It was supposed to be a routine annual physical, and that is how it started. Lungs ... check. Heart ... check. Prostate ... check. Everything was A-OK.
At the close of the physical, I pointed out a swollen place on my neck. I thought it was a fatty tumor.
"I'm going to send you to an endocrinologist," my doctor said. "He will probably do a biopsy."
About that time, the nurse brought in the results from my complete blood count. My white blood count was high, way high. "No. I'm going to send you to an oncologist," my doctor said, correcting herself.
Scary words indeed. Something I never thought I'd hear nor wanted to hear in December 2006. "What do you think it is?" I asked.
My doctor suggested it was chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL).
She felt really bad for giving me the news. I hugged her and told her it was OK. She was right.
Six days later, I saw an oncologist who confirmed my chronic lymphocytic leukemia diagnosis, but ran further tests to verify it. Thus began my dance with cancer.
My first seven years of CLL treatment
In reality, my journey began like that of many other CLL patients -- with a routine checkup. Until lumps or swollen lymph nodes appear or the white blood count is off the charts, CLL usually goes undetected. Once discovered, many patients are only watched for continued progress until treatment is needed, perhaps years down the road.
I wasn't one of those patients. I started chemotherapy before the end of the year. After four monthly cycles of treatment, everything was under control, and it stayed that way for nearly 18 months.
Then, I heard the words whispered in my ear by the resident demon, "I'm ba-a-a-ak."
I underwent more chemo, received new drugs and saw a new oncologist. Soon, I was in remission again, and life was good.
But less than a year later, the voice sniggered in my ear again. New treatments, new drugs, same oncologist, shorter periods of remission before the voice returns. And so it has continued for the last seven years.
People sometimes ask me how I've endured seven years of struggling with CLL and chemotherapy. There is no simple answer to that question. Many elements are involved, including, but not limited to: great doctors and nurses, a very loving and protective wife, understanding employers, much prayer from around the world and my own strong Christian faith.
Coming to MD Anderson for CLL treatment
The last time the voice told me my CLL was back, it never left. After four cycles of the last drug available to my oncologist, remission was a distant dream.
This is when I began my love affair with MD Anderson and the wonderful people here. The doctors, PAs, nurses and support personnel have been knowledgeable, kind, compassionate, understanding and very helpful every step of the way. The counselors have helped us find affordable local housing. And Blanche Anderson, a clinical studies coordinator, has guided my wife and me through the daunting process of selecting a clinical trial.
Currently, my wife and I are looking at a clinical trial
for a new and promising drug. Hopefully, by the time you read this, I will be in the program. After that, a stem cell transplant is likely, giving me and my wife the hope of a cure for my CLL.
I pray that my experiences with both a drug trial and a transplant will not only provide me with a long, happy life, but will help others achieve cures as well. MD Anderson is probably the best place in the United States to bring all of this to pass because of its dedication to research and the healing arts.
Harley Hudson is a retired pastor, carpenter, electrician, plumber, assembler of road graders, furniture refinisher, janitor, graphic designer, English teacher, aircraft parts inspector, and college adjunct professor of writing, among other lesser career choices. He and his wife live in Arkansas and have three daughters and nine grandchildren. Follow him on his blog.