Confronting Life or Death at A Young Age
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
It was in the summer of 2007, a month after I turned 26, that I received a diagnosis of acute myelogenous leukemia, a fast-growing cancer of the blood and bone marrow. Without treatment, the doctors told me, I had six weeks to live. With treatment, I was still going to have a hard fight -- a fight I took on, but not without reservations. Three months into it, after three back-to-back rounds of chemotherapy had failed to put me into remission, a stem cell transplant was my only hope.
The decision to go through with that transplant was a hard one. The numbers were stacked against me: I had only a 10 to 30 percent chance of surviving, and if I did, my future would be different from the one I had imagined for myself.
Not that I had a set plan for life, but I did have set of ideas: travel, journalism, adventure, love, a future rich with experience. I never considered limitations, only possibilities.
It was this spirit that took me to New Orleans in 2003 after graduating from college. I didn't know what to do with myself back then until a blue-eyed debutante who drove around in a light-blue Cadillac told me that in the Big Easy I could ride a bike everywhere (I could not afford a car) and that jazz spilled into the streets. Those reasons were enough for me to pick up and go.
I believed my life would always be like that: free and mobile and unrestricted. But the treatment regimen that my doctors described to me four years later made me wonder if I'd have to live a compromised life. The life of a caged bird.
I thought it might be better to die.
I remember asking a doctor during the first 24-hour, seven-day chemotherapy drip, "Will I be able to go to New Guinea one day?"
He scrunched his face. "Why would you want to go there?"
I didn't want to go there. New Guinea was just the most remote place I could think of. I needed to be reassured that the day would come when I'd travel to faraway places again.
As the odds against me grew greater and the treatment options more extreme, I confronted the issue of children. The full-body radiation that precedes the stem cell transplant would make me infertile. I sat cross-legged in my hospital bed, a mound of tissues piling in my lap, as I mourned the children I would never birth. A friend tried to cheer me up. "Well, the upswing is that you won't have to use a condom anymore," Dave said. I guess that could be considered a silver lining, but I would rather have had my eggs.
I did not have a desperate yearning to have children, but to have the choice radiated out of my body -- to be sterilized -- what kind of woman would that leave me? And menopause: It's a cloud that hangs over every young woman's future, but I'd venture to say that many of us -- myself included -- don't know much about it. Would I dry up and become uninterested in men? Would I be a 56-year-old woman in a 26-year-old body? Or worse, would I acquire the body and energy of a woman 30 years my senior?
My fears about the future were powerful. But the real reason I considered refusing treatment was that I was exhausted. Fatigue sapped my will to live, to try anything. Yes, my bone marrow was chock-full of leukemia, and I'm sure that played a part. But still, I felt as if I had acquired a lifetime of tiredness and a sense of helplessness against the tide of sorrow around me.