January 28, 2019 is a day I will never forget. After 6 months of unexplained low blood counts, extreme fatigue and fever/chills, I finally had a bone marrow biopsy. My results shocked my hematologist and everyone else when it came back positive for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. ALL is an aggressive bone marrow cancer, however given my age and relative health prior to getting sick, my doctor said I would have an 80% chance of achieving remission and eventually reach a cured status. I was referred to the Cross Cancer Institute and right after meeting my oncologist, I was admitted to the University Hospital on the Friday and began treatment on February 4,2019. Those first weeks in the hospital are full of emotions. You were just told that you will be in chemo for more than 2 years. You have a central line put into your chest and start a very intensive chemo regime. There were chemo pills, infusions and the worst were spinal chemo treatments. I started losing my hair about 2 weeks later and due to my kids, Katalaya (5) and Tatum (3) constantly having colds at their age, they were unable to visit me for the first few weeks. We facetimed every day. My daughter was in kindergarten and her school was so supportive, they ordered her a bunch of books to help her understand what I was going through. One was about a little boys Leukemia journey and another about a girl's mom losing her hair. These intensive chemo treatments take everything out of you. You lose strength in your body quickly and it became hard to move around without a wheel chair.
I was lucky that on day 26 my blood counts started to recover and I was released from the hospital and able to return home. The following 4 weeks are a bunch of spinal chemo treatments before starting a 30 week phase called "Intensification". This phase consisted of 10, 3 week cycles. Each one getting harder than the previous as your body's ability to recover dwindles with each round. Around cycle 6 I needed a walker to get around. Going up the stairs felt like climbing Everest, I would lose my breath quickly and had lost almost all my strength. It's crazy how quickly things you have done your whole life become so difficult. Around cycle 8 I actually asked my doctor if I could quit. He told me just wait 2 more cycles, when you start the "Maintenance" phase it gets better. He was right! Hearing that the next phase consisted of 24 cycles (again 3 weeks long) was hard, but with each cycle things got easier. I saw a rehab physiotherapist at the Cross who had me start with very basic exercises (mostly body weight) or using my phone as a weight. As the cycles went on, I started using 2lb weights and started going for walks with the family. Things slowly improved until March 2020 when the pandemic started. I was the 1%. I was severely immunocompromised and everyone in the family had to be very careful around me. We wore masks well before it was ever mandated. My son started kindergarten online. After the first quarter, the kids did return to in class learning as Josh was working from home, and my treatments, although getting easier, were still very taxing on my body and my mind. We knew the kids had been through so much already and wanted them to be around their friends. They returned to school only to have their school shut down before Christmas due to high numbers of cases of Covid at their school. It was terrifying to say the least.
I rang the bell at the Cross Cancer Institute on March 1, 2021. My kids were unable to attend due to restrictions at the time. Despite this, they watched the video that night and I remember everyone cried. We reflected on just how hard the last 2+ years had been, but promised that we would make the most of life going forward.
26 days in the hospital, 28 days of IT (spinal) chemo, 210 days of Intensification followed by 504 days of Maintenance. 246 blood thinner shots, 6 blood transfusions-12 bags of blood, 23+ IV chemo treatments,60 asparaginase chemo shots in the hips, 1 central line that saved me from hundreds of blood draws and IV treatments, 1 port (that my body rejected and had to be removed) and I couldn't even count how many needle pokes for blood draws.
I am now just over a year post treatment. I still need to go for bloodwork every 3 months, due to the high relapse rate, but so far, I have remained in remission. I am happy to say that I am stronger physically than before cancer, and me and my family and are excited for March 2023, when I can officially say I have reached cured status. Although the last 3 years have been incredibly challenging, I am thankful for where I am now and who I am becoming. A cancer diagnosis changes people, but I think those of us that survive, change for the better.