Cured

Five and a half years ago I was diagnosed with cancer. Acute myelogenous leukemia (AML), to be exact. I went from being a stressed-out-of-my-mind junior year engineering student to a quietly terrified but strangely placid 20 year old cancer patient. It was, and in some aspects somewhat continues to be, surreal.

I’ve written a lot about my sickness, and even shared it publicly to hundreds of people in the last several years. The point of this post isn’t to recap those words. It’s to share about today.

For the last five years I’ve lived under the fear of relapse, a word which I would go out of my way to avoid using in conversation, even in unrelated contexts. Within the first year out from chemotherapy, the chance of relapse is highest; making it to the second year without incident is a significant milestone. Each subsequent year up until five years is an additional milestone, with the odds of relapse decreasing substantially each year. After the fifth post-chemotherapy year, if your body tests with normal blood levels then you are medically “cured.” For all intents and purposes, the medical likelihood of relapse is effectively zero.

Six months ago we set the five year appointment date for August. Today I went to my oncologists office for the last time.

I am cured.

I’m not a very outwardly emotional guy, but I was overwhelmed as I left the oncologists office this afternoon. Down the same steps I’ve walked hundreds of times, often with a face-mask on as to prevent infection in a post-chemotherapy neutropenic state. Into the same garage I parked in every day during the early months of 2007 in order to get my blood counts checked.

When I started my treatment, I can’t honestly say that I expected to make it to today. Today was a figment of my imagination, a day so far into the future and past so many hurdles that even considering it seemed pointless. Cancer wasn’t an “I’m going to beat this!” gung-ho thing for me. Life, God, science and medicine would ultimately take its course and I knew that. There was little point in openly hoping to survive, so I didn’t. I had no ultimate expectations. I took every day for itself and nothing more.

But as I sat in my car today, I realized that wasn’t true. God, I wanted to survive. For five years I was scared to admit it, because doing so would set myself up for disappointment if it didn’t happen. But I realized today that in my soul I wanted to survive.

I asked my doctor today, I think for the first time, why I was diagnosed. And my wonderfully intelligent, experienced and awesome doctor, with her years of schooling, residency, and full-time cancer work, said “we don’t know.”

Sometimes cells replicate incorrectly. Sometimes DNA corrupts. In your case it’s not hereditary, and there isn’t a risk of you passing it onto future generations. It’s just one of those things that medicine doesn’t know.

(Dr. Patel, Hematologist/Oncologist)

Five years of my life, and my friends and family’s lives, summed up with a shrug of the shoulders.

Today I stand on the shoulders of giants. I owe so much to the love and support of my mom, my sister and her husband, my family, my girlfriend, my friends, and my church. I owe so much to the diligence and knowledge of my doctors both from U-Penn Hospital and Virginia Cancer Specialists (Dr. Patel in particular) and the number of awesomely patient and supportive nurses I had throughout my hospital/outpatient stays.

There are so many people who had an unknowing hand in creating that piece of my soul that wanted to press on and live to see today. If any of you are reading this, I truly thank you for everything.

August 20, 2012: The first day of the rest of my life.