apartment and other family matters.

Eventually, I found a place to live and got a job. I found the right wig to cover my nearly bald head — one of my few remaining symptoms. I started experiencing small adventures like going to the zoo.

At each cancer anniversary, I spent the day doing what I normally did: work, errands, maybe a local fun activity.

I just returned from a vacation on the beach with one of my sisters. This was a fabulous relaxing vacation, as opposed to the ones with oodles of scheduled excursions. I was able to soak in the sun, play cornhole, go to the spa, watch dolphins and eat delicious food. We laughed a lot. (My sisters and I always end up silently laughing so hard over something really stupid that you cannot breathe, and your tummy hurts. Always in public. Which makes it funnier.)

The sunsets over the ocean were incredible. I’m a nature freak. As I gasped at the colors on the horizon and at the rays shooting out from the sun through billowy clouds, I envisioned the ocean creatures doing mysterious things in the sea. My heart exploded.

A thought popped up: “Oh my God. I did not die of leukemia.”

“I have all new bone marrow from my analogous donor from Israel. The transplant worked. This entire procedure is miraculous. Biology is fascinating. Doctors are brilliant. Moffitt Cancer Center is a Gift from God. Did this really all happen?”

Now, the internet scuttlebutt is that transplant recipients who receive a donation from a non-relative have a 26% to 50% survival rate. In addition, the odds go down if you’re over age 50. Both applied to me. Yet here I am. Healthy and alive. And doing what I wanted to do: Love, enjoy time with my family and friends and experience nature. I also give back through volunteer work and donations.

It was just a different feeling than before. I think I always either expected bad news or perhaps I was taking my survival for granted. The feeling on the beach was more like a joyous jolt to the system. “Shay saved my life!” (Shay is a generous lovely young woman from Israel who was my bone marrow donor.)

I won’t live in a perpetual state of euphoria and gratitude, but I do summon both of those feelings more often now.

It finally sunk in.

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