Bloody eyeballs

I’m Josh Martin. And 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.

Still, the symptoms were there.

Creeping crisis

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.

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.

Bleeding eyeballs

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 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. Suddenly, all those urgent deadlines and emails didn’t seem so important.

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. Thankfully, Dr. Merker walked me through it.

He explained that 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. 

More stories from the Overcoming Obstacles Handbook


Lessons learned from leukemia

More life lessons

Cancer reminded me that life is the greatest teacher of all. The following stories share obstacle-busting lessons from some of life’s other awesome and absurd moments — from sleeping in a barn to multiple run-ins with Bill Clinton’s bodyguards to nearly driving a car off a cliff.