My Battle with Leukemia

By Sheila Smith

There are events in our lives that come unexpectedly, yet change us in significant ways. January 25, 1995 was such a day in my life. Throughout the previous fall and Christmas season I had been tired, but I attributed it to my busy schedule. Soon however, it became clear that I was experiencing more than normal fatigue. Just climbing a few stairs left me out of breath. My legs ached after a short walk. On January 25th, I finally made an appointment with my doctor and she immediately sent me for a blood test. Later that afternoon the doctor called to say that my white blood cell counts were so high that the lab machine couldn't measure them. She warned me of the possibility of leukemia, and advised me to go immediately to the hospital with my husband to meet with a specialist.

After the hospital ran more tests, my husband, Lloyd, and I waited in the emergency room for the results. Hours later, the specialist joined us to go over the lab report. "I'm very sorry," he said, "but you most likely have leukemia." We asked, "When you say "most likely', does that mean there is a chance that it is something else?" He replied, "We'll need to take a sample of your bone marrow to test it, but I'm 99% certain that it is leukemia."

I'll never forget that moment. After the specialist left us alone, we hugged each other and cried together. I felt so many different emotions - shock being the first reaction, followed by fear and uncertainty about what the future would hold. My outlook on life was forever altered. Yet even at that moment, my thoughts turned to God and later that night as I knelt beside the bed in my hospital room and poured out my heart to God in prayer, I experienced a deep, comforting peace.

Ever since I was a little girl, I had been taught about God and I felt like I loved Him very much. But that day, I began to reach out to Him in a different way than I ever had before. There will be events in everyone's life - times of great need - when there is no one that can take away the pain. When that time comes, there are some that run from God or become angry with Him as if He is to blame. I am so thankful that I did not run away from God, but I ran to Him and in my heart embraced Him as the only One that really understood and loved me completely.

Additional testing did confirm that I had Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML). I didn't know very much about the disease, but I knew that it was "cancer"; the word that causes fear in even the strongest and most carefree of hearts. I was 25 years old and had been healthy and energetic all my life. The thought that I might battle a life-threatening disease was not something I ever considered.

It is amazing how the word "cancer" changes a person's perspective on life. It took more than a year before I could even say the "c" word, because I didn't want to believe it. But while the journey was often difficult and painful, it also produced many positive changes in my life. I felt uncertain about my future, but that uncertainty helped me to focus on the things that really mattered. All of the little day-to-day worries that had consumed my thoughts suddenly seemed trivial. Just the day before I was diagnosed with leukemia, I worried about things like my house not being clean enough or big enough and losing that extra 10 pounds. I realized how much time I spent worrying about things that are really not important, and I began to think even more about the things that matter the most in this life and in eternity.

Over the next weeks and months my husband and I learned as much as we could about the disease growing inside of me. The enemy was within; it was my own bone marrow producing too many white blood cells that were congesting the blood and preventing the other cells from working properly. Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML) usually progresses slowly. The specialist told me that they would be able to control my white blood cell production with chemotherapy drugs for up to 10 years, and after that point I would require a bone-marrow transplant.

However, the disease progressed much more rapidly and aggressively than the doctors anticipated, and over the next few months my white blood cell counts fluctuated drastically. Two months after my diagnosis, I was hospitalized with severe pain in my back and legs. Over the course of 24 hours I went from walking normally to lying on a hospital bed in continuous agony. Even the intervenous drip of 100 milligrams of morphine per hour didn't eliminate the pain. The doctors told my husband that I had less than two days to live. But many family and friends united in prayer, and I believe that God brought me through that crisis. The doctors weren't sure why the pain was occuring and they didn't understand how I recovered, but in time I began sitting up and then walking again.

However, it was apparent that the leukemia was still there and I was in urgent need of a bone marrow transplant. Because I do not have any siblings, I needed an unrelated donor transplant. The specialists provided little hope for finding a compatible donor, saying my chances were similar to winning the lottery. At the time, the statistics indicated a 1 in 20,000 probability of finding a matched donor on the Red Cross Registry. But God answered our prayers, and against all odds they found a perfect match for me right away. I knew that was no coincidence.

Prior to my bone marrow transplant I was given extremely high dosages of chemotherapy - higher than the dosage prescribed for any other type of cancer. The drugs completely destroy the diseased bone marrow, and if new bone marrow is not received, death results.

Because the drugs attack not only cancer cells but also healthy growing cells, there are many side effects. Chemotherapy patients lose hair and muscle mass, and develop sores in the mouth as well as other symptoms that vary from one individual to another. The body recognizes that it is literally filled with poison and so it tries to cleanse by causing continual vomiting. I lost all my hair - including my eyelashes and eyebrows. The sores in my mouth were so painful that I could only drink liquids and eat small amounts of mashed potatoes. A bladder infection required I have a catheter for two weeks. Physically, I felt very week and the drugs caused severe depression and mood swings.

In addition to the complications of chemotherapy, there are many risks to a bone marrow transplant. The new bone marrow can cause any number of problems lumped into one name: "Graft Verses Host Disease or GVH". In an organ transplant, the body (the Host) tries to reject the transplanted organ (the Graft). But in the case of a bone marrow transplant, the marrow (the Graft) is actually the immune system, so it can begin to reject the body (the Host) and attack any part.

Many times I thought, "This process could kill me". The doctors gave me a 50/50 chance of even living through the transplant. If I did survive the surgery, they said I would likely end up with many long-lasting and possibly life-threatening problems.

This journey was more than I could handle in my own strength. I felt like I was holding on to the hand of God because He was my only hope. I recorded my favorite Bible verses about God's love on a tape that I played over and over, sometimes all night long. I didn't always feel God's love; at times He felt very far away. But God promises in the Bible that He would never leave me and I chose to believe Him. I battled many bouts of depression caused by the drugs. I often felt desperately lonely even though my family and friends were very supportive. There were many days that it was tough to drag myself to the bathroom and then back to bed. It was a time of just existing. It was difficult to pray. My prayers consisted of tears and cries of, "God, I can't take this anymore".

I felt like I was holding on to the hand of God because He was my
only hope.

God didn't instantly rescue me, but as I trusted in Him, He proved to me that He keeps His promises. He reminded me through the sunrise that no matter how black the night, how difficult the circumstances, or how many tears cried in the shadows, the sun always chases away the darkness. It has never failed since the beginning of time.

Since that life-changing day in January 1995, I have been steadily improving. Not only is the leukemia completely gone, I no longer require anti-rejection drugs. I have new bone marrow and no lasting side effects. My daily energy is as high as it was in my teens. But the changes in me are not only physical. I am more aware that this life is fragile and only temporary. I try to focus on the things that are really important. I am also anticipating more and more the joy of spending eternity with my Heavenly Father who loves me and who keeps His promises. Those are the life-changes that I am most thankful for.

Do you know God personally? Read:
Peace with God


 

 
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