My Cancer Story

My Cancer Story

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.

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About the Authors

Sonja Overhiser

Cookbook Author and writer

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

Cookbook Author and photographer

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.

42 Comments

  • Reply
    Kathryn
    March 5, 2014 at 4:36 am

    Your attitude is such an inspiration Sonja – I can’t imagine what a shock it must have been to hear the words ‘cancer’ especially when you felt fine and I’m so glad that you responded well to the treatment.

    PS I totally sympathise re gall stones. I’ve had a couple of small ones (thankfully no surgery required…yet) and I’ve never experienced pain like it!

    • Reply
      Sonja
      March 9, 2014 at 4:45 pm

      Thank you, Kathryn! So sorry to hear you’ve experienced gall stones too – I wouldn’t wish that on anyone! Glad to hear you’ve avoided surgery up to this point. Thanks again for your constant encouragement!

  • Reply
    Chrystin
    March 5, 2014 at 6:08 am

    Thank you for sharing your story, Sonja. Keep up your wonderfully positive attitude! Having that outlook will not only help you in your daily life, but it’s going to help and uplift so many others who are reading your story!!

    Love from Buenos Aires xoxo

    • Reply
      Sonja
      March 9, 2014 at 4:46 pm

      That is so kind, Chrystin – thank you!

  • Reply
    Katrina @ WVS
    March 5, 2014 at 8:21 am

    You both are simply the best. So honest! I love your attitude towards the whole thing too – it sounds like you’re right where you need to be. Thanks so much for sharing :)

    • Reply
      Sonja
      March 9, 2014 at 4:50 pm

      Thank you, Katrina! That means so much, and we truly appreciate your constant support over the years. Thanks to you as well! :)

  • Reply
    Dixya @ Food, Pleasure, and Health
    March 5, 2014 at 9:36 am

    thank you sharing. it takes a lot to share such personal information…keep up your positive spirit..i am sure its helping so many people directly or indirectly affected by cancer.

    • Reply
      Sonja
      March 9, 2014 at 4:52 pm

      So true! I’m happy to talk about it in person, but it brought it to another level to share it in a public place – a little scary, but encouragement like yours makes it worth it. Thank you!

  • Reply
    shanna mallon
    March 5, 2014 at 11:35 am

    Sonja, I have thought so much about you the last few weeks, especially when we lost our own little baby, too. I was so thankful you had shared about your miscarriage publicly because I knew just where to go when I wanted to read someone else’s story. I’m thankful you shared this one, too. I’ve been praying for you guys lately because I believe God is in all these unexpecteds and He has good ahead.

    ps you’ll be such amazing parents! I can’t wait to see.

    • Reply
      Sonja
      March 9, 2014 at 4:54 pm

      Shanna, your support has been amazing, and we are so grateful for you in our lives. Thank you for these kind thoughts! We’re thinking of you and Tim in your own loss — I’ll connect over email. Much love to you in this time. xo

  • Reply
    Lisa in Indy
    March 5, 2014 at 1:22 pm

    Sending you loving thoughts, Sonja for continued healing.

    • Reply
      Sonja
      March 9, 2014 at 4:55 pm

      Thank you so much, Lisa! We truly appreciate your kind support over the years.

  • Reply
    Lisa
    March 5, 2014 at 1:43 pm

    You are inspiring. Praying for good health for you and your future babies.

    • Reply
      Sonja
      March 9, 2014 at 4:55 pm

      That is so kind – thank you, Lisa!

  • Reply
    Stephanie @ Girl Versus Dough
    March 5, 2014 at 1:54 pm

    Thank you for being so open and honest with your story, Sonja. My mom is a cancer “survivor”, too (quotes in the sense that she didn’t have to suffer physically), as well as a survivor of a whole host of other ailments, and I am so in awe every day of her strength and courage. You’re both an inspiration. :) xo

    • Reply
      Sonja
      March 9, 2014 at 5:00 pm

      Stephanie, I did not realize your mom had been through so much. Thank you for sharing her story – she sounds like an incredible woman! Thanks for what you mentioned here – that is so kind. xoxo

  • Reply
    Toby
    March 5, 2014 at 2:17 pm

    Sonja – thank you for sharing your story. I am a longtime participant with Team in Training for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and your story provides inspiration for so many people. I lost my best friend to AML when she was only 19 years old, which is how I became involved with LLS. I am so encouraged when I hear there is a treatment for you that is working – these are the stories that give me hope!

    If anyone is interested in participating with Team in Training or learning about LLS, you can find the information at http://www.teamintraining.org or http://www.lls.org.

    • Reply
      Sonja
      March 9, 2014 at 5:02 pm

      Toby – wow, great to meet you! I’m so sorry to hear about your friend. I cannot imagine the grief you’ve been through. How wonderful that you have channeled it through supporting LLS! That is so inspiring. Thanks for the links here too!

  • Reply
    sandra
    March 5, 2014 at 3:49 pm

    Thank you for sharing your story. It is good to hear of a success, however tragic and heart warming.

    • Reply
      Sonja
      March 9, 2014 at 5:04 pm

      Thank you so much, Sandra, for the encouragement!

  • Reply
    Ashley
    March 5, 2014 at 5:43 pm

    You are such a light, Sonja!! Your positivity + strength are inspiring. Keeping you both in my thoughts. xo!

    • Reply
      Sonja
      March 9, 2014 at 5:06 pm

      Thank you, friend! You were actually part of my inspiration to write this since I didn’t realize I’d somehow missed sharing it with you. Thanks for your constant support!

  • Reply
    Valentina @Hortus
    March 6, 2014 at 3:08 am

    Oh Sonja, it’s amazing that you can share this. Every person who makes it through something can give so much inspiration to others. Whether it is cancer or not, all of our struggles can all benefit from other people’s experiences.

    Have faith! I know a woman who had to go through 3 miscarriages before having her daughter. It must the most devastating thing and I absolutely hope this is not your case, but, alas, she has a daughter! Hopefully next time will be the right one!

    • Reply
      Sonja
      March 9, 2014 at 5:10 pm

      Yes, this is something I’m coming to realize, Valentina! It is amazing with the internet that people around the world can be united in both the struggles and joys of everyday life! Thanks for the story of your friend too — it is encouraging to hear and helps give a longer term perspective too.

  • Reply
    Natalie Troyer
    March 6, 2014 at 4:25 pm

    Sonja,
    Thanks for the beautiful post and for being so transparent. My dad is almost at his 5 year mark in remission with ALL. Matt and I did team in training several years ago, what’s great reminder what the money is used for and to keep searching for the cure to all Cancers. Matt and I have also had several pregnancies losses and I would love to listen or talk if you ever want or need. Praying for your family and excited to see what plans God has in store for you . Much love,
    Natalie Troyer

    • Reply
      Sonja
      March 9, 2014 at 5:20 pm

      Natalie, wow, I had no idea your dad is an ALL survivor! I would love to hear more about what I’m sure is an amazing story. Thanks for sharing this and about your losses too. Thinking of you and Matt! xo

  • Reply
    Sini | my blue&white kitchen
    March 7, 2014 at 12:16 pm

    I cried reading this. Your words are so honest and brave. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    • Reply
      Sonja
      March 9, 2014 at 5:21 pm

      Wow, Sini, this is very touching to me. I cried writing it too, but wasn’t sure if it would really speak to others. Thank you so much for this affirmation.

  • Reply
    Adam Kieffer
    March 7, 2014 at 1:59 pm

    Very brave of you to share. Much love to you guys!

    • Reply
      Sonja
      March 9, 2014 at 5:22 pm

      Thanks so much, Adam! Love right back :)

  • Reply
    Miche
    March 7, 2014 at 3:14 pm

    Thank you for sharing this very personal story! My grandmother is a survivor of breast cancer, and I never thought it was a big deal because doctors were able to catch the cancer early on, and she made a full recovery within a couple years. She didn’t even need surgery! I used to see her story as being very boring and unimportant, especially in light of how some victims of breast cancer suffer and the ongoing efforts to address the disease. But, you helped me understand that her story IS important for the same reason yours is.

    • Reply
      Sonja
      March 9, 2014 at 5:24 pm

      Miche, thanks for this affirmation. It was something that took me a long time to realize myself, and it is so encouraging to hear that others have similar applications in their own lives! Thanks for writing.

  • Reply
    erin
    March 7, 2014 at 6:46 pm

    So much love coming your way! Every time we’ve talked about this I’m always in awe at how positive and brave you are. You are such an inspiration!

    • Reply
      Sonja
      March 9, 2014 at 5:26 pm

      Oh, thank you, friend! I must say I don’t feel exceptionally brave, but thank you for saying so. Your support over the years means so much! xo to you.

  • Reply
    Amanda
    March 7, 2014 at 8:47 pm

    Thank you so much for your honesty and vulnerability in sharing your whole story. My husband and I have walked a very similar road. I have an autoimmune disorder that affects my liver. To keep things in order and under control I take an immunosuppressant which has been a blessing in how it has helped to control things and keep me healthy. But when we decided we wanted to start our family my doctors were unsure. All the research labeled it as a class D drug. Not so encouraging. So after being on the medication for several years they decided to take me off to see if we could have a clean chance of getting pregnant. Just two months into that experiment my liver functions skyrocketed and I was back on the meds again. It was devastating. I sobbed on the kitchen floor thinking our chances of carrying a child were lost. Thankfully through the help of more specialists and finally Maternal Fetal Medicine doing some digging they decided to give us the go ahead to try and conceive while on my medication. Since we’ve been blessed with three healthy sweet babies. While my days filled with runny noses, wiping bottoms and teaching the abc’s it’s easy to forget those years of waiting. Then I read your blog and the memories of those hard, painful years of wanting, researching and seemingly endless waiting. It was not my plan, not my design and not the path I would have chosen for myself by any means. And now I can look back and see the faithfulness of God throughout it all. It was his timing, not mine. It was his plan, not mine. It was heartbreaking to walk through and he carried us. Your family will be in my prayers and I hope that you will someday look back on this time as well and see the faithfulness of God throughout it all.

    • Reply
      Sonja
      March 9, 2014 at 5:30 pm

      Wow, Amanda – what a story! Thank you SO much for sharing this. It is so inspiring to hear that we’re not alone in what we thought was a sort of odd life situation; the more we share about it, the more we hear stories like yours. What a blessing to have a sweet, healthy children of your own. It means a lot to have your share this in this space – know that it’s warmed our hearts today. Thank you for writing, and for reading!

  • Reply
    Erika
    March 10, 2014 at 2:14 pm

    Wow–I just stumbled across your blog and this was such an amazing story! It’s so inspiring to hear stories like this that really do reinforce the reason(s) for why we run those races. Those amazing researchers :)

  • Reply
    Becky
    March 10, 2014 at 11:23 pm

    This is so courageous to share. Thank you so much and I will be forwarding it on to others for encouragement. Take care, Becky

  • Reply
    Elizabeth
    March 16, 2014 at 12:46 pm

    Very much enjoy your recipes – it’s funny that we also have this in common: my husband was diagnosed with CML in 2003, at age 27, 6 months after we got married. We can relate to so much of your experience – he was told he had the “good kind”, he was put on Gleevec right away and never felt super sick, he always feels sheepish being called a survivor and about being the young, healthy guy at the oncologist’s office. Every now and then I drop some casual comment about his leukemia and realize from the shocked face staring back at me that the person I’m talking to has no idea that he even has it. Still, facing that kind of diagnosis as a young, healthy person is a big deal – Gleevec was quite new then and we didn’t know how long it would keep working — we were very scared. Having children is less fraught when the dad is the one on Gleevec — all three of ours were conceived while he was on it with no issues — so we are lucky there. I’m so sorry for your recent loss and wish you good luck going forward.

  • Reply
    Medha
    March 18, 2014 at 6:20 pm

    Thank you for your honest words – it takes whole lot of courage to share something so private! It is inspiring to read your story and understand the emotions behind it. In my close family 2 women fighting with cancer right now and your story really help me to understand , what they are going through! Thank you again – You are such a brave woman – sending you positive vibes and lot of virtual love!

  • Reply
    Natalie
    March 22, 2014 at 12:51 pm

    Thank you for sharing these things that are close to your heart. It’s so nice to see your example of working closely with your medical doctor and the fantastic results of modern medicine.

    We just recently lost a family member to cancer. She was committed to a healthy lifestyle, eating whole foods, etc. But she had a deep mistrust of traditional medicine and her alternative doctors misled her. By the time sever pain drove her to the ER it was too late for anything to be done; she left us within 10 days of her diagnosis.

    So again, thank you for your example of living a clean lifestyle while still trusting modern medicine. We nee more of you!

  • Reply
    bev
    August 4, 2018 at 12:29 am

    I just found your site – looks great. Thanks. I’m also a healthy, happy ALIVE – survivor of cancer. :) More inspiring video of our stories and discovering cancer’s amazing gifts for each of us on youtube. a2ndact/bevpaul May it inspire others to find their “gift” from cancer & helping others. Wishing everyone wellness and joy. :)

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