At approximately 2:00 a.m. on the morning of August 22, 2009, a rather unremarkable container arrived at the Vancouver General Hospital. It had just gotten off of an airplane and was now on its way to the Leukemia/BMT in-patient unit located on the 15th floor of the hospital.
Inside this ordinary looking container that could have easily been mistaken for a beer cooler at a backyard barbeque, there was something extraordinary. Something that had the ability to save someone’s life. There was a bag filled with freshly extracted stem cells from the bone marrow of a donor.
Mere hours ago, a stranger from an unknown part of the world had willingly allowed cold and sharp instruments to penetrate their hipbone to collect these life-saving stem cells. Judging by the size of the bag, the procedure couldn’t have been swift. I can’t imagine the discomfort and pain this donor must have gone through in order to save the life of a person they have never even met.
And the life that this donor was trying to save was mine.
The Call That Changed Everything
My battle with Leukemia began in the summer of 2007. I had just finished my freshman year at the University of British Columbia, where I studied Commerce at the Sauder School of Business.
I felt like I was on top of the world. The business school did a good job of persuading its students that they were the cream of the crop. To have been accepted into the Commerce program was a feat in itself. It was an achievement that I valued greatly at the time. Like most of my peers in the program, I thought I was on the right path to a bright future in the corporate world where I could double, or even triple the income of my immigrant parents.
I was also 8 months into my first relationship. It was serious. We were (and still are) in love. There’s something about love that can make us feel like we’re invincible. I felt I was put on a glittering pedestal and nothing could bring me down.
And then one day, the pedestal fell away and I came crashing down. And all it took was just one phone call.
The call came on a sunny Saturday in July.
I had just turned 19 barely 3 months before the call.
I had just quit from a tedious summer job working as a Barista at a coffee shop a few weeks before the call.
I had just gone to a try-out for a Dragon Boat racing team days before the call.
I had just started writing a silly romance novel hours before the call.
And then I got the call.
It was a doctor at the other end of the line. She told me who she was and I quickly realized that she was the doctor at the walk-in health clinic that I had gone to see that very morning. Worried over the fact that my period had been over three weeks late at the time, I had gone to see her to get some answers.
It wasn’t pregnancy. A quick urine test at the clinic had quickly dispelled my worry. Having a baby at 19 years old just wasn’t in my plan.
She then decided to order a blood test for me.
“Let’s check your hormone levels, just to make sure nothing is out of balance.” She had explained.
Now, just hours after I had left her office and given my blood sample at a nearby lab, she was calling me. She asked if I had somebody home with me and if I was feeling alright. I told her that my mom was home and that I was feeling perfectly fine. I frowned a little and secretly wondered why she was asking these questions.
“I want you to stay calm.” She said in all seriousness.
I stiffened up and held my breath.
“There’s something wrong with the way your bone marrow is functioning.”
I remember those exact words. How the sound of each syllable expanded and filled the space inside my mind. Having watched movies like Adam Shankman’s “A Walk to Remember” and Isao Yukisada’s “Crying Out Love in the Centre of the World”, I knew exactly what those words had meant.
It was Leukemia.
My stomach sank. I could feel my body breaking out in a cold sweat. My heart thumped wildly inside my chest, so fast and so loud that it drowned out all other sounds. After a few seconds my knees gave in and I collapsed to the floor.
The next thing I remember is me shouting into the phone with all kinds of fluids running down my face and my mother running into my room with a bewildered look in her eyes.
“I have LEUKEMIA?” I screamed over and over. “Are you saying I have LEUKEMIA?”
Please say no. I begged silently in my mind.
But the answer wasn’t what I wanted to hear. She didn’t know for certain if it was Leukemia, but there was a possibility. They needed to run more tests to find out.
“Pack up what you can,” She said at the end of the call. “I need you to get to the Vancouver General Hospital.”
The ride to the hospital felt like the longest 12 minutes of my life. No one said a word. My mother, Tony (my boyfriend at the time, now husband), and I just in silence, each occupied in our own mixed bag of emotions.
I remember looking out the car window and feeling a strange sense of detachment from reality. This can’t be. I kept repeating in my mind.
There were people laughing and talking on the street, completely oblivious to what was happening to me and where I was going.
I envied them deeply.
To them, it was just another ordinary summer evening with sunshine waning on the horizon and the smell of backyard barbeque wafting through the air. And it would have been the same kind of ordinary evening for me had I not gotten that call.
But now, ordinary seemed like a luxury.
After going through the initial check-ups and paperwork in the Emergency Room, we were sent to the 15th floor of the hospital building. When the elevator door opened on the 15th floor, we were greeted by a sign that said “Leukemia/BMT Inpatient Unit”.
That was when it really hit me—the reality of it all. I was crossing a river into the unknown and there was a chance that I might not make it home.
For the next few days, I went through a battery of blood tests, X-Rays, CT scans, and whatever else the doctors could throw at me. The toughest of them all was the bone marrow biopsy, where they insert a large needle into your hipbone while you’re fully awake and withdraw some bone marrow—the spongy tissue inside your bones—for analysis.
Unlike many other types of cancers, Leukemia has no visible tumours you can see under a scan. The only way to decipher it is to go directly to the source of our body’s primary site for blood production—the bone marrow.
Despite plenty of local anesthesia to numb the pain and Ativan to calm the nerves, the procedure still turned out to be one of the most excruciating experiences of my life. So scarring that I still shudder at the mere thought of it—the sound of steel clashing against steel as the doctor prepared the instruments for the procedure, the sensation of the bed shaking uncontrollably as she drilled the needle into my bone with her hands, and the searing pain that shot down my legs when she finally withdrew the marrow.
When it was finally over, I was drenched in sweat and tears.
Then came the diagnosis. I remember it was late in the afternoon when my Hematologist—Dr. Toze—walked into my hospital room with a couple of colleagues. I knew immediately what they were here for. With all the courage I could muster at that point, I listened as she explained that I had Acute Myeloid Leukemia, a type she called “Inversion 16”—where the disease resulted from an inversion of chromosome 16 in the DNA replication process.
The good news was that it had a favourable outlook. Given my young age and otherwise disease-free health status, I was expected to achieve a full remission after 5 rounds of chemotherapy.
Have you ever experienced a strange type of weather where it’s raining and sunny at the same time? If I could describe the emotions I felt during that moment in terms of weather, that would be it. I was crying and laughing, mourning and rejoicing, scared and relieved all at the same time.
Yes, I was going to lose many things—my hair, my strength, a year of school—but not all would be lost.
There was still hope.
I was told that each round of chemotherapy would consist of a few days of IV injections of the chemotherapy drugs, then a long period of waiting.
Almost immediately after the injections, my blood counts would drop quickly and drastically, to the point where my white blood cells would fall close to zero. During this period, I would need frequent transfusions of red blood cells and platelets so that I don’t feel extremely fatigued or bleed to death. And I would need to stay in a relatively germ-free environment to stave off any potential source of infection.
Then after about 20 something odd days, when almost all of my white blood cells in the body have been obliterated, my bone marrow would start to reproduce blood cells again. Healthy ones hopefully. And when the blood cells reach an acceptable lower limit, I would start the whole chemotherapy process once again.
Within 2 days of receiving the diagnosis, I was sitting in a hospital bed, having bottles of chemotherapy drugs marked “Cytotoxic” pumped directly into my jugular vein through a Hickman line. The drugs had cold and distant names like “Cytarabine”—names that were almost as fearsome as their endless lists of side effects.
Chemo works by attacking all the rapidly dividing cells in your body, regardless of whether they’re good or bad. It’s a full-on war. The good cells like the lining of your mouth, your skin, your hair follicles just become collateral damage.
I struggled with oral ulcers that appeared as long, whitish lesions on both sides of my inner cheeks. They made even drinking water a painful ordeal. My skin felt horribly tight, itchy, and dry, to the point it was impossible to sit still.
Then, one morning, I woke up to a pillow covered with long, black strands of hair.
Losing one’s hair is a rite of passage almost all cancer patients must go through. But knowing this didn’t make the process any easier.
After a couple of days, I asked a nurse to shave my head. I couldn’t bear seeing my hair—which by that time had almost reached my waist—all over the bathroom floor, on the back of Tony’s shirt, or in between my fingers when I shampooed.
If I was going to lose all of my hair, I wanted to do it on my own terms.
A chair, check. A towel, check. And an electric shaver, check.
“let’s do this!” I told the nurse, who had asked me one last time if I was sure I really wanted to shave my head.
A buzzing sound roared in my ears as she weaved the electric shaver through my hair. She has had plenty of practice before, I could tell. Within 10 minutes I was left with just an inch of stubble on my head. The nurse gave me a hug and told me I was brave.
It was strange. I had thought that I would cry, but I didn’t. I felt light, relieved. Almost a sense of glee.
For the first time in weeks, I felt I was taking control of my own fate.
The Hurdles of Cancer Treatment
I went into remission following the induction round of chemotherapy in the hospital. I then received 4 more rounds of chemo called “consolidation therapy” to help solidify the remission. The whole treatment process took almost a year to complete. During this period, I had to overcome many hurdles that I did not expect to face.
One time, I had a nosebleed that wouldn’t stop for more than an hour. The blood came gushing out of my left nostril like water bursting from a leaky kitchen pipe. Blood even poured out from the tear ducts of my eyes. Thankfully, the bleed gradually stopped after an emergency platelet transfusion.
Another time I developed a large abscess near the top of my right thigh. It was so red and inflamed that it made me scream in pain whenever I had to move my leg. Getting out of the bed to use the bathroom became not only a test of willpower, but also a heart-pounding struggle against time as I had to literally inch my way to the toilet each time, often with a full and increasingly restless bladder.
The abscess, despite various cocktails of antibiotics, didn’t get much better. Hoards of doctors rushed to my bedside (it was a teaching hospital with lots of professors and medical school students) wanting to get a glimpse of my abscess. They all looked at this grotesque thing growing out of my groin area as if it was a medical curiosity. Some of them poked, others prodded, and one of them even inserted a needle in my abscess without any numbing. Every visit by a doctor almost always ended in a blood-curdling scream. The abscess lasted for weeks and finally healed when my white blood cells climbed back up.
I would often get these mysterious fevers when my white blood cells were low. Fevers that would spike for no reason, at least nothing the doctors could find. They would linger for a few days or even a week, and then vanish into thin air.
I became accustomed to being told that I must have an infection somewhere in the body, but no one quite knows where. These fevers would take away all my strengths and appetite, and leave me unable to concentrate on anything else except how ill I was feeling. The toughest part about having one of these fevers, however, was that it would further delay my chemo schedule, which was already running behind due to my slow recovering white blood cells.
What was originally a 5-month long treatment schedule stretched on to 6 months, then to 7.
The End of the Tunnel? Not Quite
Summer turned to Fall, then Winter. We rang in the new year. I welcomed my 20th birthday in February. Still, the ordeal was not over.
It felt like I had been running forever towards a light at the end of the tunnel but as I moved closer the light just kept moving farther away. At one point, I thought it was never going to end.
But it did end. At least for a little while.
I finally finished chemotherapy in the early Spring of the following year.
The day the doctors removed my Hickman line was one of the happiest days of my life. I came out of the hospital building with tears of joy streaming down my face. I didn’t bother wiping them away. I wanted to enjoy every emotion I was feeling in that moment to the fullest.
At last, it was over. Or so I had thought.
I went back to school in May of 2008. After a year of hiatus, I was ready to jump back into things and pick up where I had left off, both in my academic and in my social life.
On the outside, other than the fact that I was 15 pounds heavier and I was now sporting a very short and curly hairdo (my hair had grown back curly for some reason), I looked just like any other 20-year-olds maneuvering their way through the hallways of our campus. By Thanksgiving of that year, I felt like I was back into the swing of things. There were times where I would almost forget that I had battled cancer.
But I’ve learned that life is never short of surprises.
At the back of my mind, I always knew that there was a chance that the chemotherapy alone wouldn’t cure me, and that one day I might need a miracle in the form of a bone marrow transplant to save me. I just didn’t expect that day to come so soon.
Find out what happens next in my cancer survival story here.