The Inside Story of Surviving Leukemia

Woman covering her face with a blanket

One minute, you’re fine.

The next minute, boom. It hits you.

Your world shatters.

A medical trauma threatens to rob you of stability, strength, and life itself.

You never expected cancer could happen to you.

As you’re rushed through medical protocols and daily chemo cocktails, you deny your current reality. You hope to wake from a nightmare.

Instead, each morning, you find yourself in a hospital bed, an island of truth where you’re stranded, vulnerable, alone.

But you’re not entirely alone.

Loved ones surround you, supporting your fight, which makes you feel better. And guilty — others are suffering because of you, yet you have no way to stop it.

In fact, you have no control anymore. You handed away your power the day you entered the hospital.

One thing, however, continues to burn inside you.

Your will to survive.

But when odds fight against you and uncertainty reigns, it’s easy to despair.

So, how do you find the strength to persevere?

Dispossessed

I agree with Suleika Jaouad: you’re not a hero when you have cancer, because a hero has a choice.

Cancer had made its own decision, one where I had no say in the matter.

I had gone to the hospital for a specialist’s appointment. Later that day, the doctors admitted me as an emergency case for a ‘blood anomaly.’

After a few days, the diagnosis arrived. Stage III acute myeloid leukemia.

I rifled the doctor with questions, then stopped as reality caught up with me. I wasn’t dealing with a problem-solving routine at work. This was a life disruptor.

I’m single. Never married, no kids. I live on a different continent from the one I grew up in, my family seventeen hours away by plane.

Now, my parents needed to come to Italy. Physically, I could no longer take care of myself.

Chemo treatments for leukemia compromise the immune system. Therefore, visitors were scarce. Only one person could see me twice a day for one hour.

My days comprised eating, sleeping, and resting.

Between treatments, I would try walking, either in the hospital corridor or, when home, around the neighborhood. Each time, I had to wear a surgical mask to protect me from germs or bacteria.

Like a balloon, I drifted through time and space, my usual routine beyond reach.

But two things burst that bubble, forcing me to see a different reality.

The Tidal Waves That Hit Me

When diagnosed, I never felt like a victim, nor was I angry.

I was terrified.

With death stalking me, blocking my future, I looked to the past.

1. Regret

Not having lived my life to the fullest swallowed me whole. Initial remorse over never raising a family hit me first. Then, a greater loss consumed me.

I never became a writer.

Even though I enjoyed writing, I had zero belief in my talent.

As I huddled in that hospital bed, this self-defeating thought suddenly caved in on itself. Had I truly believed in myself, I would not have let doubt or fear hold me back.

When I dismantled the illusion, I finally saw the power that thoughts and beliefs wield over our lives. Self-belief could have generated the determination and courage needed to follow my dreams.

But now that I was dying, regret invaded me. It was more tangible than the leukemia cells consuming my blood.

At that moment, I made myself a promise. If I survived, I would write.

2. Love

I finally understood that I had never acted on my own callings.

At that moment, I had a glimpse of a future that didn’t entail my funeral. I had a withering passion to nurture back to life.

And if that wasn’t enough, I was about to receive another jolt….

People.

People who filled me with love, affection, support.

A constant source of energy and comfort, my closest friends formed a task force around me, taking over my physical life inside and outside the hospital walls.

They spoke with my doctors constantly.

They prepared for my family’s arrival, welcomed them into my house, and showed them around the neighborhood.

They handled frustrating days of never-ending, Italian bureaucratic red-tape that I needed for my invalid-health status and supplemental pension plan.

They shouldered an infinite number of tasks and urgent issues. One of them even accompanied my parents to London for a visa to stay in Europe for the next fourteen months.

These friends, my personal warriors, had reduced my worries and stress to a minimum so I could concentrate on fighting for my life.

But the love didn’t stop there.

Enter my coworkers.

They created videos of the entire office dancing and singing for me. More videos rolled in from satellite offices. Everyone cheering me on.

But the best part?

These two forces, friends and coworkers, banded together when I needed and would continue to need blood transfusions throughout my therapy. In the first month alone, I had over twenty-two pints of blood and platelets transfused.

Friends of friends, coworkers of friends, spouses of coworkers, an entire web of connections donated. People donated multiple times. A colleague’s husband even held a blood drive in his office.

Did I know most of these people?

No.

Most had never met me.

You’re probably asking, “So, what’s the big deal?”

That kind of support, unexpected and massive in action, physically jarred me. It overwhelmed me.

I tried to rationalize it. I always gave freely, expecting nothing in return. But now that I was on the receiving end, I struggled to accept it.

Receiving love shouldn’t be paralyzing, should it?

The Second Tidal Wave: The Relapse

My initial medical protocol required two rounds of chemotherapy, then an autologous bone-marrow transplant, meaning that the procedure required my own healthy stem cells.

Instead, my leukemia was more aggressive than the doctors’ original diagnosis.

I had a relapse.

The protocol changed. I needed an allogeneic transplant, meaning we needed to find a donor. Quickly. And my brother wasn’t compatible.

My world crashed again.

I isolated myself, trying to assimilate the new upheaval.

This time, however, I wasn’t making any progress in accepting the change. No longer a stalker, death became a shadow — continually attached to me, waiting.

As friends and coworkers started a social media campaign asking people to sign up as bone-marrow donors, I had a realization.

“Painful as it may be, a significant emotional event can be the catalyst for choosing a direction that serves us more effectively. Look for the learning.”

Louisa May Alcott

I recognized that my difficulty in accepting the relapse echoed my struggle with love.

Unconsciously, I thought myself unworthy of the love I was receiving. I felt guilty about having the disease, about it weighing on those around me.

But these thoughts were merely emotional reactions to beliefs. Limiting beliefs.

My fears and visions of death?

Again, not real. I was still alive, so why was I dwelling on something I couldn’t control?

Just as my self-sabotaging beliefs about writing were absurd, the anxieties lurking in my head didn’t exist.

I latched on to reality, to the relapse, and to love.

The actions of the people I loved were real. The support was real. The leukemia cells were real, as was my love for life.

And I wanted to live.

Not only did the relapse force me to stay in the present moment, but it offered me a clear vision of what self-love means: an unwavering faith in life itself.

I realized I would be okay whatever the outcome. I might survive, or I might die. Both options were natural. And I had no guarantees of either.

Once you accept it, love is your superpower.

Learning to Love Myself

I had no more regrets.

Now that I was calling the shots on my mental and emotional strength, I wanted to embrace the part of me I had always denied.

I began writing before the bone marrow transplant.

I adopted a writing technique from Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way. Called morning pagesthe practice required a short stream of consciousness in longhand writing each day, as soon as you wake up.

I wrote for as many minutes as possible, without thinking about the content.

But, as I let the words trickle onto the page, I perceived that something or someone else was sending these messages to me.

Call it what you will: my muse, my spirit, my soul, my unconscious, the universe, whatever. I received missives, even a few parables, that infused me with a profound sense of peace.

But, more importantly, as time passed, I noticed that the messages were healing me emotionally.

Through these writings, I caught a variety of negative thoughts, weeding out the more dangerous ones. Some negative thoughts kept me grounded. Because let’s face it, I might not have survived.

But the pages were an act of love. Whether they sprang from me or from another source didn’t matter.

What mattered was this…

I realized we are all one, all connected, all worthy of love.

The interconnectivity of life mattered.

A month after the relapse, the bone marrow registry found and contacted my donor. And my donor responded, accepting the request.

That was the most important connection of all. And the greatest act of love I received.

The Art of Receiving

Again, I’m no hero. But I really did have a choice.

I chose to move forward even when the odds fought against me. I chose to open my world to whatever came my way. I chose to welcome that tsunami of love, its force cracking me open, nourishing me.

My relationships with friends and family deepened. The way I viewed myself radically changed as did my priorities.

That outpouring of love enabled me to understand that true, inner healing is loving your life completely and unconditionally.

***

Nowadays, four years post-transplant, I make time for me.

I no longer want the same things. Superficial desires have waned and my appreciation of life has grown. I finally see where I’m going.

I am becoming a writer.

Sometimes I fall into the same traps. After years of denying my calling, it’s difficult to whip out a best seller or an award-winning screenplay. But I step back and deal with the challenges.

I remember how to let love in. It’s an art that reminds me of how life graciously returned to me through the love of many, including myself.

Here’s how you, too, can develop the art of receiving:

1. Focus

Each day as I wake I savor that first conscious breath, the beating of my heart, the movement of my limbs.

Then, before I do anything else, I do a short, daily meditation that allows me to appreciate my life. It reminds me I’m still here.

Meditating regularly fosters serenity, clarity, and self-awareness. Even subtle barriers that creep up such as anxiety, fear, and anger are proven to decrease when meditating progressively.

When you’re more mindful, you’re more present. And when you’re more present, you find that dwelling on the past or future no longer serves you.

This daily centering also leads to the next phase.

2. Gratitude

After meditating, gratitude arrives naturally.

Why is this important?

So you can remember to cherish your life and be thankful for all you have received.

It also reduces stress and increases self-esteem.

I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the support of family, friends, and coworkers; the company I work for; the doctors who saved me; the nurses who cared for me; the unknown German guy who donated his stem cells and whose immune system is still keeping me alive today.

I wouldn’t be here without my grit.

Create your personal gratitude habit as you see fit. But know that mindfulness will create the space for gratitude to take root and grow.

3. Personal Mission

I’ve struggled in the past with planning, goal-setting, vision boards, etc. You name it, I’ve done it. Nothing worked.

Now, I have a vision.

Once you know your direction, the steps you take may vary, but they will never stray.

For example, my small, steady steps to becoming a writer include:

  • Taking online writing courses
  • Participating in writing seminars
  • Entering writing competitions with feedback for faster growth
  • Getting professional analysis on my scripts
  • Starting a blogging course (and this blog)

In the last two years, these steps have allowed me to write a TV pilot, nine short screenplays, four short stories, and eight blog posts.

Once your personal mission is clear, life acquires greater meaning. It also forces you to focus on the process instead of the product.

Keep your long-term vision in sight, but concentrate on taking little steps and creating new paths. When you do this, distractions and bad choices will dissipate and drift away.

4. Listen to Your Body

Some days are good. Others bad.

I no longer have the same energy after the transplant. I frequently fall ill. I have chronic Graft-versus-Host-Disease (GvHD).

Sometimes I need to take naps or just lie down. Sometimes concentrating is difficult, exercising the same.

But I don’t think less of myself on the difficult days — I just do what’s possible.

Remember to do what’s possible.

Be kind to yourself as you listen to your body.

5. Finding Balance

This is big.

And it’s a continuous process that I’m only coming to grips with now.

Understanding this new version of myself requires a new acceptance, both from me and those close to me.

I may never again have the energy I had pre-leukemia. The GvHD may be chronic forever. The future is unknown.

When physical ups and downs take your emotions along for the ride, be gentle with yourself. Find a balance that’s right for you.

Take this example:

During the illness, I dreamed of going running again. I always had a sense of freedom when I ran.

Currently, I can’t. Immediately after the transplant, I suffered joint stiffness in my lower body that continues to this day.

Recently, a well-being coach helped me realize that, while my running goal was wonderful because it motivated me, I also have to face reality. Pushing my body where it can’t go will only cause further damage.

To compensate, I crafted a walking plan.

Create your new normalcy. And forgive your body for its limits.

Also, realize when you can’t go it alone. Asking for or accepting help when offered will pave an easier way forward.

As you welcome the new you, remember to aspire for greatness and move forward with grace, creativity, and flexibility.

6. Share

It was difficult for me to write this piece.

I’m still working on how my experience with health-related trauma can serve others. It’s a maze I’m not sure how to get through, but I’m trying.

One thing, however, is certain.

Keeping your experience to yourself will not benefit you or anyone else. Find your learning and share it with others.

The greatest gift you can give to anyone is you.

7. Keep Going

You’ve changed. Therefore, relationships will also change, some positively, others negatively. Accept it.

Obstacles will still present themselves. After a traumatic illness, it’s inevitable. Life gets in the way, whatever your situation.

Every time you get sidetracked, distracted, or dismayed, I want you to do one thing.

Go back to your mission.

Your mission will generate momentum. You will take small steps forward and one backward. You’re not on the same path as before and the terrain will look unfamiliar.

But that mission, if you concentrate on it and adhere to its calling, will lead you in the right direction. Always.

If you’re hesitant in making choices, ask yourself if it aligns with your vision. And each time you stumble, know that it’s easier to get back up again when you tend to yourself with compassion and forgiveness.

Place your health and your mission first. And be open to receiving life’s rewards.

Ride Your Wheel of Life

Whatever your case, and whatever time you have left, know that you possess the strength to make every moment unique. Focus on your willpower, which is one of the few certainties right now.

Plan for the future, even when there might not be one. Hope will generate far more energy and strength than you currently know. Design a tomorrow that holds meaning for you, your loved ones, even posterity.

As you cultivate expectations, you also remember to focus on the present moment, appreciating every nuance. It doesn’t matter if you can’t leave your hospital bed or your room: laugh and rejoice with loved ones that you’re still here — this is the glory of life. Experience it now in the little things.

And the secret sauce of loving yourself? Flirt with the universe and tell the world how grateful you are for each day.

As you live each instant with joy, self-love courses through your veins. You notice your force spreading, marveling, inspiring everyone around you.

When you look in the mirror and see beyond the suffering, the disbelief, the pain, to what a wondrous miracle of life you are, that, my friend, is bliss.

You are an essential part of something far greater than all of us put together, like a cog in a wheel that continues to rotate, regardless of your circumstances. Feel happy as you spin and grateful as you gyrate, determined to continue forward on life’s journey as long as you are here.

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