I’ve written a bit about being a cancer survivor in past posts, but realized that perhaps some of you might not know the full story. It’s been on my mind to share about this experience again, so we’re taking a brief break from recipes this week to make time for it.
I start my cancer story warning that while I am technically a “survivor”, I feel unworthy of the term. Survivor calls to mind an intense physical struggle, and mine has been completely the opposite. In 2009 when I was diagnosed, I had no pain or discomfort whatsoever. I was energetic and focused on my career, so much so that I refused to see a doctor about a hard area beneath the skin on the left side of my body.
I finally had it checked out at a routine appointment, and my doctor recommended a CAT scan to investigate more. I remember mainly feeling inconvenienced by the disruption to my workday. When the results came back, my doctor called. “You have a rare form of leukemia,” he said. It was a complete shock.
Luckily, he assured me, I might have the “good kind” of leukemia, or CML (chronic myelogenous leukemia). CML was treatable by a drug; just a pill once a day — no chemo, no radiation. A few days later it was confirmed; I had CML, a rare genetic chromosome disorder mainly observed in men over 50 (not women in their 20’s)!
I think I was a sight to see for my hemotologist, sitting in his waiting room intently working on my laptop. “How do you feel?” he asked me. “Great!” I answered truthfully. I felt full of energy. He laughed. “Do you know why you are here?”
The treatment he recommended was called Gleevec, a pill that isolates the unruly chromosome and makes it behave. Untreated, the chromosome causes white blood cells to multiply rampantly. My white cells were through the roof (250,000 compared to the normal person’s 8,000). That hard spot in my side was actually my spleen, which had swelled with all the white blood cells.
From the day I started taking Gleevec, my body responded quickly. Within a week or two I couldn’t feel my spleen anymore, and within a year was in full cellular remission. My only side effects were random swelling in my legs and back, chills, and my hair turning curly (something I had wanted my entire life!). Still no pain, no discomfort.
(As if my body was attuned to this miracle, a few months later I developed severe gall stones and had the worst pain of my life. I was admitted to the hospital for an emergency surgery which was much more traumatic than the cancer, ironically!)
A friend of mine is a childhood cancer survivor of leukemia. I told this story to her team training for a race to benefit cancer research for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society — a group of amazing and courageous people. Up until this time, I felt like my story was relatively boring. But when I told it here, I realized that this was exactly what these people were running for. Research found a cure for my cancer in Gleevec! My story is what survivor stories should be. And this is the story I pray each and every one of you fighting battles with cancer or supporting struggling friends or family could somehow experience.
Fast forward to today. As a young woman with this disease, my hematologist and I have been talking for years about how I could one day have children. It’s been our plan that I would stop taking Gleevec for a time and try to become pregnant, since there is no research that proves it is safe to have children on this drug. I’ve been off Gleevec for over a year, and while Alex and I are not in a rush to start our family, our situation makes the time table a bit compressed. My white cell count was initially normal, but has started to rise each month that I’ve been off my treatment.
For this reason, the news of our miscarriage in December was particularly crushing, both because of the event itself and because of my health situation. When we originally shared this news with you, we omitted sharing fully about the aspect of my health since as you can see, it’s a quite a long story! But I believe it’s an important one to tell.
First of all, I’m completely indebted to cancer research. If not for this, I would not be here today in full health to share this with you! And second, I want to encourage those of you fighting this disease, or supporting those fighting it. Whether your journey has been mostly mental like mine or has included intense physical suffering, know that you are not alone! Each day I learn of more and more people afflicted with the disease, and they are some of the most amazing, inspiring, kind, generous and courageous people I know. We can do this together!
It’s scary, but in the face of fear we can put on courage. Alex and I are leaning on our faith in God and the support of our friends and family in this time of uncertainty, where we’re not sure what will be next for me or for our future family. Thank you to all of you who have walked faithfully with me and us through this journey, and all of who you are supporting those in the fight. We could not do it without you.
If you are interested in donating to cancer research, our friend Susan, the cancer survivor who I mentioned, is riding to benefit cancer research in August at Pelatonia. You can check out more details about her and her ride here.
About the Authors
Sonja Overhiser is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best healthy cookbooks of 2018. She’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the food blog A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Sonja seeks to inspire adventurous eating to make the world a better place one bite at a time.
Alex Overhiser is an acclaimed food photographer and author based in Indianapolis. He’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the recipe website A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Alex is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best vegetarian cookbooks by Epicurious.