My acute myeloid leukemia (AML) diagnosis came completely out of the blue for me. During the Thanksgiving holiday in 2010, I got my first annual physical in a few years simply because I’d recently started my first full-time job with benefits after graduating from college. In less than two weeks, what started as some slightly concerning bloodwork results turned into “You have an appointment at MD Anderson tomorrow morning.”
Much of the afternoon and evening after I received my AML diagnosis was a blur for me, but I distinctly remember sitting on the floor in my living room and staring at the Christmas tree. We’d just put it up a few days earlier, and I wondered if that was the last time I’d get to do so.
My first days at MD Anderson for AML treatment MD Anderson was all decked out for the holidays when I arrived for my first appointment – trees in the waiting rooms, wreaths along the skybridge, paper snowflakes in the pharmacy. I still felt fine, though somewhat overwhelmed to be here amongst so many people who looked so sick when I didn’t feel any different than I had a week earlier. I also was a little overwhelmed to be here – of all places – during the holidays.
My doctors were all reassuring, kind and thorough. They helped me understand AML, and the whole team made sure my family and I understood my treatment plan. I enrolled in a clinical trial for my first round of chemotherapy, and then spent five days as an inpatient wondering how the treatments would affect me. My hair didn’t fall out overnight, and I didn’t have nausea, so I was hopeful that this cancer thing would be just a small hiccup and I’d be back at work in January.
Everything seemed to be going well, and I was out of the hospital quickly, returning to MD Anderson only for routine monitoring and any necessary transfusions. I kept a mask with me at all times, had a bottle of hand sanitizer on nearly every flat surface in the house and followed my medical team’s suggestions for avoiding infection.
An unwanted hospital stay My blood counts reached their lowest point in the chemotherapy cycle right before Christmas, and on December 23, I learned I needed a platelet transfusion. Even though I felt fine when I arrived for my transfusion, I was running a fever that wasn’t going away. I got transferred to MD Anderson’s Emergency Center, where I was pumped full of fluids and antibiotics while the inpatient team prepared a room for me so I could be admitted for observation.
Although the nursing staff was very sympathetic and kept everyone in high spirits, I was so frustrated. My family had already changed our holiday plans, arranging them around my appointments. I didn’t want to spend Christmas itself in the hospital.
Discovering the gift of patience Very early on December 25, I needed another transfusion. But my fever had subsided and I was discharged on Christmas morning. I was still able to celebrate the holidays with my family mostly as planned.
As I opened gifts with my family, my frustration with my treatment hiccups turned into gratefulness for what I did have – a fantastic team of caregivers inside and outside the hospital, and the ability to embrace flexibility and patience.
After all, as I learned that holiday season, plans can change, and with cancer diagnosis, they often must. Recognizing this helped me to approach the rest of my treatment plans with patience, even though that could be incredibly difficult at times.
But I’ve seen the payoff. Patience is what allowed me to see my Christmas tree at home that Christmas. Now, every year when we put up our tree, I think back to my first Christmas with cancer and am grateful for how far I’ve come.