Looking back, you’d wonder how I could miss so many of the early signs. But hindsight is 20/20. And when you’re 27 years old, your biggest health concern tends to be something like dandruff, not leukemia. Cancer never entered my mind.
The symptoms were there though.
In 2007, I was working in Toronto as a project coordinator for an international development charity. I was by no means a health freak, but I took care of myself. I biked to and from work, going so far as to carry my bike up the nine flights of stairs to my apartment each evening. I was a vegetarian, didn’t smoke and did my best to avoid fast food joints. I loved to hike and competed in eight-hour adventure races that involved trekking, canoeing and mountain biking through the wildernesses of Ontario.
When I think about it now, I probably should have noticed something was amiss at one of those races that summer. The event took place near Ottawa, and I had teamed up with two of my brothers, Dan and Damien, to form the “Mad Martins.” During the mountain bike leg, I kept falling behind, completely winded.
Gasping for air as my brothers disappeared around a bend far ahead, I tried to pedal harder. It was one thing to be outpaced by Dan, who was a bit of a fitness nut. But Damien? Come on! The man never got exercise. Embarrassed, I climbed a small hill to find Dan and Damien once again waiting for me to catch up. I’m really out of shape! I thought to myself.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that me dragging my butt had less to do with my workout regimen and more to do with the fact that my oxygen-carrying red blood cells were dangerously low.
After an abysmal showing at the race, I returned to civilization. The weather turned cold and I put my bike away for the season, promising myself I’d get in better shape over the winter.
I quickly forgot about my poor athletic performance and got back in the grind of deadlines and overflowing inboxes. But it didn’t take long for another sign of the microscopic mayhem raging inside me to show up: this time in the form of an annoying blurriness in my left eye. Too much time in front of the computer screen, I figured, shrugging it off.
By Christmas however, the blurriness was no better and I finally got around to booking an appointment with my optometrist. Maybe I needed eye drops or a new prescription. At her office, Dr. Tang shone a light into my just-dilated eyes to see if she could suss out the source of the problem. It didn’t take her long. “The inside of your eyeballs are haemorrhaging,” she said. Well, that can’t be good, I thought.
Concerned it might be diabetes, Dr. Tang suggested I go see my family doctor to have some blood work done.
Annoyingness gave way to genuine concern.
“I need to see you,” Dr. Merker said over the phone. “We need to talk about these blood results.” My mouth went dry. He briefly explained that my white blood cell counts were through the roof and my reds ridiculously low. After agreeing to come by his office over lunch, I hung up the phone and stared blankly at my cubicle wall. Suddenly all those urgent deadlines and emails didn’t seem so urgent.
Next stop: Google. I had no idea what a high white blood cell count might mean, but I knew it couldn’t be good. I typed in “high white blood cell count symptoms” and quickly scanned the results. There were several possibilities, but one kept popping up, site after site: leukemia.
Moving from concerned to scared to death, I hopped a bus and made my way to Dr. Merker’s office. Please don’t be cancer, please don’t be cancer, please don’t be cancer. I spent the entire ride repeating this prayer in my head.
Dr. Merker met me in his office and handed me a printout of my blood results. It might as well have been written in Klingon. Although I’m now an expert at reading and interpreting blood work, at the time I had no idea what I was looking at. Dr. Merker walked me through it.
The average number of white blood cells in a healthy adult male is somewhere in the range of 4,500 and 10,000 per microlitre. Mine? 484,000. Crap. Though we’d need a bone marrow biopsy to confirm, there was little doubt in Dr. Merker’s mind: I had leukemia. “You’ve got a journey ahead of you,” he told me.
I didn’t go back to work after my less-than-cheery visit with Dr. Merker. I didn’t call or visit anybody. Instead, I caught a bus back home. I stared out the window, marvelling at how the world could keep spinning when mine had just come to a screeching halt.
I cried, shattered and unprepared for this kind of obstacle.
Relax, you’ve got cancer.
The anguished wail of a woman snapped me back to my surroundings. I was sitting in the cancer ward at the newly opened Brampton Civic Hospital, waiting my turn to have a bone marrow biopsy to confirm Dr. Merker’s suspicions. The wail came from one of the offices adjoining the waiting room. It sounded like someone had told her she was going to die. Quite possible, given where we were.
I didn’t want to be here. Though calm, cool and collected on the outside, I was a wreck. Besides my boss, who needed to know why I was missing so much work for the flurry of medical appointments that followed my visit with Dr. Merker, I still hadn’t told anybody about the cancer. No friends. No family. The pin was pulled, but I wanted all the information I could get before I hurled this grenade at my loved ones.
A nurse called my name. I got up and followed her to one of the patient rooms. I was terrified of what lay ahead, but also relieved to have the wheels finally in motion. The suspense was nearly killing me as much as the cancer was.
Let me be clear: Bone marrow biopsies suck. The doctor uses an auger-like hand tool to dig into your pelvic bone and snap off tiny chunk of bone and marrow. Not pleasant. A while later, an oncologist came bustling into the room, my chart in hand. “Relax with a capital R,” he said.
He went on to explain. Although there was no question I had leukemia, the good news was I had an extremely treatable form of the disease. Chronic mylogenous leukemia they called it—CML for short.
Unlike other forms of leukemia, CML can typically be treated with a relatively new wonder drug called Gleevec. Taken orally once or twice daily, Gleevec doesn’t cure the cancer but keeps it in check, preventing the mutated chromosomes from mass-producing cancerous white blood cells.
It remained to be seen if the medication would work on me, but for the first time in a week, I let myself breathe.
The next few weeks went by in a blur. A week-long hospital stay in Brampton so they could monitor me as the meds lowered my white blood cell count. Emotional emails, phone calls and visits with friends and family. Getting my records and care transferred to Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto. Returning to work.
The bear hunt had begun.