Chronic Myeloid Leukemia: Life After the Finish Line
When doctors finally inform you that you’ve reached a state of remission after a long, seven-year fight, it’s difficult to wrap your head around. This is my latest post for Cancerwise. If you enjoy it, please visit M.D. Anderson’s site and view more like it.
It’s difficult to remember what it was like in December of 2004, a season of life before bone marrow biopsies, oral chemotherapy, doctor’s visits, frequent blood tests, and medication adherence anxiety. Cancer was foreign and I was invincible, naïve, concerned only with the agenda of being young and carefree — parallel to the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run.
Little did I know that the endless highway with unlimited dreams would detour to a cancer center, where schedules and procedures represent a different kind of freedom, one closer associated with the latter songs of a more reflective and introspective Johnny Cash.
A week and a half ago, I received the news that leukemia finally raised its white flag. The collaborative efforts of my incredible medical team have lead me to the last great milestone in the fight against CML, a complete molecular remission. Cognitively, that’s the greatest news I’ve ever heard. Emotionally, it’s a difficult reality to fully accept.
In many ways, I feel like a hostage who’s experienced Stockholm syndrome, a psychological phenomenon in which abductees express empathy and have positive feelings towards their captors, sometimes to the point of defending them. I’ve known cancer for seven long years. I’ve experienced the emotional breadth of frustration, fear, intimidation, loneliness, insecurity, hope, encouragement, and love in intimate ways.
I’ve fought hard to filter out the negative, to nurture the positive, and embrace the in-between. I’ve failed. I’ve won. I’ve lived. And merely six months after my last great battle and the lowest point of my life, my medical team has raised my arm in recognition of victory. I have won. The rescue is over, and as difficult as it is to believe, I’m free to walk away.
I’m learning that walking away isn’t as easy as it sounds. A passing storm and an open sky have exposed the damage that a cancer diagnosis has left behind. Fallen buildings, fractured homes, and scattered possessions are a symbol of a life put on hold. I’m grateful I made it to the other side, but I’m not yet sure I truly understand what remission means. It’s likely that my seven-year struggle is to blame.
Every cancer patient understands the effect his or her diagnosis has on the concept of time. It’s much like waking up from a coma. The world should have stopped, but it didn’t. People grew, situations changed, the world progressed, all while I tried my best to keep up, constantly falling to frequent setbacks, false starts, and new challenges.
I suppose that’s part of the “new normal”, which in turn, is not normal at all. The ability to adapt and overcome life’s interruptions is as much a part of me moving forward as it is a disposable tool of survival that I’m tempted to leave behind. Maybe I’m wrong to believe that I’ll return to December of 2004. After all, my existence is different now, but I’m picking up where life left off. I’m determined to not allow the dreams of my cancer-free days to go unaccomplished.
The challenge to catch up to the world around me is much greater than the one met by my organic instinct to survive. I’ll be the oldest person in my college classroom, the leukemia survivor who struggles to adapt back into a cancer-free world, and the underclass graduate who’s unable to hold back his tears as he finally walks across that elusive stage.
As I separate from cancer, maybe I’ll realize the lyrics of Born to Run again. Maybe my walk will turn into a jog, and my jog will turn into a sprint. I have no idea. What I do know, however, is that I’m finally headed in the right direction. I’ve been given a second chance to fulfill my dreams.
I have a new finish line now, and I plan to cross it with the same grateful heart, perseverance, and hope that I’ve learned to embrace along my journey. In the medical community, this is called remission. To one who’s overcome a great deal of obstacles, it is called freedom.