I've been in treatment for leukemia for the past 3 years, here's some of that story
In the spring of 2013, my father died of cancer. It was fast, untreatable, and unexpected. In fact he went from a trip to the emergency room to deceased in about 4 weeks. 2 years later, I found a lump in my neck. I spent the next 2 months working my way through a progressively more intense series of medical tests culminating in a surgical biopsy of the lymph nodes in my neck. It turns out, I suffered from Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia. Luckily, I responded to chemo almost immediately; unfortunately, I’m still not done with treatment as I write this.
The treatment for ALL is both intense and long and I’ve dealt with the side-effects of chemo at various levels of unpleasantness since 2015. Three years is a long time and there are many stories to tell. Today, I thought I’d give the simplest introduction to my treatment and my life the past several years. The treatment protocol I’ve experienced breaks down into three distinct phases. Each phase has had marked and rather distinct impacts on my day to day life.
Phase 1 was the shortest and most intense phase. It’s usually referred to as induction and the primary goal is to induce remission quickly and efficiently. Given the intensity of the treatment and risk of side effects, I spent these 30 days inpatient. This was definitely a good thing. By diagnosis, my spleen had enlarged dramatically by collecting innumerable leukaemia cells. Shortly after the start of chemo therapy, the cells died so rapidly that my spleen collapsed and ruptured. It happened so quickly I barely had time to call the nurse before face planting on the floor. I wound up needing emergency surgery to repair 4 bleeds.
Phase 2 is called Consolidation. The goal is to use a variety of chemo processes over 6-8 months to kill any lingering cancer that may exist. The treatment is still intense, but you can live at home and actually go back to being productive. In my case, infections became the bane of my existence. For most of this phase, my immune system effectively didn’t exist and I existed in a narrow bubble between my house and the cancer ward. The rest of my contact with the outside world was entirely electronic.
Phase 3 is my current phase of treatment and by far it’s been the easiest to cope with. This phase is referred to as Maintenance and the goal is pretty simple. In case any leukaemia cells managed to stay dormant through both of the previous phases, we’ll get them on their way out. It still sucks, and you still take chemo meds daily, weekly, and monthly, but your hair grows back and you usually have an immune system. There were a few times where my immune system collapsed and I had to retreat to my bubble again, but these were minor. I also was pretty limited in travel, even simple air trips could leave me incapacitated with some bug. If I get sick, recovery takes weeks instead of days.
I have a few more months of phase 3 remaining and I’m trying to wrap my head around what’s next. For 3 years, ambition has been the least of my concerns. It’s hard to prioritise career when you aren’t sure how much time you have to pursue your dreams.