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Patient Corner: Jodi Oliver

I am 33 and was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) in April of 2011.  I had recently lost 120 pounds by working out and eating right and didn't realize how tired I was every day because I was a whole person lighter!  I had little red spots on my legs and had been bruising easier than normal.

Looking back now, other things were happening too, but I didn't think anything of them. I had two blood vessels burst in my eye within a month and my gums bled when I brushed my teeth.   My mom read an article in the paper about a little boy in our hometown who had red spots like mine and found out he had a rare bone cancer. She didn’t mention the article to me but did suggest that I get checked out.

I had blood work done on Monday, April 18th and was sent to a hematologist due to low platelets.  Tuesday, I had a bone marrow biopsy and Wednesday, I was diagnosed and instructed to go to MD Anderson Cancer Center.  I stayed overnight in the hospital and a bunch of my friends and family came to see me. It was a really special night that I will always remember!  So, the next day, my parents and I flew out to Houston for what became eight months!

Not having any idea what to expect, I checked into MD Anderson and I got settled into my room that I would live in for the next 12 days.  It took a few days to figure out exactly what kind of chemo regimen I needed (it was Easter weekend), but we got it started early the next week.  I don't remember much from those first few days...way too much information and overwhelming plans!  The only thing that kept me sane was being connected to my friends and family that were all 16 hours away by phone, Facebook, email, and Skype. They kept me busy and as distracted as possible and I am forever grateful for that!  

Mom and Dad found us an apartment that was our home for the next eight months.  After the first round of chemo, I got to go "home"...we tried to live as normal a life as we could.  I had a couple of friends from college that I got to spend time with and have some "non-cancery" time with and that was a relief!

Two more rounds of chemo later, and we discovered my little sister was a perfect match for a stem cell transplant, so we got that process started.  I WAS TERRIFIED!  Anytime the transplant was mentioned, the back of my neck went ice cold and I would have this major feeling of fear.  

About a week before I was supposed to check in for the transplant, I had a dream (I don't usually remember my dreams).  I dreamt that a guy asked me out on a date for August 1 (that was my original transplant date).  I had to turn him down because I was going to war that day. I think that was my sign that my brain was finally on board with this whole transplant plan.

My liver had other enzymes were very elevated from all the chemo I had had, so my check in date was pushed back a week.  Mom and I got to be tourists for a week!  We went in a different direction from Houston just about every day and got to do some fun things. I needed that week more than anything else at the time!  

I had my transplant on August 8, 2011 and it's quite anti-climactic compared to everything I had been through. Just a little transfusion!  I was determined to not stay in the hospital for a long time after the transplant, so I did everything I could to build myself back up!  I walked lap after lap around my floor (I couldn't leave the floor), I went to exercise classes, I ate and drank as much as I could (not too easy with mouth sores!) and I walked some more!  I checked out on day +15 post-transplant and just powered through the next 85 days until I could come back to South Carolina.  

Those were the hardest 100 days that I have ever had to face and hopefully that I ever will face.  I thought I knew what it felt like to be tired, but I quickly learned what tired actually was!  I had some graft versus host disease complications and still continue to deal with these issues but nothing life-threatening thankfully.  I just did what I was supposed to and I walked and walked some more, and rested.  Finally, I got to make the trip back to South Carolina in November!  

Coming home was another challenge for me.  When I was in Texas, I did not expect things to be normal. Everything was centered on my cancer, but when I got home, I wanted to be normal, but was far from it!  I powered through and now here I am three weeks from my second birthday and I am doing great!  

I have some graft versus host disease complications of the joints that I have to deal with, but other than that, I really can't complain.  I have moved back to my hometown to be closer to my family and started a new job and I feel like I am getting my life started again.  

Going through something like this really opens your eyes.  I learned a lot about myself and my friends. I know who I can count on. My friends and family did so much for me while I was gone and still do. They made sure I had mail coming constantly, they had fundraisers for me, they took care of my business and my apartment and they were just there.

I am a lucky girl to have such a great support system!  I am also lucky to have been able to drop everything and go to MD Anderson.  I am convinced that I would not be sitting here if I had not been a patient there.  The nurses, doctors, social workers, everyone there is top-notch.  

When I go back for my three-month checkups, I feel a sense of peace when I am in the building there.  I never realize that I am on edge when I am home, but something inside of me just calms down when I am within the MD Anderson walls.  My body and brain know that I am safe there and that they are responsible for saving my life.

I am forever grateful to Dr. Michael Andreeff in the Leukemia Department and Dr. Amin Alousi in the Stem Cell Transplantation Department and all of the wonderful awesome nurses there. MD Anderson will always be #1 in my book!

Going through something like this really opens your eyes. I learned a lot about myself and my friends.

Jodi Oliver

AML Survivor