Lesson #5: Dig In


Big obstacles demand big effort.

From negative to positive

Slowly but surely, my new, Euro-chic stem cells found their way to their new home and started producing normal, healthy blood cells for me. Though I had cleared a major hurdle, I was by no means out of the woods. My doctors kept a watchful eye on me during the critical first 100 days post-transplant, giving me anti-rejection drugs to help my body and its European houseguest get along.

Protected by the equivalent of a newborn’s immune system, I was extremely susceptible to infection and still needed to avoid crowds or anyone with the sniffles. The house was dotted with hand sanitizer stations positioned in strategic locations. I even needed to get all my baby shots again. Measles, mumps, rubella: I was a 28-year-old infant. It was like they hit the reset button on me.

Day by day, though, the counts rose, eventually plateauing exactly where they should. I passed the 100-day mark with no relapse and no major fights inside my body. Before long, my new marrow was firing on all cylinders. And perhaps most mind-blowingly of all, my entire blood type switched to that of my donor’s—from A-Negative to O-Positive.

Ka. Boom.

Call me Spartan Martin

In 2011, I signed up for a Spartan Race: a five-kilometre obstacle course challenge. As I crawled under barbed wire, leapt over fire and hurled myself over walls, I was reminded of all the personal obstacles I had been forced to face since that fateful coin flip.

I crossed the finish line muddy, bloody and grateful. So very, very grateful. The race was a way to celebrate how lucky I was and how far I had come thanks to the help of an amazing team. But it was also a reminder to me that overcoming obstacles simply takes a lot of preparation, discipline and hard work.

These things played an important role when it came to my battle with leukemia. It included learning as much as I could about my disease, peppering my medical team with tons of questions, stocking my fridge with the right kinds of food, organizing and scheduling my long lists of appointments and medications, forcing my butt out of bed to get exercise, never missing a chemo appointment and doing everything my doctors told me. It meant putting a plan of action between my goal and me and then digging in to get it done.

Being as prepared as I could for what lay ahead empowered me with a greater sense of control. The more homework and preparation I did about leukemia and my treatment, the less fear and anxiety I felt. And although it was tough to be disciplined about the foods I ate, taking my medication faithfully and getting to all my appointments, the hard work paid off.

bear print


Create a plan. Write down an action plan to help keep you on track. Keep a schedule of what you want to do, and when, and stick to it. Revisit your action plan and adjust it as needed.

Get it out of your head. If there are a million thoughts bouncing around your brain, take the time to put them on paper. Writing down to-do lists, random ideas, questions and calculations helps you transform mental clutter into structure.

Break it down. Be realistic. Don’t set yourself up for failure by committing to working out six days a week, never watching TV again, or becoming a vegan overnight. Ease into your changes rather than sabotaging yourself with unrealistic goals.

Share your goals. To help keep you accountable to your goals, share them with your family and friends. Having other people to keep you motivated is a great way to stay on track.

Do the groundwork. Whether you’re researching the ins and outs of a new job prospect, stretching before your adventure race or simply organizing the work site of your project, a little preparation goes a long way.

Be disciplined. Discipline. Discipline. Discipline. The best ideas, attitude and team won’t matter unless you’re putting the hard work into achieving your goals. Learn to say no if you’re feeling stretched, get out of your house to study if you find your TV or roommate distracting or schedule a “work date” with a friend who will motivate you to stay on task.

Celebrate milestones. Set milestones for yourself along the way and celebrate your successes. My journey from diagnosis to recovery seemed to stretch on forever, with no end in sight. Making a point to acknowledge the little achievements along the way—getting through the first phase of chemo, remission, finding a donor, being able to do a push up or walk up a flight of stairs—helped me see that I really was making progress.


bear print