Choose to Live

Last updated: February 2020

A routine blood test revealed a slightly elevated white blood cell count. "No problem," said the physician's assistant, “it's probably just a cold or flu bug.”

A few months later, the doctor gave me a second test and, when he didn’t like the results, he ordered yet another by the odd acronym FISH. I knew its purpose was to determine if I had leukemia but I never really thought that could happen to me. Still, I practiced in my mind how I would react if the test came back positive. Would I panic or stay cool?

Then in September 2009, the doctor pulled his chair close to me, looked directly into my eyes, and introduced me to the three words that would change my life: chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

Taking the news well...or not

Oddly, I didn’t panic. And I wasn’t making an effort to stay calm either. I was numb, dazed. It felt like I was watching the scene play out instead of actually being there. “Well,” I found myself saying, “if I’m lucky enough to have contracted a rare disease maybe I should enter the lottery since I’m so good at long odds.”

“You’re taking it well,” said the doctor, wryly raising one eyebrow. Of course, he knew my convoluted joke was a cover. I wasn’t taking it well. The disease was not rare, I was not lucky, and given whatever the Fates were up to I absolutely should NOT buy a lottery ticket.

Like a poorly written book that drags on too long before getting to the plot, it took me weeks to accept that I had a life-threatening disease. I slowly began to realize my time might be limited. Goals I’d been putting off for years could no longer wait.

It’s strange really. Every human on the planet has only a brief time to live, yet we all go on as if there will always be another day. Paul Simon wrote about that in his singularly poetic way: “So I continue to continue to pretend, my life will never end, and flowers never bend with the rainfall.”

Coming face-to-face with Leuk

I’ve come to think of leukemia as a real person who has moved into my house affecting my life and the lives of everyone in the family. I call him Leuk and he’s not a friendly guy.

But in an odd and sort of dark way, he can be a blessing; he makes us face that we won’t be here forever. Then we have a decision to make. Will it motivate us to achieve the goals we’ve been putting off or will we choose to make our days hollow by giving up and sinking into depression?

He is not going to beat me. He doesn’t control my thoughts. He doesn’t own me. Leuk might make my life shorter but I’m not going to let him define how I live. The days and years I have our mine, not his. I choose to live as full a life as possible. I hope you will too.

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