Hearing you have cancer is never a welcome surprise. It was April Fools’ Day in 2008 when I got a call from my general practitioner that my lab results were abnormal. I was 24 years old, young, and in good health, and working at my dream job as an Associate Accessories Editor at Vogue. After discussing all of my symptoms with a friend at work, I convinced myself I was anemic and hailed a taxi to my doctor. But as I sat across from her, in a cold room that smelled of newly upholstered chairs, everything felt wrong. “You have cancer,” she almost whispered. The words just barely made it out of her lips, almost like an exhalation. I could actually feel her relief at having been able to get them out: As soon as those three words were released into the room, they were no longer hers to bear. They were mine.
I went into remission 34 days after starting intensive inpatient chemotherapy at New York Presbyterian Hospital. Six more months of heavy duty outpatient chemo and steroids followed to make sure the leukemia didn’t come back, then another 16 months of maintenance therapy to really drive it home. By the time I was strong enough to return to work, it had been two years since I’d left. It felt like a lifetime. Friends were engaged, they'd gotten married, then pregnant, promoted at work, and were busy with all sorts of interesting projects. I had missed so much. And all I had to show for it after two long years of impossibly hard work was my remission. It felt so unbelievably important, and yet so incredibly trivial.
As hard as we try to move on from an illness, there is always a lingering seed of fear waiting to break through. As time goes by and physical symptoms dissipate, the fear recedes. You realize that you haven’t thought about illness for several days, and those days turn into weeks, and all of a sudden it’s been months since a mild headache has sent you into a tailspin. My therapist calls this “healthy denial” and says it’s the state that enables people not dealing with health crises to exist comfortably in an uncertain world.
The further I got away from my illness, the more I started to believe I was going to be ok. This is what it feels like to get your life back, I would tell myself. It’s ok to smile for no reason. It’s ok to feel happiness and not have it be tinged with a ring of fear.
After all of the chemo and antibiotics and medications stopped, the countless side effects I had grown accustomed to living with began to disappear. It happened almost instantly. The fatigue, the bloating and night sweats from the steroids, the body aches – they all just melted away. As time went on, I felt better and better, sometimes even from one day to the next. I was strong. My hair grew long and thick again, my healthy denial was in full swing, and life carried on. Sometimes, on a sunny day, as I hailed a cab to the office, my now toned arm shooting straight across 6th avenue, my new Manolo pumps peeking over the edge of the crosswalk, I would take a moment to say thank you. I am not sure who I was thanking exactly, the universe maybe, but I wanted someone to know that I was grateful to be here.
Two summers ago, my boyfriend of six years, Nicolas, proposed over 4th of July weekend. We got married this past June, in Mykonos, and it was perfect. I stopped taking my birth control pill. We made plans to have a baby.
And then, 36 days ago, I caught a cold. I popped into NYPH hoping to get a prescription for my runny nose. After a quick lab draw that showed normal results, I made my way home with instructions to gargle with salt water and let the cold run its course. That night, after returning home late from a work event, I received a phone call that my Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia had come back. I was less that two months away from the five-year remission mark that privileges leukemia patients with the luxury of the word “cured.” Other cancers are suspended in “remission” purgatory even if the person never gets sick again in his or her lifetime.
I spent that night sitting upright in the dark, slowly shaking my head back and forth in disbelief, rigid in my husband’s arms, the air knocked out of my lungs. But by the next morning, things were moving. A bone marrow biopsy confirmed the relapse. My most pressing fear became the infertility brought on by stem cell transplant, the treatment plan for A.L.L. patients who have relapsed. I pleaded with my oncologist to let me delay treatment so I could undergo an 8 to 12 day fertility cycle to retrieve and freeze eggs. She agreed. In the meantime she launched into a comprehensive search of every major cancer center in the US, sharing my case with top A.L.L. specialists, and decided after much deliberation to send me to MD Anderson in Houston, where I would be able to take part in a clinical trial that was using a new drug to selectively destroy the malignant cells responsible for A.L.L.
The day after the egg retrieval surgery my husband and I boarded a flight from NYC to Houston. I was acutely aware that there was something very wrong in my abdomen, but I was on a mission to get to Houston by hook or by crook. I barely had time to unpack my bags before I was carried to MD Anderson’s emergency room where I was admitted for seven days for complications resulting from the egg retrieval surgery.
But the days passed, and I started to feel better. The clinical trial opened the very day my fertility crisis was declared resolved. I was able to start my first round of chemotherapy on time. It was March 1st.
My first cycle would consist of: four days of around the clock inpatient chemo, followed by two weeks of outpatient treatments administered through the hospital’s clinic. I will undergo modified versions of this cycle until a strong remission can be sustained, a Minimal Residual Disease test declared negative, and of course, a compatible donor match secured from the National Bone Marrow Registry for the stem cell transplant – the ultimate goal.
We settled into the rhythm of the hospital. In the meantime my mother and mother-in-law worked around the clock to set up our new apartment where we would be staying for the next five months. My father flew in from Greece and spent hours in the kitchen, dutifully preparing my favorite childhood dishes and delivering them to the hospital. My mother-in-law, Monina, taught me to knit. We started with practice yarn to learn different stitches: knitting, pearling, seed stitch, and before I knew it, I had moved onto a more serious project: a very sophisticated scarf in a beautiful indigo blue for my husband.
One evening, after declaring the hospital to be “excellent” and the Murphy bed of a “correct” firmness, Nicolas decided to take the night shift. My mother had been dominating this shift for the first nine nights, waking bleary-eyed after enduring my hourly vitals checks and a 3am – yes, they make you get out of bed for this – nightly weigh-in. Nicolas arrived with his toothbrush and his goose down comforter, and we made plans to order dinner and watch a movie. But after struggling for 25 minutes to tie myself into two enormous hospital gowns while staying connected to my IV pole, I suddenly became exhausted and frustrated, and felt the familiar sting of tears rolling down my cheeks. Nicolas hurried over, trussed me up like a turkey, all cotton strings and ties. Still unable to locate the missing string to keep my left buttock from popping out each time I took a step, Nicolas stifled a giggle, I shed a few more pity tears, and we called it a night.
The next morning we woke up in much better spirits and ordered “room service” from the bedside telephone. Very civilized. And as we sat across from one another over breakfast, I on my hospital bed and he on his Murphy bed, for the first time since hearing those dreaded three words back in New York, I felt we would make it through this again. We were a unit now, two halves of a whole, fighting to preserve our life together, fighting for our family.
That afternoon I received a phone call from my fertility specialist in New York. He was able to retrieve and freeze 21 individual mature eggs. They are waiting for us under his watchful eye in a freezer on 70th street and York Avenue. And somehow, the thought of those little eggs nestled in their petri dishes up on the 8th floor of the Weill Cornell Medical Center is everything I need to get me through this first round of treatment.