Friday, April 22, 2011
Break Cancer: My Young Adult Cancer Experience
As a 23 year cancer survivor, sometimes I am asked how I found out that I had cancer. So today I'd like to share that story with you.
The Fall of 1987
My September that year started out like it had for the past four years. I was returning back to my undergraduate studies at UCLA. Only this was my senior year and the pressure was on to figure out what I was going to do with the rest of my life once I graduated with my Bachelors of Science in Kinesiology.
Then I got sick with some viral infection. To be honest, I can't quite remember if it was a stomach bug or some kind of a cold. What I do remember is that I didn't quite feel fully recovered from it once most of the symptoms had resolved. I kept going back to Student Health complaining that I wasn't feeling better.
By Halloween I still wasn't feeling 100% better, so I sought out a referral to a good general practice doctor in the vicinity of campus. I was able to see a regular doctor because at age 22 I was still on both of my parents' health insurance policies. After listening to my symptoms, completing an examination and taking some blood, this new doctor thought I was experiencing some kind of post-viral syndrome. He also mentioned that my white blood cell count was a little on the low side, but opted for a wait-and-see treatment approach.
I spent the month, and the Thanksgiving holiday, staying home from classes, taking it easy, getting extra rest and following up with my new doctor.
With no improvement, I started feeling frustrated. So I contacted my pediatrician in the San Fernando Valley and made an appointment to see him. Then I head to Santa Monica to get my records from the doctor there and discovered that it wasn't just my white blood cell count that was low--my red blood cell count was low too.
It felt weird being the oldest patient sitting in the waiting room of my pediatrician's office reading a copy of Highlights magazine, but I trusted that my pediatrician could figure out what was wrong with me. I hadn't seen him in over four years, so we spent a little time catching up before getting down to business. When all was said and done, he wanted to wait just a little bit longer to see if my counts would come back up on their own.
So I spent the week of Christmas 1987 and the week of New Year's 1988 trying my hardest to get better.
The Winter of 1988
I headed back to see my pediatrician the Monday after the New Year's. More blood was taken at that appointment and I received a call a few days later with the results. I learned that instead of improving, my blood counts have gotten worse, with my white blood cell count now at 0.9. (For reference, the normal range of the white blood cell count is 4.3 to 10.8 x 109 cells per liter in international units (IU).) The next words out of my pediatrician's mouth were, "I'm setting up an appointment for you to see a hematologist here in my building for later this week."
After three months of waiting, things started happening very quickly.
I saw the hematologist on Thursday and he scheduled a bone marrow biopsy for the next day. The following Wednesday I returned for the results of my biopsy and was told that I had leukemia. I was offered the option to start treatment at the community hospital a few blocks away from the hematologist's office, but I decided I wanted to go to UCLA for a second opinion and treatment. My parents drove me from that morning appointment straight to UCLA for an afternoon appointment in the Bowyer Oncology Clinic. By 5 PM I had been admitted into the hospital.
The View from 2011
I can see today that some of the early warning signs of my cancer had been missed by the doctors treating me back in 1987. Clearly my diagnosis of leukemia was delayed; fortunately for me my diagnosis didn't come too late. I was also incredibly fortunate to have my parents' medical insurance and I truly believe that participating in a clinical trial at UCLA increased my chances for becoming a cancer survivor.
It saddens me to learn that the survival rate for young adults with cancer has remained the same over the past 30 years. Since 1988, I thought there had been numerous advances in cancer early detection and treatment. Quite frankly, I expected that my diagnosis story would have been ancient history by now, not current events. We all have heard that early detection and early treatment of cancer yields a much better prognosis. I think it's about time young adults benefited from this reality.
This is why I am asking you today to help me Break Cancer.
I dare you: leave me a comment on this blog post. Help me set a record for the "Most Comments Received on a Cancer-Related Blog Post in 24 Hours." Together let's raise awareness about the issues facing young adults diagnosed with cancer today. Together, let's Break Cancer!
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