There is a popular maxim that reads, “Things often get worse before they get better.” It’s one applied to various scenarios in life, but for those of us going through treatment for cancer, it means getting sicker in order to finally get better.
This applies especially to chemotherapy. We know that often it’s not even cancer making us feel ill, but the harsh side effects of the drugs. The maxim also applies to where I am currently: busy preparing for a stem cell transplant, my most daunting hurdle yet.
For many refractory and relapsed lymphoma patients like myself, a stem cell transplant is seen as the go-to procedure to reach remission. There are two types of transplants: autologous and allogeneic. The “auto” stem cell transplant involves using one’s own stem cells, while an “allo” involves using the stem cells of a donor (in my case, my sister) whose blood tissue type is a match.
The procedure is intensive and involves receiving powerful conditioning chemotherapy or radiotherapy for several days before the actual transplant. The stem cell infusion can often take place in just a few hours, and is fairly straightforward. The hard part begins afterward when one becomes neutropenic (a drop in certain white blood cells) and an entirely new immune system begins to regenerate in the body. This process involves staying in a sterilized hospital room for several weeks to prevent infection, and then a slow recovery at home.
For months, I have been trying to reach the point where I am ready for my allogeneic stem cell transplant. But since relapsing last October, I’ve had a long and arduous journey to get here. I have been on two different types of rigorous chemotherapy — unfortunately, my cancer didn’t respond to either one — and then on immunotherapy, to which I finally showed a positive response. Since then, however, my scans have shown that I have stopped responding to immunotherapy.
I have now been put back on another type of chemotherapy drug to try to stabilize my disease. This process has entailed months of hospital appointments, waiting rooms, infusions, scans, tears, anxiety, exhaustion, and desperation. Simultaneously, I’ve been completing my master’s degree and mourning the loss of my mother. Having all these events occur at once left me utterly drained. Regardless, I haven’t given up hope. I know that most of this journey is about maintaining one’s mental health and getting back up again when life knocks you down.
Right now, I am staring right into the eye of the storm, my transplant, a process that means fully accepting and surrendering to the reality that things will get worse before they get better.
I can see the sunshine peeking over the mountaintop, but I know that, in order to feel those warm rays on my skin, I have to climb. And the climb is tough. It’s scary and exhausting. I’ll get bumps and bruises, cuts and scrapes, along the way. I’ll be scared, I’ll be isolated, I’ll be fragile and weak, but I am determined to make it.
As frightened as I am to finally climb my metaphorical Everest, I am ready. The journey has been so long and so exhausting that all I want to do now is strap on my boots and get going. I just want to be done with this once and for all.
But I know now that I must really try to cultivate the art of patience. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: “… adopt the pace of Nature. Her secret is patience.” I like to remember this when I’m feeling overwhelmed with how long it’s all taking. Good things take time. Nothing happens overnight and, especially when it comes to cancer, healing simply isn’t linear. Some of us don’t ever get to be considered cured. Others do, but still live with the mental and physical scars. Nobody walks away unscathed.
But with time, everything comes to heal. I know that healing is on its way. This road I have walked will have changed me forever, but soon I’ll be dancing in the sunshine once again, wearing a radiant smile on my face, a smile born from the victory of finally making it over my mountain.
Note: Lymphoma News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Lymphoma News Today or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to lymphoma.