As an adult, you become responsible for yourself. You buy your own groceries, cook your own food, wash your own dishes, and clean your own home. You call maintenance when something’s not working right in your apartment, like the radiator knocking. The worst part is calling the doctor when something isn’t feeling right. You’re still alive and breathing, nothing alarming, maybe a tiny concern… but what do you even tell the doctor?
You do it anyway. You describe how you’re feeling, as best you can, in the fifteen minutes you have them on the phone. You sigh in relief when they order bloodwork and send a referral for physiotherapist for that stiff neck you’ve been living with. Finally, things are moving and you can get some answers.
You get woken up the next day by a call from your doctor’s office, but he’s not your doctor. He tells you that your bloodwork came back and the results are very low. He urges you to go to Emergency, and that they would be able to help you. You don’t understand the urgency of the situation, so you have a bit of breakfast for some sustenance and slowly get ready.
But you could only move slow. Each breath you take seems finite. You wear the coziest sweatpants, which didn’t take much effort to put on. You make sure you have your phone and your IDs on you so you won’t have to run (or crawl) back for them.
You manage to park across the street from the hospital, but walking across the street still gassed you out three-quarters of the way. You beg your boyfriend for a quick break so you could catch your breath. It’s funny when your body’s telling you something but it gets lost in translation. You need people like doctors and nurses translating for you.
You have shortness of breath and you’ve had a cough for a week now, but you know it isn’t COVID because you got tested not long ago. You tell the screener your predicament, and he makes you wait to be called in. You tell your boyfriend to wait in the car while you find out how long this is going to take and they don’t allow visitors or companions inside because of the pandemic.
A triage nurse calls you in and you describe everything you’re feeling. She says you’ll get some transfusions and you’ll be good as new, but each bag of blood takes about a couple hours and you would need three or four. So you text your man, tell him to go home while he waits and you’ll let him know when you’re done.
You get set up in a room by yourself. A nurse comes in to chat with you while taking some blood so that the hospital can run their own tests. He also asks you to pee in a cup to make sure you’re not pregnant, and the bathroom is around the corner from your room. You make an attempt but nothing would come out, and you come back to the room almost gasping for air.
An hour later, a doctor shows up. He asks you how long have you been feeling unwell and you tell him the truth – it didn’t get this bad until December, but looking back, it may have started in September or even before. He then starts talking about the results of their bloodwork… and you hear a statement you’ve only seen on tv and movies.
“These numbers are concerning because they are consistent with cancer.”
You don’t hear anything else for a few seconds after that. Just silence. The doctor asking you if you have any questions brings you back. You don’t know what to say, and you relay that to him. He tells you that a hematologist will come to talk to you about it more. He leaves you there, laying in silence as you watch the first blood bag drip down through the IV. You wish someone you know was there to hold your hand as you cried.
Cancer. At 29 years old. Blood cancer. Which means you’ll need a bone marrow biopsy. You’ve heard how other people describe it as one of the most painful things anyone could go through. It’s almost the end of 2020, and the so-called “curse” got you. But you don’t want to panic so you don’t Google anything, and you swear to yourself that you won’t.
Another doctor comes in. She says she’s a hematologist working in the hospital and she talks a bit about what they think you have. Leukemia. You still keep it together while listening to her, but in your head you are thinking this is it. Isn’t this one of the big cancers? She opens up a conversation for questions, so you ask: “How long do I have to live?” You start crying and she holds you with her gloved hand. She says she doesn’t know. There’s a lot they don’t know because they need more tests to find out. She says they will keep you in the hospital at least for the night, and she will be back with another hematologist a bit later.
Before she leaves, she asks, “do you have family? Who can we call for you?” You tell her you have a boyfriend waiting at home, and your family is in a city that’s a half-hour drive away. She offers to call them but you refuse. You want to tell them yourself.
But not yet. What if they’re wrong? What if they’re panicking over nothing? You just lay there, crying about what was revealed to you, and worrying about telling the people you love. You know that this changes their lives as much as it has now changed yours. Then you think of your parents and how you could break the news easier… you know that parents struggle with watching their child suffer, no matter how old they are. And it breaks their heart they can’t ease the pain of it all because that’s not how human bodies work.
You don’t know how long it’s been, but the female doctor comes back with a male doctor who looks older. They talk about the leukemia, they tell you there’s an appointment set up for you tomorrow with a specialist at the cancer centre a few blocks down. He talks about how good this specialist is, and then he mentions that they’ll be doing a biopsy of your bone marrow. You ask if it’s painful, he says it will be quick.
He says that the biopsy will tell them the type of leukemia you have, which will dictate the treatment method and everything else. You stop him. “There’s a cure? People can beat this?” He says there is treatment, and you start sobbing. You realize you could still live longer. Life will not end at 29. You thank them, but they say that you shouldn’t because they don’t think telling people they have a blood disease is worth any thanks. You tell them you’re grateful that they said there’s a way out of this. That there are some ways to treat it.
You muster up the courage to tell your boyfriend first. Your heart breaks seeing him cry. He encourages you and tells you everything will be okay. Just imagine he’s there holding your hand like he always does. After almost an hour, you tell him you need to tell your parents.
You get on a video call with your parents and you tell them the early situation. You’re in Emergency, they’re giving you blood. But then you also break the news: “the doctors tell me I may have leukemia.” Your father puts his hands to his face, your mom keeps her stoic demeanour but you could hear her voice breaking. They ask some questions you don’t know the answers to yet. You tell them the staff at the hospital are taking care of everything, they’re booking the appointment with the specialist and they’re giving you blood that you need. You stop crying so your parents don’t get too worried.
“I’ll make it through this. You raised two strong daughters, and I’m one of them.”
The next day, when you are taken to the other hospital – the cancer hospital – you are set up in a room. There’s a man sitting in the room across yours and you could see he’s dressed in regular clothes. At some point doctors go in his room and at the end of it, he’s laying on the bed-slash-stretcher. Did he just have a biopsy done?
A doctor comes in your room, explains a bit about how they diagnose leukemia in general, then he talks about the procedure. He says it’s about twenty seconds, and the sensation varies from person to person. He tells you this is necessary to confirm and establish a diagnosis. You ask when you could go home, he says maybe the weekend. What day is it today?
Before he does the biopsy though, a nurse joins you, bringing in about 20 empty vials for blood. You joke, “You guys just gave me blood and you’re taking it away?” She probably heard it before, but you didn’t care. This specific hospital wants to test your blood and not rely on the other hospital’s numbers. They also have more specific things they want to check. But you’ve been poked so many times in the past 24 hours, it’s hard for them to find a good vein.
When the biopsy starts, you are fully conscious. You expected this because this was what you are told. You’re laying in an almost fetal position facing the wall with your back to the doctor. The doctor tells you what he’s about to do so you know what’s coming. A cold cleaning solution. Some freezing. A pinch. Then he tells you, “remember that sensation I talked about? It’s coming!” You laugh, it feels weird on your leg, you yell, “my leg wants to move but I can’t.” The doctor says you can curse, and you let out one “fuck!” The nurse goes to the foot of the bed and she rubs your calf for comfort. Then you start yelling, louder and louder… and the yells turn to sobs… and it’s over. Finally. But you’re still there, sobbing. They tell you that you did very well. You don’t move, you hear them shuffling as they clean up. You wonder how much blood there was. You cry out, “promise me you won’t do that again… at least not for a while…”
Twenty seconds. That was the longest twenty seconds of your life.
The nurse says you can lay on your back, and to try and put pressure on the spot they worked on to help stop the bleeding. You’re still sobbing. You feel… violated. But the odd thing is, they are doing this to help you. You feel something was taken from you – and there was, and it’s necessary. But did it represent something for you? Your old life? The life you thought you’d live? Living a carefree life as a healthy adult?
Life has a strange way of changing your course. Right now, you’re at the beginning and you can’t see the end of the tunnel that well. The light at the end of the tunnel is just a tiny white dot.