The news came only days before my 25th birthday. I knew, when I picked up the phone, that something was terribly wrong. My mother spoke for a few long minutes of doctor’s visits and abnormal test results. And then she used the word I was least prepared to hear: leukemia.
I didn’t know much about the disease then. Only horrifying stories of young children struck with incurable illness, adults dying quickly after diagnosis, and my grandfather undergoing weekly blood transfusions in the months leading up to his death.
How does a child comfort a parent who’s just been handed a cancer diagnosis? I didn’t know what to say.
My birthday came and went in a fog. I began having panic attacks as the news went from bad to worse – it wasn’t the slow-moving, chronic form of leukemia doctors first suspected. She needed immediate treatment. She began to make plans for six months of chemo, negotiating days off work for the treatment and researching just how much support her insurance would give her.
I’ve always struggled with anxiety, but it became so bad I would spend days at a time holding my breath. Because no matter how she tried to reassure me, no matter how good the news from her doctor was, I couldn’t shake the thought: “How much longer does my mom have left to live?”
What if she never made it to my wedding day? What would I tell my future children, growing up, about a grandmother they would never be able to meet? Would she live to see me publish my first novel? Or would I lose her, unable to ever share any personal milestones with one of the most important people in my life?
My mother was lucky. The doctors found her leukemia early. Ironically, the nearly-lethal blood clot she’d suffered nearly a decade earlier may have saved her life – her prescription blood thinners required her to undergo frequent routine blood work. Her elevated white blood cell counts were found long before she started showing serious symptoms of the disease.
Months after completing chemo, her white cell count looks good. After half a year of watching her fall apart, too exhausted and sick from the treatment to function, she’s finally starting to regain her energy. Only time will tell if she’s truly gone into remission – but doctors don’t expect her to need further treatment for a least a few years. It’s been a year since my mother’s diagnosis, and I have one less missed memory to fret over – she’ll be attending my wedding this month.
Not everyone is so lucky. There are nearly 30,000 people in the US suffering fatal blood conditions, including leukemia – but also sickle cell and lymphoma. For many, their illness has progressed far beyond the point where chemotherapy or other treatments will be effective, leaving them with the urgent need for a bone marrow transplant. And bone marrow matches are notoriously difficult to find.
For my mother, a woman of white European decent, the chances of finding a matching marrow donor would only be about 30% – and even her own racially-mixed children would likely be poor candidates. Unfortunately, for minorities in need of transplants, the chances of finding a donor are much slimmer.
That’s why at Care2, we’re teaming up with Be The Match to encourage people to register as potential bone marrow donors. “Like” Be The Match today and find out how you can make a difference in the lives of people suffering from leukemia – because, as I learned a year ago, you never know when illness will strike those you love. And you never know when you could be the match for someone else’s mother.
Photo credit: Iryna Shpulak via PhotoXpress