On a clear day in August, with lofty clouds breezing across the afternoon sky, I run a mile, lift weights, pick up my farm share, and speak with a few patients who had summertime colds. I sprawl out on my sunporch in the late afternoon and take a luxurious nap.
I awake from a deep sleep to my phone and the kind voice of a hematologist I have recently met. I’ve spent years feeling hale and hearty, though my blood counts are running low, it’s probably due to an anti-cancer medication I take. I expect her to confirm that assumption, but instead she has the unfathomable job of telling me I have an acute form of leukemia, confirmed by a bone marrow biopsy from the previous week.
Shock is a good word to describe my state, a kind of cognitive dissonance considering how well I feel. This is early disease, based on routine labs taken due to my health history. But the treatment is no less intense. I spend the next few days packing for an elongated stay at Fifty-Five Fruit Street, also known as Massachusetts General Hospital. Trying to decide which socks to bring and should I pack an extra jar of moisturizer while simultaneously considering my mortality, the role of suffering in our lives, concern for my family and my friends who are likewise traumatized by this news, all of which brings new definition to how we all live lives that hopefully circle around lovely routines and meaningful work and relationships, but are nonetheless sometimes filled with contradiction, overwhelm, challenges, uncertainty, and sheer craziness.
Leukemia is a kind of cancer that involves the blood and the bone marrow. You might know about bone marrow if you are a meat eater and see inside the bone, of say a T-bone steak or a chicken leg. It’s the miraculous and versatile spongy tissue where our various blood cells are conceived and born. Our bone marrow pours blood cells into the bloodstream when the cells are good to go and when they are needed. White blood cells help us fight infection, red blood cells carry oxygen to all our tissues and organs and when called upon, platelets help stop excessive bleeding. With acute leukemia, the stem cells in the bone marrow which give rise to our blood cells, make too many immature cells and those of poor quality and they get released into the blood stream instead of mature and correct cells. They crowd out the good cells to the detriment of your bodily functions and overall health. Left untreated, acute leukemia will kill you.
During my stay at Fifty-Five Fruit Street, I will take a chemotherapy protocol that will knock down my body of these unwelcome cells. Actually, it will knock down all my blood cells, as the science is not yet there to do so selectively—hence the in-care stay. My doctors will keep a close eye on me, as my overall blood counts go dangerously low. But hopefully bounce back, too. We do several bouts of this before repeating the bone marrow biopsy. And then with precision science and some very good luck, once those unwelcome cells are cleared, I trust I will be fortunate and that we find a good bone marrow donor match, and I receive a transplant that I will tolerate!
As a long-time naturopathic doctor and author of You Finished Treatment Now What, A Field Guide for Cancer Survivors, I know that the healthy habits I have basically lived my whole life, and the natural whole person medicines I embrace will continue to serve me during my time at MGH and will help me be in the best shape possible to help efficacy, tolerate treatment, with hopefully the least amount of severe side effects. That said, it may be rough going and there will likely be bumps on the road.
Because I am checked often, it happens that the leukemia cells are strictly in my marrow and not in my bloodstream. This is a good thing to catch an illness like this early, and of course this also is reflected in how I basically feel perfect! In fact, this morning before driving two hours to Boston, I went for a long run and lifted weights at the gym! We drove along the Mass Pike on a river of love and prayers pouring in from around the globe!
I wish I did not have to stop so much of my beautiful life to move into a hospital and experience this whole new level of treatment; I also know there will be silver linings. I will feel the love and support of so many friends, family members, students, patients, and more. I will meet some amazing people. I will be impressed with what I can handle and I will find new ways to show self-compassion when days are tough. I will learn this rhythm of in-care hospitalization and no doubt be blown away by my world class care. I will whip up new ways to love my husband and amazingly devoted partner, Paul, steadfast at my side. I may polish up my already excellent ability to nap and sleep. I will try to improve my mindfulness meditation practice, being present to all my experiences so I can learn and deepen my understanding of myself and share, as I feel able, to help others as well. For sure my sense of gratitude for the life I have created will only grow. And hopefully I can help advance science by being another healthy survivor of ALL.
My sons introduced me to the Stockdale Paradox this week and I like it very much: we basically must confront those things that may be very hard head on, without losing faith of the ultimate positive outcome. Whatever challenges you may be facing, large or small, physical or emotional, acute or chronic, may the wind be at your back, too, and may you find support among those you love.
And because every hard story deserves a happy ending, here’s a short dance video from earlier this week of me and my wonderful daughter, being silly & having fun.
Love and light from Fifty-Five Fruit Street,