It seems like years have passed since I published a column. In reality, it’s been less than two months. But as we know, life can change pretty drastically over the course of a week, let alone a couple of months. I know that mine certainly has, and not just in the metaphorical sense.
I am now the proud owner of a brand new immune system, Aug. 15 being my official rebirthday. For those unfamiliar with the term “rebirthday,” it refers to the date on which people undergoing a stem cell transplant are essentially “reborn.” Yay!
I say “yay” because, for many, including myself, a stem cell transplant is a second chance at life. It’s an opportunity to live cancer-free — hopefully. However, the process itself is anything but “yay,” as it involves five days of high-dose chemotherapy that wipes out your entire immune system. Then, you are infused with either your own stem cells (autologous stem cell transplant) or, if you’re like me and have had too much treatment in the past, a donor’s stem cells (allogeneic stem cell transplant). My donor was my big sister, Nicole.
My “rebirthday” went pretty well, considering I spent the week before the transplant lying in a hospital bed for eight hours a day. I was physically ravaged by chemotherapy, but I was so grateful to have made it to the point of transplant.
I began chemotherapy in November 2018, but it took until August 2019 to finally have a PET (positron emission tomography) scan that was clear enough for transplant. Oncologists usually want to see complete remission or as close to complete remission as possible before they proceed. I didn’t respond to conventional chemotherapy, but immunotherapy (pembrolizumab) brought me close enough to remission.
The hardest part of the entire process was not knowing. Anyone who has undergone a transplant knows it’s the anxiety that comes from waiting for scan results that leaves you feeling unhinged and terrified. A week before my transplant, I still hadn’t been told whether we could proceed.
Deciding we needed a break from it all, my family and I spent a week in sunny Barcelona. We had an incredible time sipping sangria on sunny plazas and gorging on seafood tapas beside the glittering Mediterranean Sea, but I was never able to fully relax. It was the final day of our trip, after taking the train up to southern France to visit friends, when I received the call: “The scans look good, Michelle. The transplant is happening.”
Tears of relief poured down my face. I felt a weight lift off my shoulders. Finally. The irony was that I was excited about a process that I knew would ultimately be horrible. But if it meant a potential end to this journey with cancer, who was I to complain?
Two days later, I was in the hospital being pumped full of chemotherapy. The transplant itself was pretty underwhelming, an hourlong infusion spread over two days. The hard part came next: Two weeks in a hospital room feeling as if my body had been turned inside out.
I won’t go into the gory details, but there were times I had to dig deep to find the strength to carry on. I didn’t know the body was capable of enduring such suffering. But as we know, our bodies are incredibly resilient. With the stem cells engrafted and my new immune system beginning to grow, I was freed from prison and allowed to go home.
Coming home felt like returning to paradise. My own bed, garden, bath, couch, and food — it’s the small things, as they say. Every day is a little bit better than the day before. Of course, with a seriously compromised immune system and a fatigued body, I can’t do much but rest, but every day I manage a small activity: I have gone to the park with friends, been out to dinner, and seen a film.
I am slowly coming back to myself and it feels like a victory. It’s still early, and I have a long way to go, but I feel as if I’ve made it over the toughest mountain of my life so far. I’m really proud of myself.
It’s been a long, arduous road, but here I am, taking it one day at a time and appreciating every moment of my second chance at life.
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.