Life After Leukemia: Looking Back, Moving Forward

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An introduction to my memoir: Life After Leukemia

We all remember where we were when we heard the tragic news.

My mother often spoke of sitting by the living room radio above her father’s store, listening to the report of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

In 1963, I was standing at my locker between afternoon classes when our ninth–grade German teacher told us that President Kennedy had been shot and killed in Dallas less than an hour earlier.

Years later, I would be in my office at work when my wife would call with the news that planes had flown into the Twin Towers, and the first tower had already collapsed.

These were defining and life-changing moments for millions of people, but it was in July of 2008, while standing in the middle of a manufacturing plant in New Holland, Pennsylvania, that I received the phone call that would begin a personal adventure that would leave me irreparably scarred, yet astonishingly transformed. That call came from my family physician’s nurse, explaining only that there were abnormalities in my recent blood work. No further explanations were forthcoming--I was expected at their office within forty-five minutes.

The drive to the doctor’s office was the most frightening and depressing half hour of my life. The only test I had recently received was blood work to check for Lyme disease. Nonetheless, I was convinced that the results had revealed either a spot on my liver or a mass deep inside my brain. I was going to die before meeting my third grandchild, who wasn’t due for another six months. My wife was in Texas, our older daughter lived in South Carolina, and our younger, pregnant daughter was at work. As I entered the office, my calm exterior belied the turmoil and dread that I felt while dealing with this alone.

 

The news from my doctor, although disturbing and serious, actually brought me some relief. My white blood count indicated that I most likely had leukemia. I knew little about the disease, except that there were treatments for it, and right now that was enough. I stopped worrying about only me and began to think about others: What do I say to my daughters? Is leukemia genetic, putting them at risk? When do I tell my wife—call her in Texas or wait until she comes home? Can I find the right words to soften the blow for her?

I decided to drive home and think things through before I called anyone. As I sat in the warm July sunshine on our back deck, I was tempted, for one fleeting moment, to feel sorry for myself. But before the self-pity had a chance to set in, it was replaced by the realization that I had spent nearly sixty years as one of the luckiest men on the planet. I began to relax as I became more and more aware that I had nothing to feel sorry about. I had no regrets. I was being liberated by the knowledge that I had been given the opportunity to live a full life and, without even knowing I was doing it, I had been taking advantage of that opportunity.

As you can imagine, my emotions had already been twisted out of shape by the events of the day, but this awareness put all of those earlier feelings of fear and anger into a subordinate position. It was clear to me that I had been blessed with everything I could have wished for and now, for the first time in my life, the worm had turned ever so slightly against me. Maybe I didn’t deserve this disease, but I hadn’t done anything to deserve all of the good things that had come my way, either. I decided there would be no rending of clothes and whining about fate. Instead, I would be grateful, not only for the all of the good fortune I had received throughout my life, but for whatever lay ahead…good or bad.

I called my daughters soon after that, and we decided that there was no reason to upset Mom by calling her. I would tell her when she returned. And after I told her a few days later, she cried, even sobbed at times, but when she was through, she set her jaw and went about making arrangements to help save my life. She appointed herself as my advocate, and so began our great adventure.

 

Mine is not the story of a victim of leukemia who heroically battled the dreaded disease and won a great victory. First off, I am not a victim. Lord knows there are already enough of them out there—real and imagined. I certainly don’t qualify as a hero; I merely played the hand that I was dealt while God and science helped me heal. And as for winning the battle, I’m well aware that any victories I may have claimed are only temporary—if mutated genes don’t end my stay here, something else will.

This is not to say that I’m patiently sitting back, waiting for the next shoe to fall. But it caused me to reflect on and sort out this ordinary life of mine. I have not led a boring life—far from it—but if you’re looking for a titillating read filled with drug use and recovery, affairs and reconciliations, failure and redemption, don’t bother reading my future posts. There have been no drugs, no affairs, and my failures have been too numerous to mention and, in any case, would not interest you.

God blessed me with love, a sense of humor, and a disease that taught me some valuable lessons. My only wish is to share those with you.

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