How cancer has made me feel like the luckiest person around
November 15, 2011
© Erin Zammett Ruddy
Yesterday marked 10 years since I was diagnosed with leukemia. When I heard the words “you have cancer” I was 23 and had simply gone to my regular doctor for a check-up. I wasn’t feeling sick at all, but a routine blood test revealed I had chronic myelogenous leukemia, a slow-moving form of blood cancer that traditional chemotherapy did little to stop.
Without successful treatment, I would have had five years to live. The only known cure was a bone marrow transplant, a grueling and risky procedure that requires a perfect genetic match. I didn’t know what the next day would hold, let alone the years. I didn’t know if I could keep working. I didn’t know if I’d ever get married or have kids. I didn’t know if I’d live to see my thirties.
The good news: Six months before I was diagnosed the FDA approved a new, targeted drug therapy that was putting people’s CML into remission without making them sick. It was a revolutionary idea in cancer treatment—targeting the bad cells without obliterating the good ones—and it was being touted as a miracle drug. Although it turned out that my sister, Meghan, was a perfect match for a potential bone marrow transplant, I chose the new therapy. I was able to start treatment three months after being diagnosed and those little orange pills (which I combined with daily injections of a different chemotherapy for the first 18 months) put me into remission within a year. 10 years later, I am still taking that drug—Gleevec—and my cancer remains at bay. In fact, when my blood gets tested every three months (I ship it to the amazing Michael Mauro at Oregon Health and Sciences University in Portland, Oregon), the lab struggles to find any sign of cancer, anywhere. A miracle, indeed.
Another miracle: The fact that I have the two happy, healthy, wild and crazy kids I write about on this blog every week, kids who wouldn’t have been here if I hadn’t been so damn lucky (I had to stop taking Gleevec during both pregnancies, which was risky, but my cancer never came back). I wanted to share my cancerversary with all of you because I want you to know what a treat it is for me to get to write a parenting post every week, spouting nonsense like trick or treat etiquette and whether my kid's preschool teacher thinks I'm an idiot. It’s exactly where I’d want to be, regardless of that diagnosis 10 years ago. I still take Gleevec every day and will continue to do so indefinitely, but it’s a small price to pay for living a healthy life. A life that is ridiculously full of, if not overflowing with, good stuff.
I sometimes forget what I went through—and what my family went through—and I think that’s a good thing (and, frankly, a luxury that far too many cancer patients don’t get) but I also think it’s good to remember once in a while. I was having lunch with a friend last week and told her that my cancer experience just didn’t seem like a big deal. She begged to differ and then we got talking about denial as a coping mechanism. Maybe mine isn’t denial but a very good ability to buck up and move on. After our lunch I went back and reread some of my Glamour columns (I chronicled my journey—and then my sister’s—for over seven years in the magazine and in the life with cancer blog) and so much came flooding back to me. Cancer was my full-time job. Whether it was going for treatment, giving myself nightly injections, traveling to Oregon for my bone marrow biopsies, having constant blood tests, writing about it (shameless book plug here), reading about it, speaking publicly about it, raising money for it, even going on TV to talk about it, cancer was the main focus of my life for so many years. I couldn’t get through a single column without crying. Or without feeling extremely proud that I had the opportunity to share my story.
The number one reason it’s good to look back at my cancer journey over the last 10 years: so I never forget how lucky I am. I was able to keep working, to get married, to have kids. And regardless of how challenging those kids can be (Nora spent the entire ride home from school yesterday yelling at her baby doll: “you cannot say freakin ass, baby, you cannot say freakin ass, baby!”), the fact that they are here, and I am here, is truly amazing. And a testament to the fantastic doctors and researchers, like Brian Druker, who developed Gleevec (he's also at OHSU, where I was part of a clinical trial--read my post about him here) and to organizations like Gabrielle’s Angel Foundation and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, who raise millions to fund such groundbreaking, life-saving treatments.
I am planning some big things in the spring to help celebrate and commemorate my cancerversary (and to give back to the organizations that have helped my family and me so much) so stay tuned for that. In the meantime, thanks for always being here to read what I write, especially the silly nonsense.