On July 24th 2012, my life changed forever. I look back on that morning and remember what my biggest concern was: getting to my summer job on time. That all changed when my mother picked up the phone when my pediatrician called. I had just gotten some blood work done so I thought it must’ve been the results. The look on her face said it all, it immediately went to a look of seriousness that I had never seen before. Something was wrong with the blood results.
We were told to come home to North Jersey from the shore immediately to have more tests done. Once in the car, we were told to go directly to New York City to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. That’s when I knew whatever was going on was very serious. But I still hadn’t got any answers. It was only when I was sitting in an oncologists office with my parents that I fully realized what was wrong with me. Three little letters would change mine, and my family’s lives forever: CML, otherwise known as Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia.
Growing up, I had always been athletic. A successful high school track and field career led me to earn a spot on the University of Virginia’s track team. The summer of 2012 was after my first year on the team at UVA. Leading up to my diagnosis, I didn’t feel sick, the year before I had been competing in Division I track meets and working out daily. I thought the constant fatigue was from the tougher workouts and adjusting to a higher level of competition. But then the bruises came, and they stayed.
The day I was diagnosed with cancer, I was sporting a baseball size bruise on my hip that had been there for two months. Naturally I thought nothing of it; little did I know this was one of the only symptoms of my cancer that I ever experienced. In the weeks leading up to my diagnosis, the bruises were getting so bad my older brother, Tommy, kept badgering me to get a blood test to make sure everything was all right. That’s when everything spiraled out of my control.
Too put the numbers into perspective, on a normal, healthy person’s blood report, the white blood cell count is between 4 and 10, my pediatrician had never seen a white blood cell count higher than 50, when I was first diagnosed, my white blood cell count was 317, 30 times the normal amount. That’s why I was immediately called into the cancer center, and that’s why the doctors were shocked to see a 19 year old, “healthy looking” track runner sitting before them. 317 was dangerously high, so high that I spent 6 days in the cancer center while medicine brought my white count down to a safe level. Once I dipped under 100, I was allowed to leave. The picture below is the day I left the hospital.
CML is caused by a mutation in my chromosomes, which codes for the overproduction of abnormal, underdeveloped white blood cells in my blood and bone marrow. This type of cancer is slowly progressing, so slow that doctors said my white blood cell count had probably been growing for months to years without my knowledge. It is, however, easily managed with medicine. I was extremely lucky that I did not lose my hair, or have to undergo intense chemotherapy. Instead of intense IV chemo, I take oral chemotherapy pills everyday twice a day, since the day of my diagnosis. Since there is no permanent cure for CML, I will have to take the medicine for the foreseeable future. The meds keep the disease at bay and I’m able to live a normal life. Other than bone marrow and blood tests every couple of months, not many people can tell that I’m a cancer patient.
As of today, I’m in the last stage of remission, very close to having no trace of cancer in my blood or bone marrow. The year and a half in between diagnosis and remission was nowhere near easy. I found myself trying to adjust to so many new changes that I was getting overwhelmed easily. Some days were better than others. I remember asking a few times, the quintessential cancer question: why me? Why did this have to happen to me? Teens are often told at length that we all feel “invincible” during our young adult years; I was one of those people.
I never thought something of this magnitude would ever happen to me. But at the same time, I found myself asking another question: why not me? How did I get a form of cancer that is so easily treatable that on the surface I look like any other University student? While I’m able to interact with the rest of the world, sicker men, women, and children are fighting the fight from the confines of a hospital bed. They deserve the real credit, they’re the real warriors, carrying on through the pain and emotional stress, determined to get to the day when they can hear the words “cancer free.” To those people still fighting, I am in awe of your unending strength and perseverance through the darkest of times. You are the very essence of the human spirit and you inspire others around you to help end this terrible disease.
In the end, I believe that cancer has given me more than it has taken from me. It has given me a new perspective on life and the support of the people who surround me. To my family, friends, teammates, coaches, co-workers, doctors, and anyone who has given me kind words of support, I am eternally grateful. Your encouragement has made every day of my fight so much easier. I don’t think I take as many things for granted anymore, and everyday I’m reminded of how lucky I am.
Cancer has given me a first-hand experience, which I hope to use as fuel to get others involved in the fight. Everyone knows someone who has been affected by cancer and in my opinion that number is way too high. Thankfully, events such as Relay for Life exist, and people of all ages are able to get involved and raise not only money, but also awareness, support, and most importantly, hope. The fight to end cancer is far from over, but I am grateful that there are so many selfless individuals who take part in these events every year. The hope that one day we will all live in a world without cancer is why I relay, thank you to everyone taking part in this year’s event to help eradicate this disease. Together we can bring and end to cancer!