On Being Sick But Also Well

Back in my days as a reporter at a newspaper near my home in Western Massachusetts when I wrote a story about a little girl with leukemia, I never forgot the mother’s answer when I asked how she guessed something was wrong.

She said quarter-sized black-and-blue marks had covered her daughter’s body.

Some years later, when my daughter had black-and-blue marks on her legs, I called the doctor’s office in a panic, wondering if my seven-year-old had leukemia. The nurse asked if the marks were just on her legs and if she had been falling off her bike. I said yes, breathing a sigh of relief when realizing the falls had caused the marks.

Leukemia enters my world again

Leukemia came onto my radar again many years later when I was a 48-year-old divorced mother with custody of my three children and a busy life that included writing for a newspaper, running, and playing on a tennis team. Only this time my own health was in question.

It was March, 2003, and I had a bad performance in the Saint Patrick’s Race, a hilly 10-K that I had run many times. I felt unusually sluggish, but I pushed myself to finish, both out of pride and from believing that if you don’t finish the race, you don’t deserve the T-shirt. I nearly fainted at the end, and my time was a little more than an hour, at least 10 minutes longer than I had ever run it.

I thought I was eating poorly or was run down and perhaps in need of vitamins or a change in diet, so I made an appointment with my doctor. He did some blood work “just to be sure,” and a few days later, he called to say the results were abnormal. Next came a visit to a hematologist for a painful bone marrow biopsy to determine the cause of my low blood counts.

While awaiting results, I brought a friend to New York, my home town. That weekend we walked around Central Park on a beautiful early spring day and saw two Broadway shows. Nobody had mentioned the word leukemia, but perhaps it was on one of the pamphlets in the hematologist’s office.

A message from the hematologist

“I couldn’t possibly have leukemia,” I repeatedly told my friend.

The next morning, playing tennis before work – and feeling OK – I said to myself and to my doubles partner, “I couldn’t possibly have leukemia.”

The hematologist had left a message on my home answering machine. When I called back, he said, “If I told you to come in, you’d know something was wrong.”

He told me straight out: I had acute myeloid leukemia, or AML, a fast-moving blood cancer. Stunned, I asked how this happened. He said the cause is unclear. Somehow I had sensed it before I officially knew.

He said that being otherwise healthy would serve me well in the treatment that was to come. It struck me as odd to be called healthy while sick. Later, I understood what he meant. But, at that time, it was small consolation.

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