I wasn’t going to do much on my fifth cancer anniversary Friday because I am among those who like to stay under the radar about these things.
But then I realized that your cancer anniversary is not just for you. It’s for all of the loved ones who went through it with you too.
It was my birthday, or re-birthday, the date on which five years ago I received a bone marrow transplant with stem cells provided by an anonymous donor. I had undergone a grueling chemotherapy regimen to eradicate the leukemia that was threatening my life and had then received the stem cells that would fill my marrow with healthy cells.
Five years is the point at which you are no more likely to get leukemia than the general population, at which you can dare to use the word “cure.” I had feared I was at the end of the line when I relapsed in 2008 because I had already relapsed once and had had three bone marrow transplants since my initial diagnosis with acute myeloid leukemia 10 years ago.
The procedure itself went smoothly as I received a bag of the donor’s stem cells intravenously. But a few weeks later my system rebelled. I had a serious blood infection and lapsed into a coma brought on by kidney failure. My son Joe, who was a sophomore at Bates College in Maine, had just driven three hours roundtrip through a snowstorm to visit me in the hospital in Boston. He had to turn around and come back for a family meeting that my doctor had called.
My ex-husband phoned my older son, who was also about three hours away, and told him to come quickly and to bring a dark suit. He and my teen-age daughter got ready to come from my home in Western Massachusetts, about 90 miles away. The doctor said I might not make it through the night. They must have been terrified.
The doctor told them that there were many serious things wrong with me and that the team would tackle them one at a time. The doctors from the world-renowned Dana-Farber Cancer Institute worked their medical magic, and about four days later I emerged from the coma, confused and unable to speak. The long recovery period had begun.
Back then I was unsure about living five days, let alone five years. Yet here I am, writing, traveling, playing tennis and running road races, attending graduations from high school and college, being present at my older son’s wedding, and also having the honor to meet my donor, Denise.
I had figured that on my birthday I would just have a nice dinner with Joe, who is living at home while attending graduate school nearby. But he surprised me by saying, “Your other children are coming.” Then he added, “This is a big deal.”
So Katie took the bus home from college near Boston while Ben and my daughter-in-law, Meghan, drove up from Connecticut.
They took me out to dinner at my favorite restaurant and surprised me with a candle in my chocolate cake, brought over by a waitress who joined them in singing “Happy Birthday.”
Little did she know I was only five years old!
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