What feels like a lifetime ago, in the late 1990s, I was a shell of a human, having endured a cancer diagnosis, nine months of chemotherapy, a relapse, more chemotherapy, a bone marrow transplant, operations to remove bits and pieces of my body, and procedures to insert tubes in my veins. The result was the disappearance of my hope to live a long life. My memories of this experience are especially close to the surface every year around this time, on what I call my "re"-birthday: the anniversary of my bone marrow transplant.
I had been married only a short time when the rug was pulled out from under me. The cancer was Hodgkin's Lymphoma: "the good cancer," well-meaning people took pains to reassure me. But I knew nothing good would have brought me so close to death. In fact many people continue to die from this so-called good cancer. And thanks to the many complications of my disease and my treatment, there were times when (I'm ashamed to admit) I wanted to die. Fortunately for me I did not die, though I recall one doctor gleefully telling me that my odds of being alive in a year were one in four, as if that should have made me happy.
During my illness, treatment and recovery (a three-year period of my life), I made dear friends in the chemo wards, transplant units and support groups. We shared pride over things we figured other people wouldn't understand -- for instance, the fact that we were trusted to draw our own blood samples through our Hickman tubes (and our belief that if we failed to re-cap said tubes, we would slowly bleed out -- perhaps not a bad way to go in a pinch). We saw beauty where it seemed others couldn't; we felt despair we hoped others didn't.
I remember the first time I watched someone receive a blood transfusion. My friend Gayle, 26-years-old, was dying of leukemia, and the transfusion converted her from a slumped, demoralized cancer patient to a smiling dynamo, full of life and hope, bouncing off the hospital furniture. The lift was short-lived -- she would need a booster again in a few days, but for those few days she felt a bit like her old self.
My own experience receiving transfusions was emotional. Knowing that someone had sacrificed some time and endured a needle poke all to help a stranger live another day brought me to tears every time. I cried a lot back then. Today I wish more people would make that sacrifice, not for me, because I don't need transfusions any more, but for all the anonymous cancer patients, accident victims, surgery patients and others who find themselves desperately in need of blood. A step beyond donating blood, which takes only an hour longer and a second needle poke, is to donate platelets. And a truly selfless act is to sign up for the bone marrow/stem cell registry. Some people have misguided fears that donating stem cells can be dangerous, but the life-giving cells can often be collected without surgery. Imagine spending a couple of hours enduring a couple of needles and saving an entire life! It happens every day when people donate bone marrow or stem cells in quantities so small relative to the body's full supply that the donor suffers no real adverse effects. To learn more, contact Canadian Blood Services.
I kept a blog of my cancer experience before I knew that activity was known as blogging. It still sits at www.ourfunlife.com/health. I find it hard to go back and read what I recorded during my illness, in spite of the fact that I didn't record many of the most painful experiences. Those experiences remain in my memory as a trigger to make the most of my life all these years later, to be grateful, to be serene and to be kind to all beings. I still sweat the small stuff some days, but mostly I know I'm extremely lucky to still be here, living a very full and happy life.